Novel? The Echo of AIDS in Our Time of Coronavirus
My personal experience of end times and revelations as a daughter and an activist.
Postscript: I wrote this piece with the urgency that only a pandemic can produce (few cures have proven effective against my writing procrastination but required isolation during Coronavirus seems to work).
I had been intending to write a memoir — and maybe I still will — but for now I offer simply the following “Blurt” — an ember of the unwritten memoir’s molten core. What follows is part true story for sentimental and spiritual types, part-suggestion pamphlet for the up-and-coming progressive, and part-motivational juice for the shovel-ready activist.
Nothing says “time is of the essence” like a global pandemic. And as my friend Evelyn has often schooled me, “tomorrow is promised to no one.” To that end I am already finding some peace in having blurted this brief message to you.
May God bless ‘this fragile earth, our island home.’
If not for Coronavirus I’d be in my (nonexistent) Recreational Vehicle driving through New Mexico today. I was going to travel in style — I had reserved an RV with indoor plumbing (despite the discouragement of friends who doubted my ability to manage “you know, the pipes”). My plan was to spend two months out west visiting sacred places and people — and writing. Writing doesn’t come easily to me, but I was hopeful that the silence of the Rockies and a shower-positive RV would do the trick.
My expedition was going to be generously supported as a professional sabbatical from my organization. I had been planning the trip since turning 50 — when the following revelations had become clear: first, that I needed (finally) to write about my experience with the AIDS crisis in which my father died in 1989. And second, that in preparing to pass the baton of justice-leadership to a next generation the time is now to use my voice boldly about the perilous inequities of our time (in the good faith that even if not mine, then in yours, justice will roll down). Those were my twin middle age revelations.
So there I’d be today in my RV — cruising by one sunlit vista after another, marveling at the beauty of the gods’ earthly garments. But then came Coronavirus — and now we are all marooned. And not only are we marooned but the culprit is a visitor bearing an eerie resemblance the other plague of AIDS — which was my most formative early adult experience. (I’m mincing words here, when you read “formative” : think ‘explosive’ ‘traumatic’ …‘not good’).
The nonprofit from which I was planning a sabbatical is a well-known Washington DC-based organization which provides housing and services for homeless and low-income women. I’ve been there for nearly 17 years. I’m in love with our mission and the village of people who ensoul it. We’ve made progress on our mission. And we have a long way to go.
My story below is ultimately that of how I came into a life of social justice work. It is about my experience of the AIDS crisis (with a detour into religion, you are forewarned) and how that awakened my passions as an advocate for ‘Justice’ writ large. It is the story of how a heart-breaking crisis in my own early life was the necessary spark for a heart-opening awakening to injustice and activism.
And the aging activist in me feels admanant that we need to be listening to the echo of the AIDS Crisis. That was a raging fire of nightmarish disease which was ignored by our federal government, which overwhelmed an unprepared healthcare system, and which was blamed on a minority group. Hear familiarities? (if you’re tempted to question that last one: since the US President called Coronavirus ‘the Chinese Virus’, we’ve been reading articles like recent one “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked — Chinese Americans Fear For Their Safety.”).
Coronavirus is yet another wake-up call like AIDS. Alarming us to the sickening inequities buried in our failing foundation and tangled in our fraying social fabric. I would point to the elegant thesis of Eduardo Porter who writes in The New York Times that:
“the reason behind America’s decision to let so many people keep sinking is because the people who are sinking are often black and brown. … Maybe the coronavirus outbreak will shock us into understanding just how much damage racial hostility — contempt, bigotry, mistrust, fear — has inflicted upon American society. Big crises,I’m told, often bring people together. But the challenge is hardly trivial. For starters, we must build an understanding of what it is to be American that includes everyone.”
Before I tell you my personal story of the AIDS crisis, I want to say that way out here at age 53 I now believe that people can have two kinds of awakenings — if we’re lucky: a “personal suffering awakening” and a “social justice awakening.” To me these are a twin-star system — dependent on one another’s magnetism. The first being the deep experience of one’s fragile humanity and the inevitability of the frighteningly wide range of things we are guaranteed to feel and experience. The second — a social justice awakening — is not guaranteed nor sometimes is it desired. It is that mysterious impulse of our hearts, in their brokenness and imperfection, to find common humanity with others — to reach beyond the usual gravity of our biases to see our sameness. It’s hard to have a social justice awakening and not get active. Once we are awake to issues of structural racism, privilege, interpersonal justice, etc. we are prompted to act — perhaps only on a daily personal level, or perhaps in a grand way — both matter, both are needed.
Those I believe are our opportunities for personal and social justice awakenings. (And as I think happens for many, mine came in a pair.)
