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WHERE WAS THE BODY OF CHRIST AT THE SAN FRANCISCO AIDS WALK?

BY ANDREA CUMBO DOWDY

by the year 2010, 71 million people in sub-Saharan Africa will have been killed by AIDS; every 15 seconds a child in Africa is orphaned by the disease. What’s more, I now know numerous people who have lost loved ones to the disease. So when my colleague asked if I wanted to join our work team for the Walk, I felt that I needed to be there, needed to walk and pray for healing and comfort for my friends and acquaintances who are mourning. As I walked through Golden Gate Park last summer, I did eventually spot a few of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence chatting with walkers, helping to organize the celebration events, and waiting in line to use the Port-a-John (the life of a Sister is apparently not always glamorous).They were moving among the people, bringing joy and sometimes a great laugh in the name of an important cause. What I did not see that day were groups of Christians doing the same.While the Sisters were out and about spreading joy and mirth to people who had given up their Sunday morning to help others, I didn’t notice any organized Christian groups sharing their mission. Granted, Christians don’t stick out the way the Sisters do, but I didn’t even see anyone wearing a church T-shirt or carrying a sign with their min-

I didn’t see them anywhere. No red bustiers. No white, flowing nuns’ habits. No stilettos. No evidence of them in this crowd of over 20,000 people. Usually the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence bless the walkers at the beginning of each AIDS Walk in San Francisco, but last year they’d been replaced by a group of steel drum players.The drummers were good, but I missed the men in sequined dresses, whiteface, and exaggerated make-up.They had always been an essential element of fun at the AIDS Walk, in spite of its somber purpose. The Sisters’ mission is to raise money for organizations that provide education about HIV/AIDS and give care to people living with the disease. They conduct numerous fundraisers around San Francisco and in many other cities worldwide. Here in San Francisco, they were the first group to hold a fundraiser to fight AIDS back when it was still called the “gay cancer.” Each year they participate in the AIDS Walk as part of their work. I decided to join the Walk last year because I’d kept reading news stories about how AIDS was devastating entire nations. Some reported that the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India might collapse their government.The most reliable statistics state that,

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Kevin Giguere, 2004

istry’s name on it.There were no church groups handing out water, as my friends had done at the Gay Pride Parade in New York: Although my friends didn’t feel they could stand by and cheer, they knew Jesus would have been offering water to those thirsty people. Maybe we Christians were just unobtrusive. I didn’t wear or say anything that would have let people know I was there in Christ’s name. I now regret that fact. The only visible sign of Christ’s presence that I witnessed at the Walk that day was a man who regularly carries the same piece of neon-yellow poster board around the city:“Jesus Christ Loves You.”When I saw him at the beginning of the Walk, I felt encouraged:“Yeah, someone’s reminding us all that God loves us.” But by the end of the Walk, when his was the only overtly Christian message that I’d noted all day, I felt sad. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have appropriated the attire of Catholic nuns to make a point.Their approach is not always something the greater Christian community would support, but they have a presence, they make a statement, and they encourage people to ask questions about what they do.At the AIDS Walk last year, we, as Christ’s disciples, didn’t take any approach that would make others inquire into what makes us different, what gives us purpose. I was humbled to see these men—whose organization claims no more direct connection to Christ than their adoption of the garb and language of his church—showing more of his love than those of us who call ourselves his children. I wonder why I couldn’t perceive my brothers and sisters there that Sunday morning. Is it because we felt obligated to be in church? Is it because we didn’t know about the Walk? Is it because we have decided that AIDS is a gay disease that doesn’t warrant our attention? If so, we are wrong: HIV/ AIDS is an indiscriminate killer, and today most cases of AIDS are contracted through heterosexual sex or the sharing of intravenous needles. Even if it were true that most HIV/AIDS-infected people were gay, we still need to care for them. Many Christians believe the Bible teaches against homosexuality, and many struggle with the question, trying to discern God’s position.

But regardless of our understanding of God’s view, we have a responsibility to show God’s love to everyone, gay or straight, healthy or living with HIV.We aren’t given the choice to walk away from these people because we may disagree with their lifestyle choices. We aren’t given the choice to walk away from anyone. We should be linking arms with the Sisters, marching around town to show Christ’s love. Instead, vans of church youth groups pull into the Castro, the gay district in San Francisco, screaming,“God hates fags” at the people walking to dinner. On the worst days, these kids beat up gay couples. One of the missions of the Sisters is to protect their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, to remove any Christians who come to spew hate and attack them.The Sisters shouldn’t have to do that. We could learn a few lessons from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Each year they raise thousands of dollars to fund HIV/AIDS research and education; every church should hold an annual AIDS offering. The Sisters show up for events like AIDS Walk; how many of us do the same? Some Sisters, in full drag, even cycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles.This year my pastor, John, joined them on the bike trip. John said most of the men on that trip were amazed that a pastor would ride for this cause. How sad that people should be surprised when God’s disciples show up to help. More of us should be riding and walking, making Christ’s presence felt. As of this year, 22 million people have died from this disease, and 42 million are living with HIV/AIDS. Each year an estimated 5 million people are infected. If these figures are too big to grasp, consider the individuals who die from and live with this disease. Consider Tom, a middle-aged man who died from AIDS just last month, leaving behind three grieving kids. Consider Maggie, who by the age of 9 has lost both of her parents to the ravages of AIDS in Zambia. In Mark 2:17 Jesus says,“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” It is time for us, as Christians, to show up and be a part of doctoring these sick people who are living with HIV and dying of AIDS. We have a responsibility to be there, not to shy away.We have a responsibility to care. We can be the people in the Castro sharing Christ’s love instead of spreading hate.We can be the people walking, our church’s name held high above our heads at the AIDS Walk, showing people that Christ is present in that place. We can be the healing hands and feet of Christ, his body, if we will just show up. ■

WHY NOT YOU? Last year, in San Francisco alone, 25,000 walkers raised over $3.25 million in support of AIDS service organizations.Annual AIDS Walks are conducted in many cities around the country. To locate the AIDS Walk in your area, go to www.aidswalk.org.

A freelance writer living in San Francisco, Andrea Cumbo Dowdy trained for the New Orleans Marathon this spring, which she ran to raise money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. PRISM 2005

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Missing From Action