Home: Miami; Age: 56; Diagnosed: 1987; Faith: Islam
I was brought up a Baptist. But when I was 12, running the streets of New York City, I'd go to rallies to listen to Malcolm X.
I enlisted in the Marine Corps and went to Vietnam. When I came back,in 1968, I was still on the wild side. I got addicted to heroin andcocaine, and I was robbing banks. I went straight from the jungle inVietnam to the asphalt jungle in New York City, and I was a loosecannon, with a lot of anger and no spiritual direction. That's why Iwas using drugs. I was searching, but I didn't know what for. A yearlater, I got arrested and sent upstate to maximum-security GreenhavenState Prison. It was a God-given thing because if I hadn't gone tojail, I would've been dead long ago. My whole life was styled in adeath mode, and now it's life! Everything is geared to making adifference.
Piece of the Rock
In jail, at 25, I had the opportunity to reflect on my life. I wasexposed to Islam, and got the chance to study the Koran, like MalcolmX. You have choices when you're incarcerated -- either you getrehabilitated or you get more educated in criminal activity. I chose totry to make something. Inside that prison, you had the Black Panthers;gangsters like the Gallo brothers; and Nicki Barnes, a big drugkingpin. I was caged in with men who had life sentences, walking timebombs. So I was a loner, but when brothers from the Nation of Islamapproached me, I absorbed as much knowledge as I could.
Once I got out, I registered in the Nation. Minister Farrakhanteaches the truth: We were brought here as slaves and were murdered anddiscriminated against; our culture and religion were robbed. We didn'tknow who we were. That was my problem, too. Transitioning out of themilitary as a black man in America was hard, dealing with whitesupremacy and racism. These experiences attracted me to the Nation'steachings: to do for self, be proud and know your heritage; not to feelinferior.
Islam means peace -- to respect everybody and treat people the way youwant to be treated. It's not lip service. We practice what we believein, through charity, prayer, diet. We don't commit adultery or eatprohibited foods. We pray five times a day. But I don't believe in justsitting around singing; I try to live my life as a prayer. With theNation, you can't just say, "Praise the Lord." You have to be active.
HIV saved my life in that it told me I had to find some direction. WhenI tested positive, I was already on my spiritual path, but stillstruggling, drinking and smoking marijuana. I was given two years tolive. Though I was married with kids, at first I was inclined to usedrugs, to say, "I'm going to die anyway." But my post-test counselortapped into my faith. Finally I said, "I'll wait until God tells me mytime is over." So I stopped using substances by degrees, ate right andcomplied with my regimen.
I've been on a cocktail for three years. But I've survived because of acombination of diet, meds and spirituality -- that's what fuelseverything.
Home: Rochester, NY; Age: 45; Diagnosed: 1991; Faith: Christianity
My mother was an evangelist who raised me in thePentecostal Baptist Church. I left home at 13, and I'm sure there was aseed planted, but I didn't practice that religion once I was on my own.My experience is my belief now.
God Is My Copilot
I pray and meditate every morning. It'smy time with God, when I ask God to open my heart to love. I try to bea walking prayer, to include God in everything I say and do -- Reikimassage, cleaning my house, taking a shower. If I put God first ineverything, I believe I'll be OK. But I'm not a fanatic. My mother wasfanatical: She took our money and gave it to the church, while we kidswere starving at home. So I know the difference.
I go to church but I don't belong to one because in churches peoplewind up praising the man instead of God. I've been led by men most ofmy life, and it's been a negative experience. I go to church to praiseGod and for the fellowship, but I don't get caught up in theconformities. 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 myfaults.
Jesus Christ is my savior, but I also believe that there areguardian angels, African saints, Buddha. I believe in Reiki. All thisallows me to be open, to live each day knowing that God loves me. Mymother, God rest her soul, told me I was the devil's child for manyyears. And I believed her. So for me to find a God who truly loves me...
When I was diagnosed, I said, "OK, God, whatdo you want me to do with this?" I'd used drugs since I was 13, so Ishould have been dead. Life was a miracle to me. I've never been on anyHIV medications, yet I haven't been sick, because of my faith. Iabsolutely believe in my healing.
A Touch of Grace
When I give a Reiki healing, I'mreceiving one at the same time. Reiki not only heals physical pain, butemotional, mental and spiritual pain, too. One of the most importantthings for HIVers is human contact. So that's what I do. I touch peoplefrom their heads to their toes, and I pray for them. I experience in mybody what they experience -- I go right to where they're havingproblems and I pray over that specific area. I'm able to let peopleknow where and why they're hurting because God is working through me.
