Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sometimes It's Enough To Say Thank You.

Michael Sugar stands in front of Hollywood United Methodist Church and its famous red ribbon.
You never know when your emotions are going to overwhelm you. All this week, as they announced the 25th anniversary of the first confirmed AIDS patient, I can't say that I've felt all that moved about it. For some reason, it has felt like an arbitrary date. I don't recall a 10th anniversary or a 15th anniversary. But suddenly, it's the 25th anniversary.

I was talking about this to my friend, Michael Sugar, this morning as we drove over the hill to attend a church service here on Pride Sunday in Los Angeles. Michael is a very nice Jewish boy who invited me to go with him. It would be his first time attending a Christian service and the reason he was attending was because of an email.

He agreed with me that this strange "anniversary" has left him feeling a bit cold and dry, not sure how to feel. Like me, he lives with HIV, but he was infected way back in the earliest days of AIDS and it's really a miracle that he's still alive.

The email was one he wrote to Ed Hansen, the pastor of Hollywood United Methodist Church.

Everyone who lives in, or has been in, Hollywood knows this church because they were among the first Christian congregations to take an active part in helping, supporting and advocating for people with AIDS. And, aside from the many programs they established, they did something extraordinary. They erected a gigantic red ribbon and put it on their tower overlooking Hollywood. For many people with AIDS, this has been like a beacon saying, "Forget the Jerry Falwells and the gay haters. We are here for you. We support you. We love you."

Several years ago, Michael noticed that the ribbon (which is made of metal) had grown faded with time and one day noticed that they had a big crane and were doing something up on the tower. So, he assumed they were taking it down. I mean, the AIDS crisis is over, right? Clearly, he thought, they had done their work and they were ready to have their beautiful, historic tower back.

But, no. Actually, they were painting the ribbon. Rather than pulling it down, they were polishing it, refixing it to the tower and making the statement, even more plainly, that they had a commitment to people with AIDS that would not waver, would not falter, and that they did not consider their work to be just a passing fad.

It's hard to tell people how much this means. It's easy to feel neglected and alone when you have AIDS, especially if you're someone whose friends have all died around you and you're living by yourself, continuing the battle. I, myself, have had the good fortune to be surrounded by friends and family who love me. But others? In Hollywood? This church is a beacon of light which will not allow the weather or time to dim its commitment to love.

When we first arrived, the sky was overcast and there was a cold wind blowing. Very unusual for this time of year. But in the foyer of the church, a man sat playing various wooden flutes and it made for a beautifully, warm inviting sound. The inner courtyard was bright with flowers. Inside, we took pictures and admired the arching ceiling and the incredibly ornate stained glass windows.

Soon, the lights dimmed and they began what they call "Sacred Space." A piano and a violin played softly, allowing people to meditate quietly. We ran into a photographer named Richard Settle who showed us around and told us the history of the majestic building. He told us they erected the AIDS ribbon in 1992 in a ceremony, and that they held regular workshops for building panels to the AIDS quilt, supplying all the materials.

He showed us to a plaque in the lobby with the names and dates of the church members who had died of AIDS, a beautiful memorial.

When the service started, the music was sweet, the atmosphere casual, yet structured. Michael and I laughed at the fact that the pastor announced that many of the members were missing from the service because they were taking part in the Pride Parade. Then I remembered last year they were one of the biggest groups of people waking down Santa Monica Blvd. with their big banner, proclaiming their love and support for the gay community.

The pastor, Rev. Dr. Ed Hansen delivered a very interesting sermon. His central point was one that I've been discussing with another UMC minister friend of mine on another forum. He read from the Book of John, the story of Nicodemus and he made the point that when one is "born of the spirit," it means one leaves the notion that following "the law" is the path of God. Instead, the spirit of love is what guides a person and shows him or her what's wrong or what's right. He said:
"It wasn't the Law that taught us to fight against slavery and discrimination against Black people. It wasn't the Law that taught us to give women equal rights and the power to vote. It wasn't the Law that opened up our hearts and doors to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. And it wasn't the Law that made us continue in our ministry to people with AIDS. It was the reborn spirit of Love that taught this to us. That's what Jesus meant when he said you must be born again. You must be born of Love, not Law."
It was a perfect sermon. And what I particularly loved about him is how humble and gentle he taught these things. Finally, he said, "All of this was brought home to me this past week when I received an email." (He was talking about Michael's email). "And I would like to read it to you now..."
To Hollywood United Methodist Church,
I'm writing to express my gratitude to Hollywood United Methodist Church. I'm not a Christian and have never attended a service in your church. So why am I writing to express my gratitude? It's that red ribbon that's been on the exterior of your building for so many years. I've driven past many, many times over the years and have always felt grateful to you for expressing your support for people with HIV/AIDS in such a public and visible manner.

In an era when many people believe AIDS has gone away, that red ribbon is still there. It's very meaningful to me. I see it as a tribute to all the friends I've lost as well as a reminder of the challenges that many of us still confront every single day. Whenever I drive through Hollywood, I look up and am pleased to see the ribbon is still there.

I was diagnosed with HIV in the early years of the pandemic and I'm very aware of how fortunate or lucky or blessed I am to still be reasonably healthy. In the decades since my diagnosis, I've lost the majority of my family of friends. Years ago, I attended a quilting workshop in your building, joining many others who were also grieving. We helped each other create panels for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Today, whenever I drive by and see that red ribbon, I am reminded of how much Hollywood United Methodist Church helped me come to grips with incomprehensible loss and learn to put one foot in front of the other and keep living.

I look up at that ribbon every time I drive up Highland and I feel like you're still cheering me onward. This week marks 25 years since the first cases of the disease that became known as AIDS were identified in the press. It seemed like a fitting time to finally send you this note and say thank you.

Most sincerely,
Michael Sugar

He didn't get halfway through the email before I was awash in tears. It came over me so suddenly, and so unexpectedly, that I was caught completely unawares. Suddenly, the 25th anniversary started to come alive for me. I thought of Dick Remley and Chris Seppe and Bobby Nigro -- name after name came to me. Face after face. I thought of how close this disease came to claiming me, and how I'm standing here on the 10th anniversary of when I came so close to being one of those names.

As soon as the pastor finished reading the letter, the entire congregation BURST into applause. It was so spontaneous. And what made it so nice was he didn't send a signal to applaud. He didn't raise an eyebrow or make a dramatic gesture. The thanks that Michael sent to those people meant more to them than he could ever have imagined.

Afterwards, he invited Michael up and, to their surprise, introduced him as the person who wrote that letter. Again, the applause was so loud and so long, I thought it would never end. Michael stood up there with a big goofy grin on his face. His letter was just as much an act of love on his part to them as all their work had been to others. But the plain fact of it is that you never know the real effect when you do something for others in a loving and selfless way.

I felt so proud of him that he took the time to tell them thank you. It was a simple gesture. Just a few words in an email. But I could tell from the other tears streaming in that room, from the way they embraced him afterwards, and from the misty-eyed look of gratitude on all their faces that it had as much impact as anything anyone could have done.

Sometimes it's enough to just say thank you.

Rev. Dr. Ed Hansen with Michael Sugar.

EDIT: Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for linking to this story. Michael and I both are proud to put a spotlight on the work of Hollywood United Methodist Church. May it empower more congregations to reach out into their respective communities in such visible ways.

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