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Reflections Commemorating World AIDS Day, 2021

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

Susan Spencer, Alan Schut, & the Reverend Gary Ost

(Extended) Advent 5, December 5, 2021

Remarks for World AIDS Day

Susan Spencer

When I think about the AIDS Hospice Unit at Laguna Honda Long Term Care Facility, my thoughts can rarely be put into words. These experiences reach level of understanding that have no words. In fact, words diminish the immensity and cosmic nature of the experiences. I will try to convey to you several incidences I witnessed while working on the AIDS Unit.

It was heartbreaking to see people come to us who had been abandoned by family and sometimes even friends. Some patients were completely alone. On the hospice unit they discovered that staff members accepted and cared for them just as they were. New patients were welcomed by patients already there, many forming strong bonds of friendship and support. But most importantly, families frequently embraced not only their own sons and daughters but also those who had no one to call family. Families connected to other patients and adopted them as their own. They made sure that birthdays were acknowledged with a card and small gift. At Christmas they were included in family gift giving. Families were formed that no one had expected to find.

Patients came to understand that they would not die alone. They knew that others would be by their bedside even when they could no longer respond. Nothing takes away the hurt of abandonment, but new families and friends can soften the hurt and lead to unexpected joy.

Secondly, I want to talk about family members who came to San Francisco to support the one they loved and went on to change the world around them in their own home towns. One patient was supported by his sister who had flown in from Alabama. After his death, she told us that when she got home her mission would be to educate people about AIDS and that’s exactly what she did. She honored her brother by reaching out to churches and community organizations, arranging speaking engagements to educate and enlighten her community.

On this day of commemoration I want to acknowledge all who suffered and died from AIDS. I want to acknowledge all those families and friends who stepped up to fill the void in the lives of the abandoned. I want to give thanks for being given the privilege of working with AIDS patients, families, and friends. I want to give thanks for all they taught me about the world - that despair can be turned into hope, that abandonment can find love, that joy can be found in the darkest places. I am humbled by their faith and courage. May hope and courage and joy never be overcome by hopelessness and despair.

Remarks on the Dedication of the St. Francis of Assisi Print to St. Aidan’s Parish Alan Schut, December 5, 2021

I’m very grateful to Cameron for giving me an opportunity to offer some background on this print of St. Francis and the photo of Tom Tull and Ron Washburn that will hang beside it. The print was acquired by Tom and Ron at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi sometime around 1990 while they were in Europe attending an international AIDS conference. Upon their death in 1995, Ron in January and Tom in September, the print went to their dear friend and mine, Bill Lorton. Upon Bill’s death last December, it came to me. I don’t think it belongs in a private home, but at St. Aidan’s, the parish Tom and Ron so loved. So I offer it to you in their memory and in the hope that the example of Francis, Tom, and Ron will inspire us, in the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24)

I would like to share some brief anecdotes that reveal the quality of their faith, the strength of their character, and their unfailing hope:

A. At high holidays in the liturgical year, Tom and Ron would regularly host festive meals, banquets to which the poor, the lonely, and the outcast were routinely invited. Ring any bells here? I confess that sometimes I anticipated those dinner parties with apprehension because I never knew on any given occasion who might be seated next to me for table fellowship or what conversational challenge I might experience. Happily, I never declined the adventure, partly because Ron’s cooking was always so memorable and partly because I didn’t want to feel like one of those invited guests in Luke’s Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24) who refused the invitation to their own loss.

B. Ron gained his admired culinary skills from his upbringing in a traditional Oklahoma family with strong Southern Baptist roots. After he partnered with Tom, he kept his cooking skills but changed his denomination, only to end up on the Board of Directors of The Parsonage and President of the San Francisco Deanery towards the end of his life. Somehow, I can’t help but view this transformation as yet another instance of divine grace tinged with humor.

