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Honor the Past, Because It’s Still Out There: Memories of the AIDS Task Force by All Souls members

Launching the AIDS Task Force -

I remember Forrest’s impassioned sermon about AIDS in 1985 (see below), and his call for the members of the congregation to become involved. At the time, AIDS was relatively new. There were many questions about the disease and a lot of fear. Daily there were obituaries of young men dying from the disease. I remember hearing about people being fired from their jobs, or being evicted from their apartments, because they had AIDS or were thought to have AIDS. No one seemed to know exactly how the disease was transferred or how to treat it.

I became involved early on in the All Souls AIDS Task Force and three particular activities stand out in my mind:

The subway/bus poster campaign. The committee fine-tuned the language and layout endlessly, playing with each word and the sentence structure. Carefully we agreed on the three signs for the campaign. Then I remember going to Forrest’s office to present the three - it felt like we were going into the principal’s office. We entered with some trepidation - would he like what we had developed? He was delighted and the campaign was launched. It was exhilarating to see it on the subway and notice people looking at them.

I remember the public education series held in the chapel. There were several talks focused on specific topics. In particular, I remember Tom Standard from LAMDA legal defense came and talked about some of their legal battles helping people with AIDS. I also remember all the logistics of scheduling speakers, getting the Church opened on a week night and one fond memory of the Greenberg Bakery graciously donating wonderful cookies for the receptions because we had no budget.

Lastly I remember a Halloween party at the pediatric AIDS ward at New York Hospital. Some of the children appeared healthy but others were quite ill. I was in charge of a bean bag toss game and at one moment I became overcome with emotion when I looked at these children and thought about their future. I was on the verge of losing it when I told myself to get it together. I jumped back into the moment of the game and told some 10-year-old to quit cheating and get behind the line. The games continued, the children had a wonderful afternoon and we handed out a ton of Halloween candy.

~ Brent Feigenbaum, AIDS Task Force Member.

I remember being a bit in awe of Chuck Weiss (one of the chairs of the task force) - his presence, articulateness, sense of purpose. I felt important just being a part of his task force, and he had a remarkable way of making you want to work just a little harder with each project.

It was a hard time then in New York City and it was scary. But we did a lot. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

~ Karen Himmelreich, AIDS Task Force Member

I joined All Souls because it had an AIDS Task Force. In my grief over losing a friend to AIDS, I felt a call to action and was pleased to learn that the extraordinary church I had begun visiting had a newly formed Task Force. In those years of crisis and panic in New York City, it seemed to me there was a pressing need for a public awareness campaign to be led from a compassionate perspective. The intellectual rigor and unbounded heart of All Souls made it a perfect candidate for leading such an effort. The AIDS Task Force enthusiastically embraced the idea . . . but how to do it? One night I was talking about the idea of a transit system campaign with a good friend who worked in advertising. On the spot, he volunteered to do the copy for the ad campaign and said he thought he could get the assistance of a colleague for the artwork. Thus Richard Solomon, copywriter, and Katherine Ippoliti, graphic artist, signed on to the project pro bono. Their sensitive words and drawings, along with the slogan ATF member Peter Staley contributed for one of the posters, became a striking, groundbreaking public awareness campaign in all NYC buses and trains.

One Sunday morning during that time I boarded the train in the Village for the long ride up to All Souls. Upon entering the almost deserted subway car, I looked up to see one of our posters. Smiling, I sat under it. In rushed a mother and young daughter, who sat opposite me. As we pulled away, the girl looked up at the poster, read it aloud, then asked her mother what it meant. I held my breath. The mother began very sensitively explaining it to her daughter. So . . . it worked just as we had hoped! That very poster started a family conversation, just as I was certain in that moment that other posters had also prompted conversations and ruminations. The posters’ quiet dignity and unequivocal statements had made their case—and All Souls had taken a stand in the heart of the storm.

~ Margaret Blagg, AIDS Task Force Member

Engaging in the Challenge

Looking back at the founding of the AIDS Task Force, I’m struck by how different the world of 1985 looks compared to that of today. 1985 was much closer in time to the “riots” at the Stonewall Inn than that year is to 2010. Health insurance coverage for domestic partners was virtually non-existent and still was regarded as a radical idea even in liberal New York City. In the mid-1980’s, some politicians proposed quarantining those with AIDS behind barbed wire and public hysteria led a number of schools to exclude infected children.

