“I sat in my quiet bookshelf lined study, listening intently to the young man awkwardly perched on the chair next to me.
The thin pale man was silently leaking tears, and finally spoke, “He was lying on the couch and said, ‘I’m going to take all the pain killers we have, everything. Then wait half an hour until I’m totally out, and put the pillow over my face and hold it there until I stop breathing. I mean it. Promise you’ll do it.’ He begged me. What was I supposed to do? I just couldn’t let him suffer anymore. “
This was the first time a congregant told me about assisting a dying person. It wasn’t the last, but it is the time that is seared into my memory. My congregant was so young and so unhappy; I didn’t think he was much older than twenty. I felt completely inadequate to the situation. How could I help him?
“That’s incredibly traumatic,” I said. “That must have broken your heart.”
He started sobbing, great sad loud sobs, deep sobs, sobs of profound pain. I felt my eyes wet a bit and waited, quietly praying to God to give me what I needed to be helpful to my congregant.
This was maybe 1992. In those days, gay men joined synagogues in order to die in community, to have someone say Kaddish for them. It was early in my career, at my first congregation, Kol Simcha, a gay outreach synagogue in Orange County. As a rabbinical student in Philadelphia, I had been an AIDS buddy to a man who was terribly sick. I would go and straighten up his home and make chicken soup as he coughed, and then read to him from the Torah or any other Jewish text I was studying. He promised to get out of the house and come to my ordination, but he was dead by then. In 1987, I led organized a delegation of rabbis and doctors to talk with the Jewish funeral homes about how to support the partners and families of those who died of AIDS. I thought I knew about AIDS.
But being a pastor isn’t the same as being a buddy or an activist. Being a pastor requires the ability to help hold the pain. Pastors are the spiritual equivalent of first responders. We run toward the fire. For me, it was a strange position, part of the queer community: one of the mourners, one of the caregivers; but not myself at risk. That is when I really learned how to pray.
Then about 1996, it changed. AIDS stopped being a death sentence. I led a group called “Back to the Future” for people who had all but resigned themselves to an early death, and now had to re-engage the details of living. This was not only true for the people who had managed to stay alive, but for the entire community. Even now, more than a generation later, we are still integrating the AIDS epidemic and its devastation. As those of us who survived now come to the time of life in which people die naturally, each death brings back those unnatural heartbreaking deaths.
I wonder where that young man is today. I wonder if he managed to grieve his loss and forgive himself. I pray that this is so.”
AFTER/LIFE runs from Thursday, February 13, 2020 (the 26th anniversary of Aulerich-Sugai’s death) through June 11, 2020. It overlaps with Pride Month (June) and precedes the 23rd International AIDS conference, AIDS2020, which will take place in Oakland and San Francisco in July 2020. This conference marks the 30th anniversary of the development of life-saving antiretroviral therapies.
On Thursday, March 12, from 5-7 pm CLGS and CARe (The Center for the Arts & Religion at The Graduate Theological Union)are hosting a panel discussion in conjunction with CARe’s Spring exhibition, AFTER/LIFE. This show features the work of Ed Aulerich-Sugai and Mark Mitchell, innovative and inspiring artists who were both affected by HIV/AIDS, leading to Ed’s death in 1994.
Moderated by Dr. Bernard Schlager (Executive Director, Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion), our panelists are: Bishop Yvette A. Flunder (City of Refuge UCC), Rabbi Jane Litman (CLGS Jewish Roundtable and Rabbi at Chico Havurah), the Rev. Elder Jim Mitulski (Interim Pastor, Island United Church UCC, Foster City and AIDS activist), and Steven Tierney (Professor Emeritus in Counseling Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and Clinical Director, Seeds of Awareness, Oakland).
Our diverse group of accomplished panelists will discuss spirituality, ministry, and community in the days when AIDS was first recognized and in more recent times.