C. On another occasion in the depths of the AIDS pandemic, I went to Tom in despair and declared that it was “preposterous” for us to believe that either Society or the Church would ever regard sexual minorities as persons worthy of equal dignity and respect. Tom listened attentively, but said little. Only weeks later, he preached from the pulpit at Grace Cathedral that our God is a God of new beginnings, of preposterous promises, and that we are called to forge those new beginnings and to fulfill those preposterous promises in our daily relationships with others. Tom’s undaunted hope was sustained by Scripture, especially Isaiah 43:19: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” and Revelations 21:5: And he who sat upon the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new."

So when you look at Francis and the picture of Tom and Ron beside him, remember their courage and the hope that gave that courage life. Remember their abiding faith that God has the last word and that in the Divine Life, suffering and death are transmuted by love into resurrection and joy. "Behold, I make all things new."

Commemorating World AIDS Day, St. Aidan’s Church, San Francisco

Advent V, 2021

Reflecting on 40 Years of Living and Dying with AIDS

--Gary W.D. Ost

When I reflect on what it has been like to live through forty years of the AIDS Epidemic, I am reminded of what the Dalai Lama said when asked what it was like to live through the Communist Chinese invasion of Tibet, knowing he might never be coming back. He said,

Well, you know what they say. “10,000 blessings and 10,000 curses,”

and after a pause he added,

and…you never know when Something Amazing may arise!

Then, with a twinkle in his eyes, he said,

Did you know that Tibetan Buddhism is the fastest-growing form of Buddhism in Communist China today?

Forty-two years ago last January, I made the decision to come out of the closet and live life as a man who wanted to love another man. In 1979 that meant giving up being the young rector of a moderately large parish in Seattle, but more painful, trying to explain to my young children and parents and grandparents why I was leaving my marriage to Beverly, a woman I cared about deeply.

The job I lost immediately. The marriage and family life I kept trying to go back to, until in February of 1982, the afternoon I completed the Oakland Marathon, we sat down with the kids and tried to explain why we were getting divorced. Beverly wrote me a poem, entitled, “I Can Not Run Your Marathon.” Steve, 13, said, “I just wish people would let people be people.” Liz, 11, said, “But, Dad, I like girls; does that mean I’m a Lesbian?”

By then I had a fine mid-management job with the Phone Company and it looked like I was going to be able to start dating men. Also, we were living in the Bay Area, since the Church had finally started ordaining women and Beverly was in her last year at the Church Divinity School in Berkeley. It was before Internet dating, but I had a gay mentor who took me to the gay San Francisco Country Western dancing bar, The Rawhide. My very first evening of lessons, just after pairing up with someone else, I caught the eye of a cute young Strawberry Blonde on the other side of the room. As soon as free dancing began, Ken came over and asked for a dance. By the end of the night, we were sitting in one of our cars, about to go home to my apartment when I said, “I’ll tell you if you tell me…,” I started, “I’m a priest,” or, I don’t know, maybe he started, “I’m a doctor.”

Three months later I told him I really wanted to get to know him better. Six months later he helped me move into a new apartment, one he could come to on weekends after doctoring in Stockton. A couple of months later I threw a surprise birthday party for him with a large banner across the apartment wall, “Lordy, Lordy, Kenny’s Forty!” It seemed the beginning of a long domestic life together But a month later Ken’s best friend and former partner was diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma. After Christmas, Ken predicted ominously, “This is the beginning of something that’s going to be bad.” That March he tested positive for HIV. And that June, returning from a medical conference, he was the last person off the plane, pushed in a wheelchair, and he said, “Get me to Emergency.” And everything changed.

Because Ken was not yet out to his parents, the doctor’s warning, “If we don’t intubate him immediately, he may not make it,” meant I had two difficult messages. When his mother picked up the phone, I said, “Hello, Mrs. Rumburg. My name is Gary. I’m Ken’s partner. He’s gay and he has AIDS. You should get here as soon as you and your husband can, for he’s in intensive care and they are about to put him on an inhalater.”

