Once I got out, I registered in the Nation. Minister Farrakhan
teaches the truth: We were brought here as slaves and were murdered and
discriminated against; our culture and religion were robbed. We didn't
know who we were. That was my problem, too. Transitioning out of the
military as a black man in America was hard, dealing with white
supremacy and racism. These experiences attracted me to the Nation's
teachings: to do for self, be proud and know your heritage; not to feel
God Is My Copilot
I pray and meditate every morning. It's
my time with God, when I ask God to open my heart to love. I try to be
a walking prayer, to include God in everything I say and do -- Reiki
massage, cleaning my house, taking a shower. If I put God first in
everything, I believe I'll be OK. But I'm not a fanatic. My mother was
fanatical: She took our money and gave it to the church, while we kids
were starving at home. So I know the difference.
I go to church but I don't belong to one because in churches people
wind up praising the man instead of God. I've been led by men most of
my life, and it's been a negative experience. I go to church to praise
God and for the fellowship, but I don't get caught up in the
conformities. I don't need to change the way I dress or wear my makeup,
the way I walk or talk. God loves me just how I am, even with all my
Jesus Christ is my savior, but I also believe that there are
guardian angels, African saints, Buddha. I believe in Reiki. All this
allows me to be open, to live each day knowing that God loves me. My
mother, God rest her soul, told me I was the devil's child for many
years. And I believed her. So for me to find a God who truly loves me...
When I was diagnosed, I said, "OK, God, what
do you want me to do with this?" I'd used drugs since I was 13, so I
should have been dead. Life was a miracle to me. I've never been on any
HIV medications, yet I haven't been sick, because of my faith. I
absolutely believe in my healing.
A Touch of Grace
When I give a Reiki healing, I'm
receiving one at the same time. Reiki not only heals physical pain, but
emotional, mental and spiritual pain, too. One of the most important
things for HIVers is human contact. So that's what I do. I touch people
from their heads to their toes, and I pray for them. I experience in my
body what they experience -- I go right to where they're having
problems and I pray over that specific area. I'm able to let people
know where and why they're hurting because God is working through me.
Home: Orlando, Florida; Age: 49; Diagnosed: 1989; Faith: Catholicism
When I travel to my country, Guatemala, my first trip is to a little
town called Esquipulas. I took my babies there, my mother took me, and
her mother took her. At the base of a mountain, there's a basilica with
a big Jesus dying on the cross. The statue is dark -- they call it Cristo Negro. This is my santo, Señor de Esquipulas, and he's made many miracles. I always bring him a little gift.
The Littlest Saint
At one time I had two jobs because my
husband was sick, and I have two kids. I was getting sick too and
couldn't work, but I couldn't qualify for Social Security because I had
300 T-cells. So I went to Señor de Esquipulas and said, "Please help
me." The next time I went for my blood, I had only 162 T-cells. They
immediately approved my Social Security! My T-cells have never been
that low again. It was my miracle. Señor de Esquipulas also helped me
get my papers to live in this country. But I do my part, too. We have a
saying, "Pray to the Lord, but keep using the hammer." I'm a poor
Hispanic woman from a broken home, and I've come out ahead, all because
of my saints.
When I was trying to buy my house, I promised Señor de Esquipulas
that if he helped me, I'd make a little corner for him. So there he is,
on my front lawn, a little statue just outside my bedroom window by the
tree. Every morning when I wake up, I look out my window and greet the
day. I always stay there until I hear the birds singing; I know they're
singing for me because I listen. Then I joke with Señor de Esquipulas.
He's hanging on the cross, so I say -- and this might sound
disrespectful -- "Hey, how are you this morning?" Then I answer myself,
because I carry the conversation: "How do you think I am this morning,
nailed to this cross?" And then we both laugh. I've had this joke with
him for years.
Calling All Angels
Volunteering is a form of prayer. In
Catholic school, the nuns taught me about sacrifices. It's easy to do
the things you like, but what really counts is when you do something
you don't like. I don't like to go to the supermarket, but I make a
special trip for someone who needs it. I visit people in the hospital
when things are tough. I say, "Señor de Esquipulas, please take this as
a testimony of my love for you."
Having HIV has not been the hardest
thing for me. The hardest was coming here at 15 without knowing the
language. As soon as I knew a little, I started teaching people out of
my home. When I became a U.S. citizen, I helped people do their
immigration papers. I've always had a mission. So I know why I have
HIV: because I need to do some work there. I think God said, "Too many
have this and don't do anything about it. Let me give it to this girl,
because she's very active."