Lilliana Argueta Roots The Littlest Saint When I was trying to buy my house, I promised Señor de Esquipulasthat 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 thetree. Every morning when I wake up, I look out my window and greet theday. I always stay there until I hear the birds singing; I know they'resinging for me because I listen. Then I joke with Señor de Esquipulas.He's hanging on the cross, so I say -- and this might sounddisrespectful -- "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 withhim for years. Calling All Angels Mission Possible Self-Health Death Benefit Support System Jim Mitulski
Home: Orlando, Florida; Age: 49; Diagnosed: 1989; Faith: Catholicism
When I travel to my country, Guatemala, my first trip is to a littletown called Esquipulas. I took my babies there, my mother took me, andher mother took her. At the base of a mountain, there's a basilica witha 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.
At one time I had two jobs because myhusband was sick, and I have two kids. I was getting sick too andcouldn't work, but I couldn't qualify for Social Security because I had300 T-cells. So I went to Señor de Esquipulas and said, "Please helpme." The next time I went for my blood, I had only 162 T-cells. Theyimmediately approved my Social Security! My T-cells have never beenthat low again. It was my miracle. Señor de Esquipulas also helped meget my papers to live in this country. But I do my part, too. We have asaying, "Pray to the Lord, but keep using the hammer." I'm a poorHispanic woman from a broken home, and I've come out ahead, all becauseof my saints.
Volunteering is a form of prayer. InCatholic school, the nuns taught me about sacrifices. It's easy to dothe things you like, but what really counts is when you do somethingyou don't like. I don't like to go to the supermarket, but I make aspecial trip for someone who needs it. I visit people in the hospitalwhen things are tough. I say, "Señor de Esquipulas, please take this asa testimony of my love for you."
Having HIV has not been the hardestthing for me. The hardest was coming here at 15 without knowing thelanguage. As soon as I knew a little, I started teaching people out ofmy home. When I became a U.S. citizen, I helped people do theirimmigration papers. I've always had a mission. So I know why I haveHIV: because I need to do some work there. I think God said, "Too manyhave 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 havemany options left. This is how I visualize HIV: I'm in one corner withmy doctor, my family, my spirit, my medication all behind me; in theother corner is the virus. Once in a while, he slaps me. But sometimesI slap him. Every year on the anniversary of my infection, I bring acake to my support group, and we sing happy anniversary to my virus andme. It's to his advantage to keep me alive, because if I die, I go toheaven, but the virus goes to the bottom and that's it.
One thing that's helped me survive isknowing it's OK to die. If I've done all I can, then it's my time. Whenpeople die, they go to a better place. I'd hate to be eternal and endup alone here, like Dracula.
I don't allow anybody to bring religioninto 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 whocame to pray. She said 14 Satans and only two times Jesus. I don't wantSatan, Satan, Satan all over me unless it's the Church Lady on SaturdayNight Live. So we don't have religion -- we have faith.
Home: San Francisco; Age: 42; Diagnosed: 1995; Faith: Queer Christian
The Littlest Saint
When I was trying to buy my house, I promised Señor de Esquipulasthat 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 thetree. Every morning when I wake up, I look out my window and greet theday. I always stay there until I hear the birds singing; I know they'resinging for me because I listen. Then I joke with Señor de Esquipulas.He's hanging on the cross, so I say -- and this might sounddisrespectful -- "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 withhim for years.
Calling All Angels
I was raised Catholic, but I'm no longer part of that church. For yearsI was a minister at the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a gaychurch in the Castro. There our candlelight prayers and chants have amystical dimension -- something you can give yourself over to.
Calling All Angels
My faith has sustained me through manylosses over the years, but it wasn't about my own personal survivaluntil I became sick. Then I had to rely on what I'd used to help bringcomfort to others.
I've done a lot of AIDS work, so when I was diagnosed, I faced agreat deal of embarrassment and depression. I had some dark periodswhere I used recreational drugs to cope, but therapy, prayer and faithhelped 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 sohelpful when I got sick was the Hail Mary. It's part of the rosary. Mylate grandmother, who was very religious, used to pray to them. Shealways offered me unconditional love. So when I was sick and wantedcomfort, I asked for a rosary. When you're a child and you memorize aprayer, it doesn't mean anything. But when you're an adult and believethat you're dying, those words mean so much. Now every Wednesday at MCCI light a candle and pray the Hail Mary for health, calm and equanimityabout the unpredictable aspects of living with HIV. Mary is thefeminine divine. When I pray, I picture my grandmother.
A Touch of Grace
Another thing that brought me tremendouscomfort in the hospital was people touching me. When I was isolated andfearful, touch brought me back. The infusions of warmth made me feelbetter, made me feel. To me, that's spiritual. Laying on of hands is akind of healing prayer.
