On December 1st, people around the globe observed World AIDS Day. Noteworthy for its designation as the first ever global health day, World AIDS day was initially commemorated in 1988. Now thirty years later in 2018, there are an estimated thirty-four million people on this planet living with HIV and AIDS. And since the virus was first identified in the year 1984, more than thirty-five million people have died of AIDS, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in human history.
My first year in seminary back in 1989, I remember working as a chaplain in various lunch and dinner sites throughout New York City for people living with HIV and AIDS. In the late 1980’s those meals were primarily attended by gay men, along with a smaller group of intravenous drug users and a few people who became infected with the disease through tainted blood transfusions.
My main job that year was to circulate around the room and talk to people as they were eating, offering spiritual and emotional support to anyone who wanted to converse. But the most vivid part of that whole year were the graces we shared prior to each meal. Someone would begin with a brief word of prayer. And then we left open time for people to simply call out and remember the names of loved ones who had died of AIDS.
With tears shed aloud and people reaching out to comfort those beside them, the sharing of names sometimes lasted a few minutes. Not just a few names…sometimes dozens of names. In those early years before the medical community had a handle on how to avoid contracting HIV and AIDS and how to treat HIV and AIDS, anyone diagnosed with the disease knew their days were numbered. And the grace we shared prior to each meal bore witness to that grim inevitability.
In addition to fearing their own mortality, people living with HIV and AIDS in the first decade of the disease were intensely shamed and stigmatized. Shunned by a fearful medical community, judged and condemned by religious communities and abandoned by family and friends, gay men, especially, often suffered and died alone.
Our lack of compassionate response and care in the initial years of HIV and AIDS marks a low point in this nation’s recent history. But I read this past week about a woman named Ruth Coker Burks, who lived in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and singlehandedly cared for hundreds of gay men who died from AIDS. In doing so, she set an example for how family members and health and religious professionals and politicians could do likewise.
Despite the fact that Ruth Coker Burks had absolutely no medical training, she spent many of her days in the late 1980’s taking gay men to their appointments. She picked up their medications. She helped them fill out forms for assistance. She talked them through their despair. And when they died, she often paid for their cremations out of her own pocket. Even more amazingly she dug more than three dozen graves with a shovel and her own hands and buried gay men in her family cemetery when gay men’s loved ones refused to claim their bodies.
Despite the fact that medicine has made significant advances in treating people with HIV and AIDS and the stigma around the disease is not the same as it once was, the tales Ruth Coker Burns tells going back twenty-five or thirty years are shameful.
Like the man whose family insisted he be baptized in a creek in October, three days before he died, to wash away the sin of being gay. When the man died, he was six feet six inches tall and he weighed seventy-five pounds. And soon after his funeral, his aunts came to his parent’ s house wearing plastic suits and yellow gloves to double bag his clothes and scrub everything in the room with bleach. Even the ceiling fan.
Or the mother who called Ruth Coker Burks up and demanded to know how much longer it would be before her son died. “I just want to know, when is he going to die?” Burks recalled the woman asking. “We have to get on with our lives and he’s holding us up. We can’t go on with what we have to do until he dies. He’s ruined everything, and we definitely don’t want people up here to know he has AIDS, so how long do you think he’s going to stick around?”
Or all the times Ruth Coker Burks sat with dying men while they filled out their own death certificate. Because Ruth knew she wouldn’t be able to call their families for the required information. “Can you imagine filling out your death certificate before you die? At some point, I wouldn’t have the information I needed to fill the certificate out myself. I wouldn’t know their mother’s maiden name or some other blank that needed to be filled in. So I’d get a pizza and we’d have pizza and fill out the death certificate together.”
After being rebuffed by priests and pastors more often than she could count, Ruth Coker Burks even learned to say funerals herself. And through all the caregiving and the heartbreak and the grief, she never doubted what she was doing. “It never made me question my faith at all, she said. “I knew that what I was doing was right, and I knew that I was doing what God asked me. It wasn’t a voice from the sky. I knew deep in my soul…”
In 2013, at the age of fifty-five, Ruth Coker Burks had a stroke. She had to relearn how to talk, how to feed herself, and how to read and write. It’s a small miracle she’s not buried today in the family cemetery where she buried so many others. But the story of what Ruth Coker Burks did in the early days of the AIDS crisis in this country is not forgotten.
Speaking of her own legacy, Ruth Coker Burks recently offered this insight. “Someday,” she said, “I’d love to get a monument that says: This is what happened. In 1984, it started. They just kept coming and coming. And they knew they would be remembered, loved and taken care of…and that someone would say a kind word over them when they died…”
Sometimes God chooses us for a task we might not choose for ourselves. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic when our collective fear morphed into panic and stigma fueled homophobia and led to gay men being abandoned and dying in anonymity, Ruth Coker Burks was one of precious few people in this entire country offering compassionate care.
While countless medical and religious professionals were busy washing their hands and going to great lengths to keep people with HIV and AIDS at arms-length, Ruth Coker Burks chose to feed the ones who were wasting away. And caress the ones no one was willing to touch. And hold the hands of the ones who were dying…
In truth, Ruth Coker Burks stands in a long line of women chosen by God to do something really hard. Something they might not have chosen for themselves.
Generations ago, Mary was chosen by God to give birth to a Savior. As a teenager, giving birth to any child would have been a hardship. The fact that the child growing in her womb was God’s child made the reality that much more complicated. And yet Mary sang the Magnificat because she knew she was doing what God wanted. She knew God was choosing her to do what was right. And she knew it deep in her soul.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed…He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
By the words she sang, you wonder if Mary had an inkling, even during her pregnancy, of the kind of child Jesus would grow up to be. For sure enough, the child Mary birthed into the world would one day inspire fear in the powerful. He was stigmatized and hated by those who were so proud they didn’t understand him and felt threatened by him. And when he was eventually sentenced to die on a cross, and abandoned by many of those who claimed to love him the most, he was almost rendered anonymous.
But Mary gathered with other women at the foot of the cross to pray for her son and bear witness when he took his final breath. Mary wept for her son and remembered his good life and steadfastly refused to let him die alone. That Mary was the same Mary who once brought her son into the world in Bethlehem with hope and compassion. The same mother who showed her blessed son how much he was loved and cherished from the moment he was born through all the days of his life and even in his time of death…
When you and I choose to follow God it’s one thing. Theoretically, at least, we have some idea what we’re getting ourselves into. We feel like we have some control and we can manage what it means to follow and how and when and where we follow.
Yet when God chooses you and me, it’s different. That’s when we have to trust enough to let go of whatever we might have chosen for ourselves. And sense the depth of God’s desire and the depth of the world’s need so that we can embrace the holy task we have been given. No matter how difficult it may be.
In praise and gratitude for Ruth Coker Burks and for Mary, the mother of Jesus, and for all whom God has chosen in every generation, we sing... Amen.