Lessons from World AIDS Day: “We are the Church Alive, the Church with AIDS”

The designation of December 1 as World AIDS Day feels at once macabre yet also hopeful. I must admit, though: I have to work a bit to get to the hope part.

On this day, we are confronted (again) with the utter devastation HIV-AIDS has wrought on humanity, with a particular viciousness toward the marginalized groups who took and continue to suffer the brunt of the disease. And we also celebrate that through advances in treatment, far fewer people are dying of HIV-AIDS and many people with HIV-AIDS are living—thriving, even—for decades after their initial diagnosis.

World AIDS Day causes us to confront the fact that the disease continues to plague the most marginalized—those on the African continent, Black and brown men who have sex with men, and IV drug users. And we celebrate advances in medicine and public health that render transmission almost impossible and allow many with HIV-AIDS to live with the virus undetectable in their bodies.

For me, World AIDS Day evokes a somber reminder of the failure of the institutional Church—nearly all churches—to take care of and advocate for those who suffered and died because of HIV-AIDS. Who preached that this disease was God’s punishment for their life-choices. That they were untouchables. That caused parents to abandon the bodies of their children, families to sever ties with their sick relatives, that shunned people with AIDS and turned them away from their sanctuaries and tried to cut them off from God. That caused faith leaders and faith communities to eschew and shame little gay boys for perceived attributes that would surely lead them to damnation and the “consequence of AIDS.” I write this with no small amount of disgust.

For this, I find the institutional Church has done little to atone for its grave sins. We can, I suppose, celebrate how many churches now affirm the lives and gifts of LGBTQ+ people. We can celebrate churches that offer affirming lifespan sexuality training to young people—including queer kids!—using curriculum that affirms their bodies, their sexuality, and imparts to them the resources they need to protect their bodies. And we can hopefully learn from the past, gleaning from it lessons that will help us with other pandemics present in our churches and the world.

On this day, I think of Rev. Jim Mitulski’s essay co-written with Kittredge Cherry printed in the January 27, 1988 Christian Century where they boldly proclaimed, “We are the Church Alive, the Church with AIDS.” They wrote:

We have come to understand ourselves as a church with AIDS. This doesn’t mean our church will soon be dead and gone. No; in fact, it means we live more deeply…..On good days, being a church with AIDS helps us see how fragile and important every moment is. We rediscover images, such as heaven, that we used to dismiss as anachronistic or overly sentimental. We claim for ourselves the model described in scripture as “the realm of God,” which [Rev. Howard] Wells [founder of MCC San Francisco who died of AIDS in September 1989] defined as “an alternative way of living.”[1]

They end their essay quoting a poem by Adrienne Rich:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.[2]

…and add

This must be what Jesus meant when he said,
“Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

I think, achingly, of the late Ron Russell-Coons and the sermon he preached titled “We Have AIDS” on March 10, 1989 at an ecumenical service at the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco. I understand that Ron meant “we” in the sense that “we” the gay community in San Francisco and world wide. And that he meant “we” in the sense of the church, itself, has AIDS. How where if one of us who is a member of the Body of Christ is sick, well—we all are, aren’t we? That we should take the illness just as seriously as if it were ravaging our own bodies, that we should care for every individual member of the body because what hurts them, hurts all of us. He wrote thusly:

AIDS is a reality. It does not discriminate. It is striking African women and children, African-Americans, I.V. drug users, hemophiliacs, and gays. The majority of these persons can be categorized as a marginal “them.” But I tell you tonight that my experience with God and my understanding of the gospel is that with God there are no disposable human beings. With God there Is no “other.” God welcomes all. Each person is precious in God’s sight. Every child of God is of infinite worth, whether that person is diseased or healthy.
We have AIDS. The world community suffers with AIDS and God’s love knows no boundaries. The intention of God is that humanity might be drawn together in love so that we can say, especially as the church, we have AIDS, and we will journey together.[3]

That he had to even say this—and that he said it amidst abandonment by the institutional church and complete abdication of its responsibility to care for the sick and to love neighbor as self—breaks my heart over and over again.