I'd never been to the gym before I was 30. Iwas phobic -- it was tied in to being gay and feeling inadequate. Butwhen I was 30, I suddenly gained a lot of weight: I was doing a lot offunerals, and clearly I was eating my grief. I had to get back somephysical balance so I forced myself to go to the gym. Now I go everyday and do a half hour of aerobic exercise on the Stairmaster. Althoughit's physical, it is primarily a spiritual experience for me. I praythe whole time. It's my time with myself, to see what comes up, andit's helped me process the grief. The Stairmaster is for me what goingto church is for other people. That and my prayer meetings form thesubstance 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 spiritualimpulse. 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 beforeWorld War II. She grew up speaking Yiddish, so she has strong Jewishroots, which she conveyed to me. My ties to Judaism were cultural.
Test of Faith
My diagnosis came out of left field, whenmy little boy was 11 months old. For about six months before that I wasquite ill -- I was wasting and had thrush in my mouth -- but I wasstill breast-feeding. It took the doctors a long time to figure outwhat was wrong. This seems surprising because it was San Francisco,1996, but I'm white and middle class; nothing put up a red flag. Thedoctors just thought I was having a hard time adjusting to motherhood.My regular doctor finally recommended an HIV test. I had full-blownAIDS.
I felt like the bottom had been blown out of my world and there wasno future, so I had a lot of healing to do. Judaism became veryimportant 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 lifethrough my volunteer work. Judaism is focused on life on earth ratherthan on the rewards of the afterlife. It teaches you how to live yourlife in as holy a manner as you can. There's a beautiful biblicalquote, "I put before you life and death, therefore choose life," whichgives me strength to fight this disease.
I'm on combo therapy, and my health hasimproved in recent years. I'm living a pretty normal life, and I creditthat with having faith -- in religion or in life.
Judaism is a warm, comforting religion. Itemphasizes community, family and the joys of everyday life. Theholidays are full of celebration. I felt a real spiritual connection athigh holiday services this year; the music was so beautiful it made mecry. My family does Shabbat dinner on Fridays -- we light the candlesand say blessings over the wine and challah. As a Jew, I have a strongsense of belonging, and I want my son to have that foundation.
Pay It Forward
I've written a book about my experiencesas a Jewish woman with HIV [Penitent With Roses, University Press ofNew 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 thevalues you want to pass to your child. That was my motive: If, Godforbid, I'm not around when he's older, he can read this to find outwho 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 populationis raised Roman Catholic. My family is extremely orthodox. I went intothe seminary for a few years, training to be a priest. At 21, it becameapparent to me that the Franciscans and I were looking for differentthings: They wanted to find parish priests for the island, and I waslooking for a monastic experience. It came down to whether I was goingto submit to the authority of the Catholic Church or look for a truespiritual life for myself. Just as I was getting ready to take my vows,I left.
A Franciscan in Frisco
In 1982, I moved to San Francisco,where I finally gave myself permission to be a gay man -- a pronouncedconflict when I was with the Franciscans. But I didn't leave behind thespiritual life; I learned that being a Franciscan wasn't something Iput on and took off like a cleric's robe. It was about seeing myself ina certain way. I could live in the world as a gay man and still carryinside of me the discipline of the Franciscans.
My first partner died in '91, the sameyear I tested positive. The Catholic Church had lost its appeal, and Iturned to the East, beginning to study Buddhism and Taoism. While it'snice to think that Jesus Christ died for my salvation, I subscribe tothe Buddhist idea that you're responsible for your own salvation, andno one else can undo your karma. This meant telling my family that Ihave HIV and facing their anger. While rituals of death are integratedinto Pacific Islander society, there's also a lot of judgment about howpeople live, that only sinful, dirty people get HIV.
My current partner, Krandall, also comes from a religiousbackground, lost his partner to AIDS and has HIV. It pulls us together:We love each other knowing that we're mortal. When he put Catholicismaside, he redirected his energies to the philosophies of India. Heintroduced me to Siddha yoga, the spiritual practice of Vedanta, andJungian psychotherapy.
In the evenings, I chant with Krandall,and after we pray, we meditate. We turn off the phones, close the doorsand 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 institutioncan 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 andstrength. My statue of Kali reminds me that there are dark experiencesin the world, and that as painful as they may be, they are also amanifestation of God. My challenge is to walk through the world in allof its beauty and horror, and to stay focused on the Atman, on God, whois everything.
I've been on several different cocktails.I've had no major infections, but my immune system is vulnerable. I'vetaken a drug holiday to give my body a rest, but now I need to get backon a new combo and keep an eye on my health.
The knowledge of my mortality has allowedme to do what brings me joy. Now I paint, and Krandall and I wrote abook 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 untilsomebody hands us the envelope and says "You have AIDS" do we fullyembrace that knowledge. This awareness doesn't free us from fear,sadness or anxiety, but we can try to transform those forces to propelus forward rather than falling back into despair. This awarenessmotivates us to go on living and to keep loving.