I want to tell a micro-life story and feel like I’m holding a tangled friendship bracelet — (I don’t want to neglect you, other strands!) so note, the story below only pulls on a single thread of my DNA — the one belonging to my father. And me.
Fresh from graduating from their Missouri College, my parents, a central-casting-delivered young midwestern couple, got married. They moved to New York where my father went to seminary and became an ordained minister. However, all along he had been hiding the dark secret of being gay. It was the late 1960’s and at not yet age 30 he took the bold step of coming out — he divorced my mother, moved into his own place in the Village, and left his beloved church. He knew so well the teaching of his faith that it was sinful to be gay, and he agreed with it — but he was unable to deny the siren of jubilation washing over Christopher Street as “come out! come out!” was chanted at the first Gay Pride Parades.
My mother certainly deserves the credit for raising me, but my father was a figure of outsized desire in my childhood. He would retreat for long periods, yet I found his re-entrances glamorous. It was however difficult and sad to be around him — he seemed imprisoned with self-doubt. And then at only 21 I found myself caring for him in the middle of a hot summer in a hot city that was burning with a plague.
I spent many weekends with him in New York including at the end when he was in a Christian homeless shelter. I took care of him in “semi-hospital” settings when we were told the actual hospital didn’t have enough beds. I washed his body with alcohol to cool fevers. I cleaned his diarrhea. I talked with him during the psychosis and dementia. I carried his 6’2” frame from bed to wheelchair. I tried to trim his beard.
For my father, self-acceptance was never to come before he died. The God of his imagination was never big enough or crazy enough to love him as he was made — tall and handsome and also gay. In his final years he turned his award-winning preaching skills on himself as he travelled the country speaking to church audiences about his triumphant return to Jesus in the face of retributive death from AIDS. A sinner ‘confessing live.’ Many people came to watch.
My father the Reverend Stribling died of AIDS on September 6th, 1989 (I like to imagine that the very moment he died God whispered into his ear as he was carried through blinding Light — “Nothing wrong with you, man.”). He was 48 years old. Also, all of his friends died too (and I have especially missed you, Peter and Jim).
There was a service for my father in Iowa where his sister lives. Two of my cousins sang a song that included the lyric “imagine reaching out and touching the Hand Celestial” — I loved that line and their voices together. There was communion and an “altar call” — a chance to repent and return to Jesus. I could be wrong but I figured this call was offered for my benefit. (In such a moment as this what young androgynous leftist lesbian with a (stylish) tomboy haircut wouldn’t want to throw herself at the cross in a small church in the middle of Iowa?) Though I appreciated the gesture, no altar call would be for me because mine has been a counter-inheritance — the absolute knowledge that being gay isn’t “sinful” in the eyes of any and all Gods that have or do or will exist.
After that I became an AIDS activist. I did the marching, the Patient-Buddy volunteering, the Ram Dass training on Death and Dying, the theatre groups (I know, you’re thinking: “the theatre groups?”– recall, this is gay activism).
Life as I knew it was forever changed. In the years ahead the ghost of grief became my guide and would ever after keep opening my eyes to injustice everywhere. I knew that just as “any God would have nothing against the gays” equally so any Creator or Spirit which animates our Being cares neither to perceive nor measure a difference in the value or worth of any human life. (This was my social justice awakening.)
Background: Written on our Hearts
I grew up in an Episcopal Church and sometimes the glint of a lifted chalice and the words “the Gifts of God for the People of God” can still make my limbs weak and my eyes water. Since I can remember being in church often sparks a warm ballooning in my chest which feels like, well…“joy.” I love to kneel and close my eyes in the pew after communion and listen to the shuffle of feet beside me and the words over and over “the Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” I love Ash Wednesday and the priest’s thumb sliding an inky cross between my eyes and reminding me of my mortality.
But I don’t consider myself Christian-Only. I’m a seeker — deliriously happy in sacred ritual settings and with a hunger to know about others’ pathways to the Divine/the Sacred/the unnamed. I think of myself as “faith-queer”…a little off-beat and with an ever-evolving sense of spirit, mystery, and meaning.
Despite my appetite for variety in spiritual experience, I can’t resist my roots — neither the Anglican ritual nor the story of Jesus. (The incense-swingin’ high holy days slay me like a good Broadway show every time.) And I do believe that the (Revolutionary) Jesus is one path to the Sacred. Maybe one among many, but likely the only one my father ever knew. To me this is a clue into how (in God’s Good Name) this terrible thing could have happened — the self-inflicted public-shaming of my father — who was a good man, caught in a plague.