When Forrest Church announced the formation of the AIDS Task Force to the congregation, he discussed the bigotry against gays he had grown up with and his gradual efforts to overcome his own prejudice. Having just started attending All Souls in my mid-20’s a few weeks before Forrest’s sermon, his call to action made a big impression on me. At the time, I had not had much, if any, experience with persons living with AIDS. I joined the AIDS Task Force and Forrest Church at one of its first meetings. It was the first group I joined at All Souls. There was a lot of ignorance and irrationality surrounding the disease and HIV in the early years. The Task Force sponsored programs with representative from the New York City Health Department and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to educate the congregation on how the disease was (and was not) spread and precautions that could be taken. The Task Force led blood drives to counteract the ill-founded fear that one could contract the disease by donating blood.

Within the Task Force, I recall debates about what the group’s priorities should be, given the urgency that in this period there was not an effective treatment for the disease, and AIDS was commonly viewed as leading to death within a short time. One of the messages on the subway posters was, “Treat people with AIDS with kindness. It won’t kill you.” Consistent with taking a religious approach to the AIDS crisis, rather than just a political approach, members of the Task Force visited hospital patients who were infected with HIV. I recall visiting Bellevue Hospital and St. Clare’s Hospital on West 52nd Street. St. Clare’s had one of the largest wards specializing in the care of persons living with AIDS. At the time, the combination of the stigma attached both to the disease and the groups most commonly infected, irrational fear of contagion, and the grim prognosis meant that some patients had few, if any, visitors. Our lay ministry was simple. It consisted primarily of our presence – church members sitting on the edge of a bed, a few minutes of conversation, a kind hand on a stranger’s arm.

~ Arthur Hopkirk, AIDS Task Force Member

Chuck Weiss was looking for volunteers to go to St Luke’s Hospital to visit people who were hospitalized with AIDS. At the time, people with AIDS were in most cases shunned by their friends and family. Everyone was afraid of “catching AIDS” through some casual contact or even speaking with someone who had AIDS or was HIV positive. So when a person was hospitalized with full blown AIDS medical problems, they were basically abandoned by their loved ones. Chuck was quite passionate about this issue and through the Task Force set up a visiting program at St. Luke’s Hospital. It was very daunting, but I signed on as a volunteer and went many times to the hospital. Chuck was right - no one came to visit these people. They were basically abandoned and isolated.

When we volunteers would get to the hospital, there was a sign-in notebook. There would be notes written by the volunteers from our Task Force about which people to visit and who really needed some extra help in eating or just conversation. I remember one note written by one of our volunteers which said that one of the patients was having trouble eating and the nurses weren’t that much help. So I went to his room. I have never seen anyone so ill, so frail - and so alone. I tried to feed him some yogurt and he just kept spitting it up. I think he passed away later that evening. All the people we visited passed away. One young woman was especially tragic - she had small children and desperately wanted to talk with someone. She was in and out of the hospital so I visited with her several times.

I thought the work the volunteers did at the hospital was very important and I was proud of the Task Force in setting that up, and of being a small part of it. People forget how AIDS was looked at then, when fear was so prevalent. Chuck and the others who set up this volunteer program really were able to put fear aside and respond to the people who were hospitalized in a very thoughtful and caring way.

~ Kay Coulter, AIDS Task Force Member

Growing Up with the AIDS Task Force

I am a firm believer in the story we often share about how Unitarian Universalists have the power to make a difference in bending the arc of the universe towards justice far beyond what our numbers would have us dare to imagine. I heard this story growing up, and what is more important, I witnessed it.

Remember the early to middle eighties... the AIDS epidemic broke out full force and one of its epicenters happened to be New York City where I grew up. The news programs began to fill with stories of the spread of the disease. People were dying and no cure was in sight. My mother, Inez, a registered nurse, was taking care of some of them at the hospital where she worked. I also knew some members of my congregation, All Souls, had gotten sick and wondered how much longer they would live.

Friends at school who were nervous and largely uninformed about the mechanisms of the disease spread lots of misinformation, such as the “fact” that you could get AIDS by sitting on a subway seat or by being gay. I would try to correct them having access to more accurate information from my mother, but when people found out she had contact with people who had AIDS, they would taunt me saying it was a matter of time before I’d catch it. Of course, whenever the topic came up, it was always in hushed tones. There was a sense that HIV and AIDS were taboo topics, something to be embarrassed about and not part of polite conversation.

