AIDS and the Christian Family

by Ron Chaplin

On a bright and sunny September day in 1996, a group of about six to ten of my fellow parishioners at Ottawa's Church of St. John the Evangelist stayed behind after the Sunday morning coffee hour. They dragged out one of the folding tables from the parish hall, and set it up on the sidewalk in front of the church. Thereafter, they brought out urns of freshly brewed coffee and steeped tea, as well as bottles of fruit juice and water, cookies and muffins and disposable cups. And then they waited.

I was not among that particular group that day. I was further up the street at the marshalling grounds for the fifth annual AIDS fund-raising walk organised by the AIDS Committee of Ottawa. At the stroke of 12 noon, I and the rest of the walkers set off, heading down Elgin Street in Ottawa's centretown neighbourhood. Within minutes we reached St. John's Church. With shouts of encouragement and applause, shared mutually between walkers and parishioners, the refreshments were gratefully accepted.

The message delivered by St. John's Church was crystal clear. The refreshment table was set up, you see, directly beside the two billboards permanently installed in front of our church. For this occasion, the billboards were emblazoned with a cross draped with a red ribbon. On them was written the words, "Our Church has AIDS/Notre Église a le Sida; Come Walk With Us/Marchons ensemble."

At the post-event meeting of the committee which organised the Walk, someone asked, "Who was responsible for the wonderful gesture at that brick church on Elgin Street?" My heart fairly bursting with pride and gratitude, I was able to respond, "My friends, my Christian family at St. John's Church was responsible!"

It was a small gesture, a modest action, as are so many of our activities within the Church. It has, nevertheless, never been forgotten in Ottawa's AIDS community. It imparted this message: you are welcome here! And the message was conveyed more forcefully than any amount of discussion within a Mission and Ministry Committee or a Stewardship Committee, or any parish pamphlet.

I am something of a curiosity within my community here in Ottawa. I am a gay man living with AIDS. I was diagnosed HIV-positive over thirteen years ago, and have already outlived two terminal prognoses. I am an AIDS activist, and am an active volunteer with the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, the Ottawa-Carleton Council on AIDS, and the Ottawa-Carleton Coalition of Persons Living with HIV/AIDS. I am a gay activist, and an active volunteer with EGALE (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere) and with the National Capital Pride Week Committee.

I am often asked what motivates me. "My Christian faith," is my reply. But why, oh why, Ron, I am asked, are you involved with the Christian Church, which is perceived by many gay men and women, and by many others affected by AIDS, to be among our tormentors? "Because," I reply, "my Christian family at St. John's Church is my biggest and best support group." They have been lifesavers to me. I mean that literally.

Sadly, this is not an experience shared by everyone.

I am also a volunteer with the Task Group on Gays and Lesbians of the Diocese of Ottawa, and with the Diocesan Committee on AIDS Ministry. As such, I have had the privilege of being invited to speak at many parishes around the Diocese, often from the pulpit on Sunday morning, or during weeknight healing services. It has been a learning experience.

Invariably, after such speaking engagements, many people approach me to share their personal stories with me. As often as not, the problem is not AIDS, but some other malady of body, mind or spirit. Most often, after unburdening themselves, they reach out to embrace me and to thank me for granting them "permission" to share their pain and their fears.

Too many of us, I have learned, construct our own closets of shame and fear. Too many of us feel that we are being "punished" for some wrongdoing, real or imagined. Too many, it seems, lack the faith to truly believe the invitation to our weekly, communal confession: "God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy; he welcomes sinners and invites them to his table. Let us confess our sins, confident in God's forgiveness."

Why is this so? Within the AIDS community, we have this slogan: Silence = Death. It is terribly true. In our churches, we must break our silence. We must make safe havens of our gathering places; we must make them places where people feel welcome to share their brokenness and their pain, and seek healing and wholeness.

We refer to ourselves and to each other as "Christian family". This metaphor is useful. Most of us have brothers or sisters I have a brother. We often disagree with ethical or moral choices we have made in our lives. But our love for each other is unconditional. I would gladly lay down my life for my brother, and I know that he would do the same for me.

So it is within my Christian family at St. John's Church. Many in the parish have let me know that they disagree with choices I have made in my life, particularly my decision to live openly in a relationship with my male partner. But many of these same people hold me constantly in prayer; and when I have been ill, their ministry to me has been more tangible.

Christ calls us to do nothing less. In his final ministry to his disciples, as recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, he is asked, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

by Ron Chaplin, March 1998


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