All Are Welcome Here

Almost 300 people gathered at Kanuga Conference Center in the woods of the NC mountains.  All were somehow touched by HIV/AIDS.  The Southeastern dioceses of the Episcopalian Church have sponsored this annual June retreat for over 20 years. Clients and patients mixed easily with staff and volunteers from agencies in NC, SC, AL, FL, GA and even Texas.  Some rode many hours on buses.  Others carpooled.  For many, this was their only trip beyond their home county all year.

I attended this year, my 4th time.  I listened to stories of loss and loneliness and hope and resilience.  Many voiced gratitude for a place of no shame where the dominant message was “You are welcome here.

A young man in his 20’s told of being born HIV positive.  His mother died shortly after his birth and he was adopted at 3 weeks old from the hospital. At 8, his mother told him he was HIV positive.  He went to a support group and found a best friend.  As he reached adulthood, his adoptive mother died and then his best friend.  He was ready to stop his medications and die, too.  He found Higher Ground, a day center for people who are HIV positive.  He participated in a men’s support group and the men nurtured him and loved him and he decided to keep on living.

Another man shared that he doesn’t take communion at home because he is HIV positive and doesn’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable by drinking from the communal cup. He gratefully took communion and drank from the cup at the sunrise lakeside worship service because all were truly welcome that morning.  He cried telling his story.

At that same lakeside worship service, just as the priest was consecrating the bread and wine, a flock of geese circled the lake, flew over our heads, and landed softly on the water.  They stayed there, floating, as we went to the front for communion.  Flying geese are a Celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit.*

I volunteer at Higher Ground, a house in my town where people infected and affected by HIV gather. I’m on the board of directors for its parent agency, Triad Health Project.

Once a month my church provides lunch at Higher Ground for about 30 people, sometimes more.  Over the years, we have fed over 6,000 hungry mouths. One time I fixed baked chicken breasts.  I knew how many I cooked and I knew from counting heads it wasn’t enough.  We had leftovers.  And no way to explain them.  There is always enough food.

Once or twice a month I lead a group, called Robin’s Nest on the calendar. Sometimes we write in journals–everyone gets one and they’re stored in a big wicker basket in the back room.  We’ve played with Model Magic, weird stuff that’s like new-age Play Dough. We’ve used markers and crayons.  Always I play music, usually soft jazz like Kenny G or Boney James. We’re quiet for a while and then everyone has a chance to share.  We talk about life and death, faith and fun, anger and love.  We tell our stories. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry.  We listen and we are heard.

Most of the folks who participate have lost something because of their disease.  Lovers, family, honesty about themselves, mobility, health.  They are more likely to talk about what they have gained.  For some, days free from addiction.  For most, faith in a loving God.  Often, it’s Higher Ground, where they have a community of welcoming friends who care where they are and ask how they’re doing.  They daily choose to keep on living because they have come so close to dying.

Nine years ago, when I was diagnosed with cancer, I went to Higher Ground.  I knew they would understand my fears and would show me how to keep living each day, one at a time.  When my rheumatoid arthritis is acting up and I’m in pain, Higher Ground is one of the few places I will go.  They accept me as I am and it’s okay.  They offer compassion; there is no pity.  They know how to live life on life’s terms.

I know the Holy Spirit was at Kanuga. I saw Her geese. I feel God’s presence every time I pay attention at Higher Ground.

14 years ago, I resisted the call to Higher Ground.  I had just resigned after  6 1/2 years as a Hospice volunteer coordinator and I said, “I don’t want to be around people who are going to die.” I’m not sure when or how that changed.

People I love have dwindled and died.  But more have come close and then gotten well again.

I think I have more to learn from my friends at Higher Ground.  My heart needs to continue opening to new friends.  I’m willing to take the risk.

 

* “Wild Goose” is a Celtic spirituality metaphor that evokes unpredictability, beauty, and grace.

 

 

 

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Published in: on August 1, 2014 at 4:39 pm  Comments (7)  
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My Trainers

I changed gyms and paid for one-on-one hours with a trainer.  I got Jodi.  She’s 25 (sigh) and kind.  She challenges me, but she listens when I describe how my body works.

I’ve written before about having rheumatoid arthritis (click on Rheumatoid Arthritis in the cloud of words down below on the right).  Life can be a challenge some days.

So can an 18-month-old granddaughter.  Someone asked me yesterday if she’s walking.  I said, “No, she runs.”  She’s not chubby anymore, but she is solid.  And sometimes squirmy.

So Jodi helps me strengthen my upper body and core.  And we do cardio stuff.  Ever try an elliptical machine?  I am awed by people who do it for a long time.  An hour?? My goal is to move beyond 5 minutes.

Humility and a sense of humor go to the gym with me.  (There’s a fine line between humor and self-denigration.)  I am grateful for all my body can do.  Jodi pushes me past stopping just because I want to.

I led a writing group at a drop-in center for people who are HIV-positive yesterday.  The prompt was a quote from an article by Nancy Copeland-Payton in Presence (the journal of Spiritual Directors International.)

It’s a roller coaster.  I didn’t buy a ticket, never wanted a ride…the illness will keep recurring and I will die of it.

Who am I…?  I’m no longer the person who used to be in control, who had energy to take care of tasks and other people.  Rather, I’m the one who needs care.  I’m the one who is vulnerable.  This is not an identity I choose.  Buried inside are losses that need to be cried out.  This is a long mourning process.

I finally let go of my control and let myself be vulnerable and cared for by others.  When I learn to receive their care with profound gratitude, I receive the greatest gift.  I realize how much I am loved.  It’s extraordinary.  This love lets me be even more vulnerable.

While we wrote I played a Kenny G CD (they like soft jazz).  As we finished, we listened to the music and rested.

I wrote a whiny page about not liking roller coasters and not wanting to be vulnerable.  They wrote and shared about God’s love and how their disease saved them from drugs and a wasted life and changed them for the better.  I didn’t want to share mine.

The last song we listened to (not planned by me) was Louis Armstrong singing “It’s A Wonderful Life”.  They sang along and smiled when it ended.

Amazing grace, again.

W W J D?

(What would Jesus do?)

“I can’t usher or help with the Lord’s Supper.  And I can’t mentor the Boy Scouts either.”

He has been an active and faithful church member for years.  He has worshiped and participated regularly and enthusiastically.  He turned to his pastor for support months ago when he was diagnosed HIV positive.  He trusted his pastor with the truth, to be held in confidence.

A member of the congregation complained to the pastor.

This pastor told my friend he could not participate in the activities and fellowship of the church.  He could worship if he sat in the back row.

My friend feels hurt and betrayed.  He still believes God loves him just as he is.  He also believes God loves his pastor.

I am humbled by my friend’s genuine desire to forgive.

I am awed by such faith.

Published in: on August 16, 2011 at 8:52 pm  Comments (10)  
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