Saints Bring Hope On World AIDS Day 25th Anniversary

by Rev . Kittredge Cherry

World AIDS Day, which marks its 25th anniversary this year on Dec. 1, supports everyone affected by HIV. The day is dedicated to prevention and treatment, and honors those who died of AIDS—more than 25 million people worldwide.

First held in 1988, World AIDS Day was the first global health day for any disease.  

The icon “Patrons of the AIDS Pandemic” by Lewis Williams shows two pairs of medieval male saints who faced disease epidemics together with friendship and faith. Their man-to-man bonds speak to the gay community, where AIDS has a disproportionately large impact. The couples stand on each side of a chestnut tree, a symbol of life after death.

“It is hoped that they offer solace to companions who have survived a loved one’s death, or to friends\family burdened by the death of two companions,” says the text accompanying the icon.

On the left are 13th-century Franciscans who ministered in an Italian leper colony: Blessed Bartolo Buonpedoni and Blessed Vivaldo. Bartolo got leprosy while caring for the sick, so he had to live in segregated housing. His loyal friend Vivaldo moved into the leper house with him, even though he himself had not contracted the disease. They lived together for 20 years until Bartolo’s death. Today, there are effective treatments for leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease.

AIDS has taken leprosy’s place as a dreaded and stigmatized disease.

On the right stand 14th-century Carmelite monks St.Avertanus and Blessed Romeo, traveling companions who died together of the plague. Avertanus felt inspired to go to Rome, so he got permission to take Romeo with him. They faced rain and snow as they made an adventurous pilgrimage over the Alps from France to Italy. No Italian city would let them in, for an epidemic of plague was raging. Avertanus died first, followed a week later by Romeo.

The icon was painted by New Mexico artist Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). He studied with master iconographer Robert Lentz and has made social justice a theme of his icons.

AIDS is connected with the suffering of Christ in Station 10 from “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality” by Mary Button. Jesus is stripped of his garments beside images of the AIDS virus. The round structure of the human immunodeficiency virus forms a halo around Jesus’ head.

Jesus being stripped is a scene of loss, and the LGBT community lost thousands of people due to AIDS.

Button matches scenes from Christ’s journey to Calvary with milestones from the last 100 years of LGBT history in her LGBT Stations of the Cross. For an overview of all 15 paintings in the series, see my article “LGBT Stations of the Cross shows struggle for equality.

World AIDS Day holds great personal meaning for me. I lost many friends to AIDS when I was ministering in the LGBT community of San Francisco in the late 1980s. Back then there were no effective treatments and many gay men were dying of AIDS.

For those who want to learn about—or remember—what it was like, I recommend the 2011 documentary We Were Here. With honesty and grace, the film examines the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco. It focuses on giving people who were there before and during the AIDS crisis and has lots of films documenting the LGBT experience in San Francisco over the decades. For me, everyone in the movie looked like someone I knew. ALL the faces were familiar!

It seemed like I recognized every face, even though they were strangers.

I still keep a small brick on my desk that says, “We are the body of Christ and we have AIDS.” Watching it is both heartbreaking and inspirational.

I wrote about some of my AIDS ministry experiences for Christian Century magazine in an article titled “We Are the Church Alive, the Church with AIDS.” The article is reprinted in the book The Church with AIDS: Renewal in the Midst of Crisis, edited by Letty Russell.

Let us join in the following AIDS prayer by Diann L. Neu, cofounder, and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER). It was published in Equal Rites: Lesbian and Gay Worship, Ceremonies, and Celebrations:

One Person:
Compassionate Holy One, open our hearts and minds and hands so that we may connect ourselves to the global community of others responding to AIDS as we pray;
We remember all the women, men, and children in this country and around the world who are living with AIDS.

All: Justice demands that we remember and respond.

One: We remember all who care for people living and dying with AIDS in their homes, in hospices, and in support centers.

All: Justice demands that we remember and respond.

One: We remember all who are involved in research and hospital care that they may respect the dignity of each person.

All: Justice demands that we remember and respond.

One: We remember all partners who are left mourning for their beloved ones.

All: Justice demands that we remember and respond.

We remember all parents who learn the truth of their children’s lives through their process of facing death….
We remain vigilant,
Until a cure for AIDS is found,
Until those dying with AIDS are comforted,
Until truth sets us free,
Until love drives out injustice.
We shall not give up the fight.

Originally posted on Jesus In Love Blog; Artwork by Mary Button: LGBT Stations of the Cross Series