To my knowledge, no one I personally know has HIV/AIDs or has died of the disease I’ve heard so much about for so long. I’m almost ashamed to admit it. What does it say about me that I am so insulated from real world pain that the closest I get to human suffering is a headline in the morning paper or a tease on the evening news?
It’s not that I don’t care, or wouldn’t care … if HIV/AIDS happened to someone I know. Like most people, I suppose, I reserve my emotions and my actions for when something hits close to home—as it did when my sister was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Long story short, I wasn’t sure I was the right writer for a personal blog about the Faces of HIV/AIDS exhibit sponsored by the United Methodist Global Aids Fund.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not oblivious or ignorant on the subject of HIV/AIDS, but I am not engaged in making a difference either. Intellectually, I get it, but on an emotional level, I’m not connected to the cause.
Nevertheless, with pen and notebook in hand, I took the escalator to the first floor of the convention center in search of the photo display for inspiration. The bright red ribbons draped over the white walls of the display were clues I had found my way.
The exhibit is actually titled, 30 Years/30 Lives: Documenting a Pandemic. Photographed by Kimberly Vrudny, it introduces viewers to individuals in the United States, South Africa, Thailand, and Mexico whose lives have been touched in some way by HIV/AIDS. People in the photos either have the disease themselves, care for someone who suffers from HIV/AIDS, have died from it, or are somehow engaged in a humanitarian response.
Although Kimberly’s compelling photos were reason enough to stop by the exhibit, it was the journal entries written by each of the participants that awakened my conscience. I quickly learned that HIV/AIDS is not just about the sickened body. It’s about being hungry, about being alone, about being betrayed and taken advantage of. It’s about losing children and parents and breadwinners. It’s about loss … always loss.
I made it a point to read each and every story. Several stood out.
Take participant 06 from Guguletu, South Africa. She lives with her daughter and grandson. Both have HIV.
“I do not know which is better,” she writes, “death or struggle. I am grateful that they are still alive, but not being able to know how to help makes me feel like an outsider, watching my children die day after day.”
Then there’s participant 21 from Capetown, South Africa, a mother who wonders if she is cursed because she has lost two daughters to HIV and has a third daughter that is also infected.
“I would like to send a message,” she journals. “Accept your children and support them. They need you as a parent to give them hope.”
There are others. Participant 23, whose one wish is to have healthy children; participant 25, who was ushered into prostitution at the age of 11 and thinks no one will ever love her; and participant 09, who has lost three of his children to HIV/AIDS.
Participant 03 is a public policy student from Minneapolis who advocates for those living with disabilities, and says that HIV/AIDS presented him with the “gift” of blindness.
“I’m thankful,” he writes, “for without my past, I would cease to be who I am today. HIV/AIDS is not the end of the world.”
Oprah calls periods of recognition, stirring, and awareness “aha moments.” Did I have an “aha moment?”
In truth, the whole of General Conference has been one long “aha” moment for me—from realizations about hunger and human rights, to malaria and now HIV/AIDS, I’ve re-awakened to issues that have laid dormant in my conscience for a long time. Here in Tampa, I’ve been reminded that many people have stories that are much more complex and weighted in pain than my own.
I may not be able to “connect” with every cause, but I can pay attention. I can be well-informed and share the facts. I can wear the red ribbon on my lapel and in my heart.
And I can invite you to visit 30 Years/30 Lives: Documenting a Pandemic exhibit in the lower level of the convention center. It’s the least I can do.
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