My father once told me that he knew he was gay when he was only six. A Preacher’s son and Preacher’s grandson growing up in Bible Belt Missouri, it wouldn’t escape him from an early age that it was ‘Satan got hold of him.’ Nonetheless, I believe he did feel a true “Calling” to ministry. Maybe like me he felt the wind of the Sacred just standing in church and the tiny seismic movement of the floor when the cross was carried by during the Processional? And maybe like me he loved hearing the command “to love the Lord Jesus with all your heart, mind, and soul… and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Even perhaps he felt in love with Jesus! as professed by many in his evangelical tradition. And yet I wonder if he still worried when he saw the Cross that it was only his evil ways that loved the beautifully sculpted body of a near-naked man in Perfect Submission.
Something I wish I could say to you, Dad:
I can see now why, when you knew time was short, you would return to the One you knew. Jesus, the Lamb, a promised sacrifice for your sins. You belonged to him, loved him, you loved the Blood in the Cup, loved the Passion.
But you returned to the same “Jesus” you knew — and while I didn’t go to seminary I dare say I think you missed a basic Jesus point… you know, about how he loves the whores and the lepers? Both of which you thought you were. And so what if you were? Isn’t that in fact the lesson of that achingly beautiful man dying young and as a criminal? That he was with God, and by extension so were the whores and the lepers who belonged as others did to him, were beloved as others were by him, forgiven as others were by him, and never — never — forsaken by him. All of us equal in his eyes. Equally sinners and equally saints. Equally human.
But also, Dad — what if you weren’t a whore or a leper? What if you were a normal young gay man caught in a plague? Maybe in death you brought yourself to the God you loved as someone worthy, someone good, someone forgiven. Maybe in death you brought yourself to the God you loved as a good man, in perfect submission.
Just maybe, Dad.
BACK TO THE PART ABOUT HOW I’M NOT IN AN RV
Part of what I was after on my sabbatical trip, where I’d write a memoir and seek the Spirit in solitude was to satisfy some of the “wildness” of me. Pull the curtain down on any halo act I have and just play for the audience I want — with gusto. Write forcefully from my vulnerable and messy heart and speak out with conviction about what I see as the perilous injustices of our day. (And a list of personal “wilds” like: Leave my laundry in a pile for over three days. Leave an email un-responded to. Wear the same shirt two days in a row. You know.)
I have spent a considerable amount of time packaging the self that I present — and being as presentable as can be. (Mostly.) Now as I get older and as I watch the events of our time, I’m not so sure I want to be, or can afford to be, so presentable anymore. This pandemic or the next one or just age — I only have so much time here to influence the things I care about. (And as we learned in the ACT UP AIDS Demonstration days — where does “presentable” get you when you’re in a plague?)
To follow this sense of calling I have to ‘stir the waters’ in the service of justice, I sense I have to be more “out” about my own awakenings. Out and candid and about my personal experiences — not only with the AIDS crisis but with a life’s worth of being human — being flawed, being wounded, being healed. Out and candid as an anti-racism ally and anti-poverty activist, as an advocate against injustice. Out and zealous about my convictions and candid about the personal experiences which inform them. (Take that, “presentable”!)
What’s been brewing under this new plague forever is the disease of structural racial and economic inequity and victimization. A lot of other bigotries are buried in there like so many AIDS victims, but my belief is that nothing is more essential at present to the long-term survival of our nation than correcting the enormous gaps in individual health, wealth and welfare. (And by the way, what is the one percent even doing with it? For what could they possibly use it? (and read Anand Giridharadas’ book Winners Take All before you’re tempted to tell them to donate it…) Related questions: why must money translate to political power? here in 2020 why are we not governed by more people of color, young people, gay people, women people, trans people, disabled people? Like, you know, America.)
Even though all humans are susceptible to this new pathogen not all humans will be equally affected. The poor and people of color will bear the brunt of this disaster. And if history is any guide, discrimination will be tempted out of its shadows and offer blame as a social salve. Just weeks into the crisis and we are already watching this racial data disparity emerge. (Another echo of AIDS which remains an under-reported American crisis, now mostly affecting communities of color.) These things have happened in one natural disaster after another and illuminate why racism/poverty are our ultimate iniquity and the greatest threat towards our safety, welfare and survival as a country.
And the hard news for many is that we will not charity our way out of this peril— the roots of our troubles are far deeper than can be repaired by generosity alone. (And also as my friend Sister Simone Campbell says, “there is no Charity before there is Justice.”) You and I can give our money our time our love our lives to the nonprofits we know and trust and as much as I want to promise you we can reverse this reality and the ongoing trend — we cannot. We can ameliorate. We can postpone. We can accompany. Sometimes … we can solve actual problems. But relative to the need we cannot keep up.