I've taken every medication, and I don't have
many options left. This is how I visualize HIV: I'm in one corner with
my doctor, my family, my spirit, my medication all behind me; in the
other corner is the virus. Once in a while, he slaps me. But sometimes
I slap him. Every year on the anniversary of my infection, I bring a
cake to my support group, and we sing happy anniversary to my virus and
me. It's to his advantage to keep me alive, because if I die, I go to
heaven, but the virus goes to the bottom and that's it.
One thing that's helped me survive is
knowing it's OK to die. If I've done all I can, then it's my time. When
people die, they go to a better place. I'd hate to be eternal and end
up alone here, like Dracula.
I don't allow anybody to bring religion
into my support group. The church says there should be no condom use.
But did Jesus say, "Don't use a condom?" No. One time we had a lady who
came to pray. She said 14 Satans and only two times Jesus. I don't want
Satan, Satan, Satan all over me unless it's the Church Lady on Saturday
Night Live. So we don't have religion -- we have faith.
Home: San Francisco; Age: 42; Diagnosed: 1995; Faith: Queer Christian
I was raised Catholic, but I'm no longer part of that church. For years
I was a minister at the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a gay
church in the Castro. There our candlelight prayers and chants have a
mystical dimension -- something you can give yourself over to.
Calling All Angels
My faith has sustained me through many
losses over the years, but it wasn't about my own personal survival
until I became sick. Then I had to rely on what I'd used to help bring
comfort to others.
I've done a lot of AIDS work, so when I was diagnosed, I faced a
great deal of embarrassment and depression. I had some dark periods
where I used recreational drugs to cope, but therapy, prayer and faith
helped me be more compassionate with myself: So what? I made a
mistake. Seroconverting and the deepening of my faith has made me love my life more.
There's Something About Mary
The prayer I found so
helpful when I got sick was the Hail Mary. It's part of the rosary. My
late grandmother, who was very religious, used to pray to them. She
always offered me unconditional love. So when I was sick and wanted
comfort, I asked for a rosary. When you're a child and you memorize a
prayer, it doesn't mean anything. But when you're an adult and believe
that you're dying, those words mean so much. Now every Wednesday at MCC
I light a candle and pray the Hail Mary for health, calm and equanimity
about the unpredictable aspects of living with HIV. Mary is the
feminine divine. When I pray, I picture my grandmother.
A Touch of Grace
Another thing that brought me tremendous
comfort in the hospital was people touching me. When I was isolated and
fearful, touch brought me back. The infusions of warmth made me feel
better, made me feel. To me, that's spiritual. Laying on of hands is a
kind of healing prayer.
I'd never been to the gym before I was 30. I
was phobic -- it was tied in to being gay and feeling inadequate. But
when I was 30, I suddenly gained a lot of weight: I was doing a lot of
funerals, and clearly I was eating my grief. I had to get back some
physical balance so I forced myself to go to the gym. Now I go every
day and do a half hour of aerobic exercise on the Stairmaster. Although
it's physical, it is primarily a spiritual experience for me. I pray
the whole time. It's my time with myself, to see what comes up, and
it's helped me process the grief. The Stairmaster is for me what going
to church is for other people. That and my prayer meetings form the
substance of what I call formal prayer. The rest is gravy.
I've been on all kinds of antiretrovirals,
and the side effects were awful. But the desire to live is a spiritual
impulse. Spirituality reminds me that I am more than my body.
Home: San Francisco; Age: 40; Diagnosed: 1996; Faith: Judaism
My mother was born in Poland and emigrated before
World War II. She grew up speaking Yiddish, so she has strong Jewish
roots, which she conveyed to me. My ties to Judaism were cultural.
Test of Faith
My diagnosis came out of left field, when
my little boy was 11 months old. For about six months before that I was
quite ill -- I was wasting and had thrush in my mouth -- but I was
still breast-feeding. It took the doctors a long time to figure out
what was wrong. This seems surprising because it was San Francisco,
1996, but I'm white and middle class; nothing put up a red flag. The
doctors just thought I was having a hard time adjusting to motherhood.
My regular doctor finally recommended an HIV test. I had full-blown
I felt like the bottom had been blown out of my world and there was
no future, so I had a lot of healing to do. Judaism became very
important to me. Now I'm committed. I practice.