The next day they arrived and we began our relationship. Much of it was fraught with cultural misunderstandings, their being from Virginia and my being from the West Coast, but fortunately, they were members of the Church of the Brethren, a denomination related to my grandparents’ church, but more important, a type of Christianity deeply committed to pacifism.

And we all believed in the power of prayer. At the break-even point of 10 weeks, at which a patient in ICU either gets better or deteriorates, the stubborn little red-head ignored the protocols and proceeded, when the room was empty, to pull out his own trach’ demonstrating that yes, he could, too, breathe on his own! Within two months he was discharged to the loving care of his parents and me.

One day soon after we got home, I took a call from his medical school buddies who, clueless to what had been going on, asked, “Does Ken want to join us for our yearly ski trip?” I turned to him, and he said, “Book two reservations!” despite the fact that he could scarcely walk with a cane, let alone ski. But three and a half months later, we enjoyed a week-long trip in Aspen, climaxing with a day of skiing from one end of Snow Mass to the other, triumphantly finishing the last run in time to ski right up to the front door of a famous restaurant for a late lunch of Moose Burgers. In my heart, I knew the future lacked hope, but I was committed to loving and living as much as we could for as long as we could.

He began to decline as soon as we got home, and within four months he was back in the hospital, and at the 18-month point of our relationship, he died, probably of meningitis, although I’ll never know, because he arranged with a colleague from his own hospital, where he was finally out of the closet, to have no autopsy performed. I read to him from The Little Prince and a couple of Shakespeare sonnets during the night before he died.

In my mind, I had been faithful to the partner I had dreamed of having. It was even a bit of a relief to have the suffering over. I turned to helping create memorial services on two coasts. Of course, I loved best the Episcopal liturgy I created for him, attended by over 200 friends, most of them parishioners at St. Paul’s Church, Walnut Creek. By this means I came out to people in my own diocese, even those at St. Luke’s, Rossmoor, where during this time I had become the new rector. I was feeling, as newly bereaved loved ones often do, a bit heroic.

But a month after the last memorial service, I hit a wall. I came home to an empty apartment and said, “Wait a minute. He’s never coming back!” And I descended into a gripping depression.

And then I experienced a true miracle. Late one afternoon, typically the low point in my day, I received an unexpected phone call from Father Jerry O’Roarke, Ecumenical Officer of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, whom I had gotten to know through the Mastery Foundation, a personal transformation ministry started by Werner Erhard of est Seminars, which he and I and quite a few of my clergy friends, had attended.

Jerry said, “Gary, I just heard Ken died. I only have a few minutes. Do you mind if I ask you three questions?” ---“Go ahead.” Jerry said, “The first question is, “Do you forgive yourself for anything you did or said to Ken you wish you hadn’t and for anything you did not do or say to him?” I reflected and accepted Jerry’s invitation. “Yes, I do.” Then he said, “The second is more difficult: “Do you forgive God for taking Ken from you?” After a moment’s reflection, I recommitted myself to my faith in God, saying, “Yes, I do.” And then he said, “The last question is the most difficult: “Do you forgive Ken for dying and leaving you alone?” I burst into tears. But I got the message. “Yes,” I said, “I do.” Jerry had brought me back to my experience of life. I had indeed experienced many blessings in knowing Ken. And I also needed to own that I had experienced many pains that could be called “curses.” Life is like this, a practice of grief, of letting go, and although it is often characterized by sadness, it could be described as a sweet sadness. Like the sweet sadness with which Jesus seemed to live his life and seemed to give himself up to his own death. And embracing it all could be like the beginning of Something Amazing that might still arise. Finding my husband Michael was certainly a part of that.

And that’s how living through an Epidemic prepared me to live through a Pandemic. It helped me to practice letting go of mental judgements and open my heart as much as possible to feel both the suffering and the joy of it all. It has helped me to accept the graceful presence of Jesus everywhere. I hope that everybody can experience this kind of Amazing Lesson, too.

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