Then one day, I remember sitting in a service, when our minister, Forrest Church, broke through the silence and the whispers. In a very loud and clear voice, he spoke of the importance of learning accurate information about HIV and AIDS and the importance of sharing that information with the world. We learned that our congregation would be launching the first AIDS task force in the country. Its mission would be to raise awareness about the disease and to reach out to those in our city who were suffering from it. He also remarked that church was indeed a place to take on the taboo, especially when it is a pressing issue of our time.

Several adults, including my mother, responded to his call to form a task force and went to work. Of all of their projects, the one I remember the best was when we created and paid for huge advertisements – big, long posters that were hung on the side of city buses.

After this, I felt far less alone when I tried to correct my friends at school about their misinformation. I knew I was part of a larger movement that would seek to meet the men and women who suffered with AIDS with dignity and compassion, and thereby preserving our own. Ultimately, efforts like the bus campaigns did indeed make a difference. Slowly, more and more people became knowledgeable about how the disease was spread and that it bore no preferences as far as gender, race, or sexual orientation. People also learned how to protect themselves, and how to live in community with one another without fear.

~ The Rev. Alison Miller, Morristown Unitarian Fellowship

Reaching Into the Community

In 1987 I was getting off a bus on my way to work. In March of the year before I had been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. I was shocked but not surprised by the diagnosis, but I was both shocked and surprised at what I saw that day just over my head. Near the door on a bus there was etched a face that I saw as my own. The legend next to it read: “AIDS is a human disease; it requires a humane response.”

I was surprised because it was the first time--five years into an epidemic that had destroyed my world--the first time I had seen the word AIDS anywhere in any public place. Two seconds later the surprise part was gone, because there at the bottom of the advertisement was the information that the ad was sponsored by this church.

Years later I came here to hear the choir sing. I never left.

~ Joe Miller, AIDS Task Force Chair, from an opening of a service Nov. 30, 1997

I arrived at All Souls as a minister in January, 1987. The work of the AIDS Task Force was already well underway. The subway posters reflected a real need. My own ministry during the next few years included doing far too many memorial services for individuals who had died of AIDS, building bridges between the gay community and communities of color, and extending the message on those powerful posters.

Moreover, the AIDS Task Force set the model for the engagement of All Souls with other urgent needs in the city. Learning from the model of direct service, education, public witness, and public advocacy made us more effective when we later worked on issues of homelessness, housing, and children in poverty. Forrest and I were able to share some of that model and experience in our book, A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, which has now sold more than 100,000 copies.

The influence spread further than we can ever know, and it helped to deepen the compassion and understanding of many souls - indeed, all souls involved. I am so grateful to have been a small part of the AIDS Task Force effort.

~ Rev. John Buehrens, UU Church of Needham

Supporting the AIDS Task Force

Musica Viva, the concert series at All Souls which features our choir and orchestra, played a key role in the funding of the newly-formed AIDS Task Force.

As part of Musica Viva’s outreach commitment, the choir, soloist and orchestra donated their time to present a special evening concert. The proceeds of the concert, given to the Task Force, paid entirely for the printing and placement of the magnificent posters throughout the New York subway system. It is most gratifying that music was a major part of this worthy project.

~ Walter Klauss, Minister of Music at All Souls until 1915

Dealing with Loss

While serving as an intern at All Souls, I experienced the death of three close friends to AIDS. I found the AIDS Task Force a harbor of hope; a brave and tender endeavor to honor truth, support ourselves and our neighbors, and live the Unitarian Universalist values of justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

~ Rev. Lisa Ward, UU Fellowship of Harford County

I joined All Souls with my wife Judith in 1987. We had just moved to New York with our children James, 14 and Jenny Rebecca, 12. It was a difficult time for my family. As a gay man married almost 20 years, approaching 40, I was in the struggle of my life, professionally and personally. A close friend who was a member of the choir invited us to All Souls. Right away I was drawn to the AIDS Task Force because of the toll the epidemic was taking, particularly on gay men like me. Judy and I were both professional orchestra musicians and had many gay friends, some of whom had already gotten sick and died. The All Souls AIDS Task Force provided an outlet to vent my frustration and “do something” about the horrible plague that was taking so many of my friends. I was reinvigorated by the absolute dedication of Task Force members to the cause of helping those who had been discarded by society. AIDS patients were the new “lepers” of the 20th century.

Through the AIDS Task Force I volunteered at New York Hospital, initially to help with infants who were born HIV+ and whose mothers had died or were too sick to care for them. This led to a new career, beginning at GMHC and then since 1999 at the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation as Director of Development, raising money for New Jersey’s oldest and largest AIDS service organization.