We’re not keeping up with deepening inequality and we are doubly jeopardizing citizens of color. Solutions from charitable organizations are possible and yet still do not match the pace of need. Solutions on a large scale will come when income starts to be properly balanced to housing costs in every part of our country, so people (as in: all peoples) have choice about where to live and the ability to live where they work. Solutions on a large scale will come when every vector of our economy is persuaded that it is in their best interest to participate in fighting poverty and racism — no matter their motivation, financial or moral or both. Business, faith, government, philanthropy, the civic sector and those with lived experience most especially — we need everyone at this table.
Solutions on a large scale will be here when every individual has access to basic human rights including housing, healthcare, vocation, income, community, Dignity.
I love the line from Ezekiel in the Bible: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Your “new heart” is the stuff of Awakenings. Your new heart is made from the breaking of your old heart which of course is often deeply painful. And sometimes it is also more. Sometimes it leads us to a new love for the needful world around us. That’s when the wrenching pain of a broken heart can seem to have some kind of small and thrilling point to it.
I think of a social justice awakening as feeling like that thing we did as kids where someone pretends to crack an egg joke on your head — whack and drip. It’s both sudden and lingering. It’s when we realize our prior ignorance and complicities. It’s when we’re activated to change the injustices that we see today. It’s when a portal in our heart awakens to the fact that there is no “other” and that all suffering is ours together. And the thrilling part is when we begin to imagine a world better than what we see before us today. And we see that we ourselves could actually influence the change. Take a big role or small one, that doesn’t matter — you matter.
(Your ‘new heart’ will be the one that’s on fire.)
With all of the above said, I invoke all of you who survive this current pandemic to please:
- Let all evil economic structures fall and let new forms of justice grow in their place. I can’t tell you how — read other articles for that! But I know there are ways. (My 22-year-old daughter quickly harks back to the ‘original’ Plague and carries on up to the New Deal and asks “why this moment in history cannot end with a new economy and Guaranteed Universal Vocation and/or Income; major movement to a green energy providing massive number of jobs…”). (Clearly) You kids’ll know what to do…
May this dark time be used purposefully for the creation of more Light.
- Come out, Come out, wherever you are! If you’re ready now like I was then, let this plague shape you like AIDS did me. Have a social justice awakening. Start close to home wherever you find your personal suffering and find empathy and move on from there. Then get your game face on and your reputation dirty. Speak out about whatever it is you care about most — racism, poverty, mass incarceration, climate justice, AIDS — we need you to do this.
May this time of trial ignite and keep our hearts on wild fire for justice.
- Expand the number of leaders willing to claim motivation via their spiritual or moral conscience. We need these leaders to speak out and help us adhere to a primary morality of social justice and exhort us to its attempted construction. I don’t believe these need to be traditionally trained spiritual leaders. I consider myself a “leader who is spiritual” and my decisions are formed by the compass-like sensation of a ‘Higher Power’ and the existence of true Justice. If you’re a leader of spiritual conscience, take the leap to acknowledge this publicly and explain its relevance.
May we raise our voices of conscience together, ever unafraid.
- Start or be part of a ‘movement’. What’s different about a movement? Let go of the structure and unwieldy agendas so you can run fast and stay passionate. Remember your history and your ancestors and be guided by those lessons. Let leadership emerge naturally within accountable and generous group behavior. Stay nimble: be a scrappy activist one day and a negotiating advocate the next.
May we not be too presentable.
I thank you, friend, for making it this far. And I leave you with a balm from Psalm 30: “weeping may stay the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Activism changed the course of AIDS in the United States (watch “How to Survive a Plague” while you’re socially isolating during this one) — we can make a difference. A broken heart set mine on fire for action in service of the Spirit — we can be healed. Weeping may stay the night, but joy comes in the morning.
May we be healed. May we seek to heal.
Below is a page from my father the Reverend Tom Stribling’s autobiography “Love Broke Through” which was published in 1990 shortly after he died. Page 154 shares a beautiful letter that my father received in 1988 from his friend Father William — assuring him of God’s abiding love. Page 155 offers up a bit of my father’s molten core memoir-y sediment:
Stribling, Thomas, Love Broke Through, Zondervan Press, 1990
 The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 The Episcopal Church, page 370.
 March 24, 2020, Section A, New York Times: “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Safety.”
 March 28, 2020, Race/Related Newsletter, New York Times: “COVID19 and the Collapse of America’s Welfare State.”
 The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 The Episcopal Church, page 338.
 Giridharadas, A. (2019). Winners Take All. Vintage.
 Holy Bible, New King James Version; Ezekiel 36:26
 Holy Bible, New King James Version; Psalms, Psalm 30
 “How to Survive a Plague” 2012 American Documentary Film; Sundance Selects/IFC; Directed by David France