What World AIDS Day Means to me: a personal view by our Minister

For World AIDS Day, 1 December, Waverley Care, the Edinburgh-based AIDS charity, held Community Gatherings around Scotland, to reflect and remember with music, film, speakers and refreshments.

The Inverness gathering was held at St Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral and led by Bishop Mark Strange.

Old High St Stephen’s Minister, the Rev Peter W Nimmo, chairs the Advisory Group for Waverley Care’s Highlands Argyll and Bute project. He gave this very personal talk on ‘What World AIDS Day means to me’.

I’ve been asked to say a few words about what World AIDS day means to me. So I’d like to start from a personal experience.

This summer I was lucky enough to be granted study leave in the United States of America. At the end of the time, my family joined me, and we travelled firstly to Canada, where two of my father’s sisters have lived for many years, marrying Canadians and bringing up their families.

One of those I was looking forward to meeting was my cousin John Plater, who lived on a small farm a few hours north of Toronto with his wife Karen and his mother, my aunt Margaret. Indeed, we went to the farm and stayed there for a few days, but sadly I was unable to see John, Karen or Margaret, for just before we arrived in Canada, my cousin John was admitted to intensive care in Toronto, and on July 28- just a few days after we had to leave Canada- he died, from complications caused by HIV and Hepatitis C. He was 45, about a year younger than I am.

John, sadly, was no stranger to hospitals. He’d been diagnosed in early childhood with haemophilia, the disease in which your blood doesn’t clot properly. He was fortunate in that it was just about that time that a treatment for the disorder had been developed, and so he began to receive clotting agents, which are manufactured from blood products, which allowed him, and others of his generation, to live far fuller lives than previous haemophiliacs. However, in the 1980s the Canadian blood supply system became contaminated the HIV virus, and John was one of those who were infected.

Just a few days ago, at a gala event in Ottawa for World AIDS day, John’s widow and his mother received on his behalf a Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee medal posthumously awarded to him for excellence in the field of HIV and AIDS in Canada. This recognition by the Canadian AIDS society was honouring one of their number who had made a tremendous contribution to helping those with blood-borne viruses in Canada. For John was never one for self-pity. Qualifying as a lawyer, he became one of the leaders in the battle in Canada to uncover what had gone wrong with the Canadian blood supply, and to ensure that the victims were compensated. In their tribute to him, the Canadian AIDS Society said,

John was a lawyer by training and an activist by nature. He was open about his HIV positive status since the mid 1980s. For more than 25 years John provided dedicated and valiant leadership to improve the health of all of us. With his quiet determination and legal training, John opened many doors and was committed to improving the lives of all of us, particularly the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS, HEP C, Co- infection and Hemophilia. He was a champion for all and opposed the criminalization of HIV.

According to the newsletter of the Canadian Hemophilia Society (CHS):

[In the early 1990’s] the federal government, at the urging of John and other advocates from the CHS, instituted a public inquiry on the blood system… John played a prominent role in submissions to the Commission of Inquiry, which ultimately recommended a reform of the blood system and a no-fault compensation scheme for those injuries caused through the blood system…

 

John’s wife, Karen, stated during a radio interview: “John didn’t really become angry or bitter about being infected with this, but he said ‘How can I make life better for people who were infected and how can I make sure that this never happens again?'” Karen also recalled that John often said, ‘Anyone who is infected with HIV or hepatitis C is a victim. Anyone who has to deal with this disease has all the same issues. It doesn’t matter how we’re infected- we’re all people and we all have rights and we all have lives that we want to live.’

Our family in Scotland heard the news about John becoming infected by AIDS when AIDS was new, back in the 1980s. It was at a point in my life when I was beginning to think through faith, the Church and theology, a process which was finally to lead me into the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. I remember being taken aback at that time when one prominent minister in the Church of Scotland said that he though the AIDS epidemic could be a judgement by God, particularly on gay people and those with a promiscuous sex life. I immediately dismissed this as a foolish and cruel idea, since the only person I knew with AIDS was my John- who was, among other things, a Baptist lay preacher. What kind of God who choose to punish the world in such an indiscriminate manner? It made me think about who God is, what God is like, what sort of a God did I believe in? And it taught me about how cruel, thoughtless and judgmental religious people could sometimes be.