And on this day (but not exclusively—and especially on any Communion Sunday), I imagine the time Rev. Mitulski presided over Holy Communion in the chapel of my alma mater Pacific School of Religion (PSR), as retold by Dr. Andrea Bieler former Associate Professor of Christian Worship at PSR:

It was in the Chapel of the Great Commission in Berkeley, California, on December 3, 2001, that the Reverend Jim Mitulski presided at the table. He broke the bread, lifted it up with his left hand, and pointed to his own body with his right hand, saying, “This is the body of Christ. The body of Christ has AIDS.” He paused for a moment. Then he opened his arms embracing the congregation with his body and his words: “Please join me: We are the body of Christ. The body of Christ has AIDS.” I heard voices in the room more stammering than in full confident unison: “We are…are…the body… of Christ. The body of Christ…has AIDS.” The atmosphere was loaded with earth-shaking electricity generated by this one gesture of a man who dared to point to his own body and then embrace the whole congregation—with the consecrated bread in his hand. He, a pastor infected with HIV, presented his body as the body of Christ.
This was a deeply sacred moment for me. All of a sudden I had a deeply “felt” sense for what I have understood on a cognitive level for quite a while: Our individual bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and the assembly around the table is (in the flesh and not only representationally) the body of Christ. Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is manifested not only in bread and wine but in the actual bodies as they come to the table. It was at this worship service that I was fully immersed, with all of our senses, into this mystery.[4]

Beiler’s powerful experience of Holy Communion calls to mind a piece of wisdom of my professors (I believe it was Rev. Jay Johnson, PhD who is known for a theology of the Eucharist as “radical table fellowship”) planted in my heart:

Pay attention to who is absent the Table, who has not been invited or has been run off. Pay attention to who is missing—for the meal is not complete without all of us there.

So on World AIDS Day, we have an opportunity to do better than our forbears.

Just as the Church has HIV-AIDS, the Church has areas of its body infected by the pandemics of racism, sexism, able-ism and other forms of schism and separation. The bodies and gifts of gay and Trans people continue to be rejected by the institutional Church. Religion has been weaponized against queer people bastardizing scripture and twisting it with lies about bathroom safety, story-hours, and grooming. The institutional church tries to control the bodies of people with uteruses, abdicate its responsibility to the sojourners among us, and fails to advocate for Black lives amid a white supremacist culture violently spasming because anyone dare think about the issue of race critically or own up to our country’s white supremacist roots.

What affects one body—any one of us, any marginalized person—it affects us all. I’m not talking about discomfort from truth and reality; rather I’m talking about life and death: the kind that allowed thousands upon tens of thousands gay men to die alone and allow the government to get away with it. About the realities of Black men and Black trans women in particular whose lives are at risk any moment they walk out the door. About children and mothers imprisoned at the border.

What affects any one of them, affects me, affects you—is directly related to our responsibility to each other in the body of Christ—as the church.

How dare we ever “other” someone.

How dare we use the Bible to justify ungodly beliefs and false teachings.

How dare we ever leave even one of these alone, be it someone with HIV-AIDS, someone who is differently abled, someone who is Black, someone who is looking for a better life.

My feelings today, on World AIDS Day, are summarized by the words of Rev. Mitulski and Cherry:

AIDS has taught us that the differences that divide churches are trivial in the face of the enormous challenges and blessings that AIDS presents. AIDS has shown us how much we need the church, and AIDS is showing the larger church that they need everyone. God calls the church to challenge the status quo, not reinforce it. Our church is a present glimpse of a future time when all will be welcome at God’s table. [5]

World AIDS Day points us toward our task—to not only atone for the failures of the Church but also to do better. Not to be perfect but to love perfectly. Not to point fingers but join hands. Not to uphold the status quo, but to live as if the kindgom we pray come is up to us.

Because it is.

[1] Kittredge Cherry and James Mitulski, “We Are the Church Alive, the Church with AIDS.” The Christian Century, January 27, 1988. See also chapter 11 in The Church with AIDS: Renewal in the Midst of Crisis. Letty Mandeville Russell (ed.) 1990 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press)

[2] Adrienne Rich, “Natural Resources,” The Dream of a Common Language: Poem 1974–1977 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), p. 57.

[3] Ron Russell-Coons, “We Have AIDS.” in The Church with AIDS: Renewal in the Midst of Crisis, Letty Mandeville Russell (ed.), p. 39.

[4] Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff, The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, & Resurrection., United States, Fortress Press, 2007, 134.

[5] Cherry, Mitulski, p. 173.


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