While Judy and I eventually divorced, we remained devoted members at All Souls, where our children attended church school. Through the power of love and forgiveness, and the embrace of All Souls, Judy remains my closest friend and our family ties are strong.

What I learned in 23 years as an AIDS activist is that we will end AIDS only when the social justice issues surrounding the epidemic are addressed. Because the overwhelming majority of those living with HIV/AIDS are poor people of color and gay men; racism, poverty and homophobia must be confronted openly and publicly. The All Souls AIDS Task Force took a brave and lonely stand with the subway poster campaign. I hope All Souls will continue to stand up and stand out.

~ Jerry McCathern, AIDS Task Force Member

All Souls AIDS Task Force Chairs and Co-Chairs

Chuck Weiss

Ann Hinson

Ben Mojica

Joe Miller

Bill Bechman

Laura Smith

Steven Bell

Christina Bellamy

Joe Nelson

All Souls AIDS Task Force 25th Anniversary Celebration, December 1-5, 2010

Schedule of Events:

  • Wednesday, December 1, 2010: 6:45 p.m.: Stories with Soul; Barbara Lazier Ascher will read from her book Landscape Without Gravity: A Memoir of Grief. Ms. Ascher helped with funding for the creation of the AIDS Memory Garden and the Women’s Network Counseling Program led by therapist, Laura Smith.

  • Friday, December 3, 2010: 6:45 p.m.: Cinema All Souls; “Philadelphia” The 1993 film starring Oscar winner Tom Hanks portraying a gay man struggling with AIDS.We will honor Angie Utt, wife of the executive producer Kenneth Utt, with tributes by their daughter Robin Utt Fajardo, who was Mr. Utt’s assistant on the film and Missy Givey, production assistant.

  • Saturday, December 4, 2010: 4 p.m.: Global HIV/AIDS Efforts, Tina Quirk, Ryan Olson, and Scott Seale 5 p.m.: Chapel Service of Remembrance with Rev. Richard Leonard for those lost to the AIDS epidemic 6 to 9 p.m.: Reception and Banquet, co-hosted by Pamela Healey and Sydnée Gordon 7:30 p.m.: Program featuring Margaret Blagg and the other creators of the AIDS subway posters, Richard Solomon and Katherine Ippoliti; and testimonials. Music by James Frederick, Reldalee Wagner, and Darren Lougée. Artworks from the HIV/AIDS experience.

  • Sunday, December 5, 2010: 10 and 11:15 a.m.: Morning Worship, with Rev. Galen Guengerich; music from the Musica Viva concerts that raised funds for the subway poster campaign. 11:15 a.m.: Adult Ed, Dolores Dockery, Community Organizer, the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation 1 p.m.: Panel HIV/AIDS In Our World Today. Moderated by Rev. Galen Guengerich, with Peter Staley, Everold Hosein, Ph.D., Ben Mojica, M.D, and Jessica Daniels, M.D. 6 p.m.: All Souls at Sundown Service

Excerpts from the AIDS Task Force 25th Anniversary commemorative booklet:

What a milestone in the life of justice making at All Souls is the 25th anniversary of the AIDS Task Force! When I first came to All Souls as Assistant Minister in 1997, the AIDS Task Force was only 12 years old. Stories flourished around its founding as the first faith-based AIDS task force in the city. Forrest and Galen were fully behind it.

I spent many hours meeting with members of the task force as the epidemic that is still AIDS moved through phases from “diagosis = imminent death” to the AIDS cocktail that considerably prolonged life to a concentration on the needs of caregivers to ongoing adaptation to the course of AIDS research and treatment.

Joe Miller looms large in my memories of the life of this task force. His legacy is iconic. He was a chair of the AIDS Task Force and a presence throughout New York City in the venue of advocacy for all for whom AIDS was up close and personal, himself included. Above all, he was an advocate for others. He spoke and acted boldly and passionately.

As for the AIDS Task Force, the work of Bill Bechman and Christina Bellamy and Joe Nelson and so many others at All Souls--surely Forrest and Galen and Wally--is to be celebrated. In the time of AIDS, which continues to be our time, what is called for is nothing less than compassion through solidarity and a solidarity of resolve in advocating for comprehensive treatment for all who are living with AIDS worldwide; for full funding for resources that will ensure a cure honoring all who have succumbed to AIDS; and for understanding that when one among us suffers, we’re all stricken; when one among us is cured, we’re all cured; and that Joe Miller will raise hell in heaven until this is so.

~ Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull, UU Congregation of the Catskills

Today, we joyfully celebrate the work of the AIDS Task Force. This commemoration was my dear friend Barbara Hosein’s idea. Piecing together bits of memories has been a remarkable journey. I first came to All Souls after seeing the astonishing posters in the subways in 1987. I hadn’t ventured into a church since I had arrived in New York in the early 80’s. Previously I’d been the organist at a vibrant church in another city. I’ll always remember that minister’s comment about their previous organist: “He went to New York City and got that new disease. It’s God’s punishment.” I remember thinking, “What will be said about me, if I too, become sick?”

One of the posters said AIDS. THE MORE YOU UNDERSTAND, THE MORE UNDERSTANDING YOU WILL BE. For me, the gift then, and now, has been finding a congregation that lives welcoming acceptance. Over these 25 years, the list of people who have died has grown. In this sacred place, there is universal acceptance. We are fortified by the love and the experiences of others. As we look to the future, we express thanks for those we’ve lost, and we joyfully carry their welcoming torch to encourage understanding on life’s journey.

~ Bill Bechman

There was no one AIDS Task Force. It was a tag team, constantly evolving, with new members and new leaders and new agendas. The earliest years were characterized by shock: the shock that the poster campaign elicited and the shocking realization of how profoundly AIDS was impacting New York City. As the shock wore off, the mourning phase emerged, with bereavement groups, memorial services, and sup- port groups coalescing around All Souls. As the epidemic wore on, there was adaptation to the new reality of living with AIDS and seeking to continue the work of the AIDS Task Force through established channels. We will revisit all of these moments in the 25th Anniversary celebration events. We hope all who participate will share their perspectives and help create a fuller view.

~ Barbara Hosein

Excerpts from a Sermon Preached by the Rev. Forrest Church, Sept. 29, 1985:

If religion can be defined as our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die, in the largest sense the AIDS crisis is a religious crisis and therefore demands a theological response....

I have had many gay friends, some of them members of this church. Yet, my response to AIDS has also been marked by a failure of moral imagination. It was two years ago that I officiated my first AIDS related funeral. I even counseled the mother of a person with AIDS, but I failed to recognize that this was not some isolated instance, but rather part of a pattern of human suffering that demanded something more than private pastoral response. Then last year a member of this congregation died of AIDS. He had only been a member for a couple of years. He did not come every Sunday. I did not know him well. Since then I have learned that other members of this congregation have pre-AIDS syndrome or are living in dread that they will contract AIDS. Some are forthcoming, but other have not reached out to me, perhaps because they have no confidence in what my response might be to learning they are gay, perhaps because they have no confidence in what I or our church might do to be of help. So long as either of these things continues to be the case, both I as a minister and we as a congregation will be at fault. The proper word for this is sin. Every failure of moral imagination is a sin of omission.

Jerry Falwell and others on the New Religious Right have expressly linked the AIDS epidemic to God’s displeasure with homosexuals and intravenous drug users. But I believe in a different God than Jerry Falwell does. I believe in a God of mercy, a God of infinite compassion.... This leads me to the heart of what I want to say. We know very little about the disease called AIDS. That is part of the problem. But we know a great deal about two other diseases that, on account of AIDS, are infecting millions of our fellow citizens. I am speaking now of the plague of ignorance and the plague of fear...The plague of ignorance that is sweeping this country is intimately coupled with a plague of fear. And when the virus of fear infects our hearts, the first thing that it kills is the ability to love....

How then should we here in this church respond to the AIDS crisis? First, we must come to grips with our own ignorance and fear. We must marshal our efforts to stem the plague that is poisoning our hearts and afflicting our souls. And then, when the prison walls begin to tumble down, we can begin to reach out and be of whatever small help we can to our neighbors in need.

This afternoon at one o’clock I invite you to return to the Sanctuary for an open forum on the AIDS crisis. We shall then form an AIDS task force whose ongoing mission will be not only to determine ways in which individuals and groups within this church can be of service, but also to construct a model program that may be adopted by other congregations both in our denomination and throughout this city.

One final thing, if you haven’t yet been touched by this you will. Already here in New York, AIDS is the leading cause of death for men in their thirties, and the second leading cause of death for women between 30 and 34.... Our response has been slow enough in coming. I would hate to have to ask myself next year, “What in the world are we going to do?”

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