Wednesday, December 1, 2010

For World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day, so to create an opportunity to help people think about doing something for World AIDS Day, I'm going to tell you a story.  This is the story of how I first became involved in the issue.

Long before I knew that I knew anybody with AIDS or who was HIV+, long before I had the unfortunate honor of performing my first funeral for a man who died from AIDS, I recognized in myself a fear and a prejudice.  That was the start.  I knew that I was unreasonably fearful of people with AIDS, to the point where I feared I would act in a prejudicial manner towards somebody with AIDS.  My friend Manda and I had volunteered the previous year (1995) for a program called "Alternative Spring Break" and had spent our spring break working for the physical disability rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Georgia the year before (we met during that program), and were both considering doing the program again.  I think it was Manda who first suggested that she was interested in the program that would volunteer at the Mobile (Alabama) AIDS Support Services.  At any rate, we both decided to apply to spend our spring break with a group of about 20 University of Georgia students working for MASS (now called "South Alabama Cares").  I knew I had this prejudice and fear about AIDS, and I faced the decision in myself about whether to confront it or whether to live with the prejudice and fear.  It wasn't consistent with my view of myself as a religious and moral person to leave this unchallenged.  Therefore, I decided that I had to go to Mobile.

ASB did a lot of training with us before we left to prepare us for the trip.  Honestly, I don't remember much of it.  I was the oldest student on the trip--all the rest were undergrads, and I was a graduate student.  We were mostly women, with, I think, two men in our group.  I remember late-night discussions about theology on the trip when one of the young men told someone that he didn't believe in God.  I was, and am, agnostic myself, so was right in the middle of the debate that ensued.

On our trip we encountered some sexism that I still remember.  Our van broke down with a flat tire when we were on a day trip to the beach.  Two of us in the group had experience changing tires, Manda and myself, and were preparing to figure out how to change the van's tire when along came a state trooper.  He decided to oversee the project and wouldn't let the two of us help.  Instead he insisted that two unprepared students--the two boys--complete the project.  Manda and I took a long walk on the beach instead, cooling our heads so we wouldn't get in an altercation with law enforcement.

Another memorable part of the trip was that when we were working for MASS the local television station did a story on us, as did the local paper.  A local businessman was so impressed with our service that he took us all out to a little seafood restaurant in the middle of nowhere along the ocean.  At the end of the meal he gave everyone a card of thanks for our work, and in it was a crisp new $100 bill.  The new $100 bills had just been released in March of 1996, and none of us had seen them yet.  It was quite a gift, and obviously still memorable to me.  It was amazing that a stranger would do this for us.

But nothing was as memorable as the work we did.

Honestly, I think MASS wasn't quite prepared for how much work 20 college students can accomplish in a week, and a lot of the time we were doing busy work.  I think one afternoon we just raked leaves.  Another large portion of one day was spent taking strips of condoms and tearing them into individual packages to be put in the bowl where people could grab them as they entered or exited the center.  We processed thousands of condoms in this way, and there are a lot of amusing pictures of us sitting or standing in these huge piles of condoms.  Sometimes we just did filing.  It was a lot of the same sort of stuff (aside from the condoms) that we could have done for any agency.

And then one day we told that some of us could go out to a home of a man who was living with AIDS.  This man was now blind, and having trouble taking care of himself between learning to live with blindness and with AIDS, all by himself.  Manda and I both went out on the crew that went to clean up his home.  And it was the hardest thing we could imagine.  That's where the fear I was holding in myself had to finally be addressed.  I had to know by the end of that day that I had come in contact with the virus, and that I was okay.  I knew intellectually how one contracts HIV, but inside myself I still felt fear about ordinary physical contact--shaking hands, hugging--with someone with HIV.  By the end of the day I would be able to if not put that fear inside me entirely away, at least put it into perspective.

The trip had a lasting impression on me.  When I got back to Athens, I started volunteering with the local AIDS support agency.  I would end up working on an AIDS-related topic for my master's thesis, as well.

In the end, I've learned a lot about HIV/AIDS, but by working, living, and worshiping with people with HIV/AIDS, I've learned a lot more about myself.

Addendum:  Manda has blogged back about her memories of that day in Mobile.  You can read her story here.

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