For Christians, God is found above all in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus died at the hands of the Roman occupiers of Israel, having been accused by the religious authorities of the day of blasphemy. He was innocent, yet he died a painful and linger death, nailed to a cross. Some Christians, as they have reflected on what the cross might mean, have understood Jesus death as in some sense a punishment. We are all sinners, the theory goes, and we deserve to be punished by God. But we don’t receive that punishment, because in some way, all the punishment we deserve has been borne by Jesus instead. St Paul put it this way: ‘We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… while we were still sinners Christ died for us… [so] we will be saved through him from the wrath of God’ (Romans 5.1,6,9). Now the implication of this, I think, is that we Christians cannot any longer speak of God inflicting punishment on us or anyone. Jesus, according to this theory, has taken all the punishment there is going to be. So today, as a pastor, when someone asks me if they are suffering because God is punishing them, I have to say to them. ‘God isn’t punishing you, God doesn’t punish anyone. That all passed when Jesus died on the cross’.

But I have also come to understand that theorising about the cross only takes us so far. Much more powerful, for me now, is the power of the story, and how it affects our imagination. In John’s Gospel, we read of how, just before he was arrested and condemned to death, Jesus showed his disciples how they were to live:

[D]uring supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

 

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’…

 

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord- and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

(John 13.2b-9, 12-15)

That story shows us the sort of person we have to deal with in Jesus. He is my Lord and Teacher, but chooses to be my servant. And if, as I believe, Jesus Christ tells us what God is like, then it turns out that God is not angry, or vindictive, or wanting to punish us. God wants to serve us, God wants us to let him meet our needs. God is a God who would, if we give him the chance, wash our feet.

Some Christians wash one another’s feet as a spiritual exercise. American author Chris Glaser writes about how he done so on retreats. But then he writes:

I cannot read this story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet without thinking of a man with AIDS who refused to remove his shoes and socks for a similar exercise during a retreat in Chicago. His feet were infected with an unsightly fungus. Years later I took a friend with AIDS to the doctor and saw such infected feet for myself. His feet hurt too much to drive, and when I saw them in the doctor’s office I was horrified, wondering how he could possibly recover from the swelling, discoloration, and flaking skin. It was as close to leprosy as I could imagine. At the same time, his vulnerability endeared him to me.

(Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: Year C, p9)

Glaser reflects on how the disciples made themselves vulnerable to Jesus by removing their sandals, and allowing him to wash their feet. But the disciple Peter at first refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet. How could his Master and Teacher stoop to acting like a servant, a slave, towards him? But Jesus says to him, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’: in other words, you have to allow me to serve you, Peter. You have to let me touch you and care for you in this most intimate way, or you simply won’t understand what I’m about. Glaser goes on to comment:

A friend with HIV said that if he were to get sick, eh would go away from his family and friends to die, not wanting to burden them. “You don’t understand,” I said, rather bluntly. “Allowing us to care for you would be a very great gift.” Anyone who has cared for a sick child, an ailing parent, a beloved pet, a dear friend, or a dying partner knows this. While not wanting to romanticize the experience- there are times you hate it and just want to get away- when true love is present, God is there in the giving and receiving of tender loving care. Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est (where there is love, God is there).

What does World AIDS Day mean to me? This year it means something different to me, and it will do from now on. For on this day, many of us here are remembering those we knew and loved and who were taken from them by this terrible disease, and today remember John. I remember how he made me think about what I believed about God and Christ. And as I know that across the world, there are so many people still suffering, not just disease, but prejudice and judgmentalism as well, I’ll think of his response to his disease, and the challenges it makes: ‘How can I make life better for people who were infected and how can I make sure that this never happens again?’