Calling All Angels
There's a wonderful Jewish philosophy, tikkun olam,
which means "to repair the world." It manifests itself in my life
through my volunteer work. Judaism is focused on life on earth rather
than on the rewards of the afterlife. It teaches you how to live your
life in as holy a manner as you can. There's a beautiful biblical
quote, "I put before you life and death, therefore choose life," which
gives me strength to fight this disease.
I'm on combo therapy, and my health has
improved in recent years. I'm living a pretty normal life, and I credit
that with having faith -- in religion or in life.
Judaism is a warm, comforting religion. It
emphasizes community, family and the joys of everyday life. The
holidays are full of celebration. I felt a real spiritual connection at
high holiday services this year; the music was so beautiful it made me
cry. My family does Shabbat dinner on Fridays -- we light the candles
and say blessings over the wine and challah. As a Jew, I have a strong
sense of belonging, and I want my son to have that foundation.
Pay It Forward
I've written a book about my experiences
as a Jewish woman with HIV [Penitent With Roses, University Press of
New England]. One part is a long letter to my son, what Jews call an
"ethical will": It doesn't have anything to do with money, but with the
values you want to pass to your child. That was my motive: If, God
forbid, I'm not around when he's older, he can read this to find out
who his mother was, what I loved and valued.
Home: San Francisco; Age: 40; Diagnosed: 1991; Faith: Buddhism/Hindui
I'm from Guam, where 99 percent of the population
is raised Roman Catholic. My family is extremely orthodox. I went into
the seminary for a few years, training to be a priest. At 21, it became
apparent to me that the Franciscans and I were looking for different
things: They wanted to find parish priests for the island, and I was
looking for a monastic experience. It came down to whether I was going
to submit to the authority of the Catholic Church or look for a true
spiritual life for myself. Just as I was getting ready to take my vows,
A Franciscan in Frisco
In 1982, I moved to San Francisco,
where I finally gave myself permission to be a gay man -- a pronounced
conflict when I was with the Franciscans. But I didn't leave behind the
spiritual life; I learned that being a Franciscan wasn't something I
put on and took off like a cleric's robe. It was about seeing myself in
a certain way. I could live in the world as a gay man and still carry
inside of me the discipline of the Franciscans.
My first partner died in '91, the same
year I tested positive. The Catholic Church had lost its appeal, and I
turned to the East, beginning to study Buddhism and Taoism. While it's
nice to think that Jesus Christ died for my salvation, I subscribe to
the Buddhist idea that you're responsible for your own salvation, and
no one else can undo your karma. This meant telling my family that I
have HIV and facing their anger. While rituals of death are integrated
into Pacific Islander society, there's also a lot of judgment about how
people live, that only sinful, dirty people get HIV.
My current partner, Krandall, also comes from a religious
background, lost his partner to AIDS and has HIV. It pulls us together:
We love each other knowing that we're mortal. When he put Catholicism
aside, he redirected his energies to the philosophies of India. He
introduced me to Siddha yoga, the spiritual practice of Vedanta, and
In the evenings, I chant with Krandall,
and after we pray, we meditate. We turn off the phones, close the doors
and have our own puja, or worship. The chant I use is the Siddha yoga chant, "Om Namah Sivaya,"
which means "I bow to the Supreme Self." I chant all day long, quietly.
That's how I learn to see the world, through the mantra. No institution
can make my spiritual life abundant; it's how I live.
Our shrine at home contains statues of Ganesha, Siva and Laksmi.
When I put these deities together, I'm bowing to all parts of myself:
my intellect, the parts that wish for abundance and love, beauty and
strength. My statue of Kali reminds me that there are dark experiences
in the world, and that as painful as they may be, they are also a
manifestation of God. My challenge is to walk through the world in all
of its beauty and horror, and to stay focused on the Atman, on God, who
I've been on several different cocktails.
I've had no major infections, but my immune system is vulnerable. I've
taken a drug holiday to give my body a rest, but now I need to get back
on a new combo and keep an eye on my health.
The knowledge of my mortality has allowed
me to do what brings me joy. Now I paint, and Krandall and I wrote a
book about our spiritual journey [What It's All About: What We Learned About Living While Waiting to Die,
Alyson Publications]. Mortality is everywhere, except not until
somebody hands us the envelope and says "You have AIDS" do we fully
embrace that knowledge. This awareness doesn't free us from fear,
sadness or anxiety, but we can try to transform those forces to propel
us forward rather than falling back into despair. This awareness
motivates us to go on living and to keep loving.