Agents of Healing

November 30, 2015
AIDS ribbon in a hand
World AIDS Day is December 1.

Earlier this fall, an HDS custodian saw that the lights were off in room 118 of Andover Hall and, expecting the classroom to be empty, entered to retrieve the trash bin.

To his surprise, the space was not empty. Half a dozen students and their teacher sat in candlelight, tossing flowers into the center of the room as they said the names of loved ones who died of AIDS.

The custodian silently backed out of the room and closed the door. The ritual continued.

While this might seem like an unusual event, for some members of the class "Religion and AIDS," taught by WSRP research associate Lynne Gerber, MTS '98, this ritual was necessary. 

At HDS, our research often touches the most intimate parts of our lives. It gets personal.

With 35 million people living with HIV/AIDS globally, and 1.2 million of those living in the United States, it is understandable that students chose to enroll in "Religion and AIDS" for reasons other than an academic interest. For many of us, this course is one step toward learning how seminarians and ministers can respond to a pandemic that has been devastating communities in the United States and abroad for over three decades.  

On that fall evening, our class had just concluded group presentations on selected memoirs by men and women whose theological and existential frameworks were broken and transformed by AIDS. The emotional impact of books like poet Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast and Carolyn Jenkins’s Preaching With AIDS require more than a reflection paper from their readers. They require space for mourning and celebration.

The student-initiated ritual was something many of us needed. We wove the names of the authors’ loved ones in with the names of our own who have died of AIDS.

For me and three of my classmates, this ritual was part of a larger commitment to honor the stories of those who have died of AIDS and those who continue to live with HIV/AIDS.

Rod Owens, MDiv '17, Kristen Lovett, MTS '16, and Tim Pepler, a student at Andover Newton Theological School, and I have organized an interfaith service for World AIDS Day, titled "Beloved Community, Beloved Work, Moving Forward in Life." The service will be hosted by the Natural Dharma Center at 5 Longfellow Park in Cambridge, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm, on Tuesday, December 1.

"World AIDS Day affords me the opportunity not only to exist in a world of academia and theory, but to cultivate actual practices that address the HIV/AIDS pandemic," explained Lovett.

Owens, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism at the Natural Dharma Center, will lead a sitting meditation from 6:30 to 7 pm. The formal service will begin at 7:15 pm and include music, guided chanting, and reflections from people in the Boston area who are living with HIV.

As student organizers, we all bring our own perspectives and stories. 

"I have been active in HIV/AIDS prevention and education since college," Owens said. "World AIDS Day is a reminder for me that we still have AIDS, and the communities I identify with are the most impacted by it. I need others to know this, and I have to do what I can to be an agent of healing for my community. Part of that healing means helping to organize spaces where we can express our struggle, pain, and loss as well as our joy and celebrations."

For Pepler, World AIDS Day is an opportunity to continue the legacy for HIV/AIDS activism that began with the ACT UP movement in the 1980s.

"My friends are living everyday with HIV, some of them for more than 20 years. I want to do something to bring awareness to the Harvard community to the life they live and the ways in which they struggle and are still stigmatized."

The program's title, "Beloved Community, Beloved Work, Moving Forward in Life," was chosen to emphasize our group's belief that healing spiritually from the trauma of HIV/AIDS is valuable, communal work. It is also a reminder that this work is not only about death, but about life.

"Dr. Martin Luther King's notion of the 'Beloved Community' speaks to the spirit of inclusiveness and embrace," Lovett explained. 

In 2011, UNAIDS launched its Getting to Zero strategic plan with the goal to have zero new HIV infections, zero reports of HIV/AIDS-based discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths. From her experiences working in public health in Sub-Saharan Africa, Lovett knows that "getting to zero" will require changes in culture as well as policy.

"In order to do this we must not remain connected to prejudices or stereotypes of yesteryear, but move forward in life with love, bravery, and compassion," she said.

At HDS, we are challenged to meet the needs of the world with integrity and creativity. The World AIDS Day service is not a final project for class or a component of a field education placement. Like the ritual we performed in Andover 118 this fall, the service is something we feel we must do as students, ministers, leaders, and people who believe in the possibility of global healing from the trauma of HIV/AIDS.

"My hope for the service is that people will see themselves as part of the beloved community and look for ways in which they can support those who are impacted by HIV/AIDS," Lovett said.

For those who cannot attend the service, it will be live streamed via the Natural Dharma website.

—by Erica Long, MDiv candidate