Today, December 1, 2009, is World AIDS Day. I was invited by my friend Skip, who I hope will soon be joining us as a contributor, to participate in a new event in conjunction with the Marker Project the first Shelby County World AIDS Day NAMES Ceremony. This was probably the single most powerful memorial for those lost to the battle against HIV/AIDS that I have ever seen.
Standing in the bitter cold with the AIDS markers ever in view, dozens and dozens of readers from every segment of our community, read aloud the first names of all 2,911 children, women and men that Shelby County has lost to AIDS since the epidemic began being tracked in 1983. The diversity of backgrounds, organizations and denominations represented gives me hope that we are finally turning the corner on the dark times when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was such that its victims were often forced into the margins of society and when the fear of it was so great that children could be born and die with it spending their entire brief lives never having known the comfort of being held and loved and touched. We simply didn't know any better in those dark early days.
I started out the day inflating balloons. Nearly 100 red balloons commemorating those who have been lost and a single white one, symbolizing hope. Jessica found herself on the stage, and anyone who knows her knows how far outside her comfort zone that placed her, handing those balloons to each reader as they finished speaking so that each one could be released into the Memphis sky. At some point late in the event Skip invited me to read. I don't know whose absence I filled but I am thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of this both behind the scenes and behind the podium.
When I took the podium I dedicated my portion of the reading to the memory of my four friends, Jeff, Charlie, Mike and Robert who though not from Shelby County also died of AIDS. As I read down the first page I was stunned nearly to tears to encounter each of those four names recorded there was well. When I was done I took the red balloon from Jessica and walked out into the lawn. As I released it I whispered softly, "I love you Jeff. I miss you." and I watched it make its way slowly skyward.
I can't even begin to explain how it feels to be among a congregation of people that understands and has compassion for those who are impacted by HIV/AIDS in this county, in this country. For the first time in nearly 15 years, since I lost Jeff, I didn't feel like I was grieving alone. The difference is astonishing.
We as a family will be continuing to visit First Baptist Memphis and exploring the possibility that God is moving us toward a change of churches. From what I have seen thus far of their spirit of acceptance to some of the most marginalized among us I am hopeful. We knew a year ago that this would be a season change, we are wondering now if this is the change we saw then. We'll keep you posted as we explore this path.