Thursday, July 20, 2006

Strength for the Journey

If you haven't read the incredible story of my friend, Michael Sugar, and our visit to the Hollywood United Methodist Church, then go there. It was a beautiful and transcendent moment, and it provides the backdrop for our trip into the mountains yesterday. The occasion was an invitation from HUMC to visit their retreat for people living with AIDS called "Strength for the Journey." These camps are sponsored by United Methodists all over the country and have been a source of strength and life for thousands of PWAs. I told them I would love to visit but only if they'd let me sing (of course). Michael got off work a little early and drove me. But first we had to visit Warner Bros. studios where Michael had to get a few things. I took this picture from the outside because we're not allowed to take pics inside.

The camp wasn't that far away. It was in the Angeles National Forest at Camp Colby, which is run by the United Methodist Church. In fact, it only took us about an hour to get there. Michael was shocked that I had never driven up into these mountains. He said it snows there in the winter. Gotta love Southern California. It can be 70 degrees and sunny. Drive an hour and you're in the snow. This being summer, though, it was not snowy. It was warm and bit moist.

As we approached our turn-off from the main highway through the Forest, I saw this beautiful, craggy peak. (Click on the photo to see it big. It's worth it.)

Another view of the mountains:
Finally, after letting car after car pass us -- we were NOT in a hurry through this beautiful country -- we found the little trail down to the camp.
The trail led us directly into the center of the camp. It was absolutely beautiful, with a little creek running through the center. The sound of the wind in the trees and the water splashing at our feet was pastorally breathtaking.

This is the dining hall. When we arrived, they gave us a very nice meal.

With time to kill, we wandered about the grounds. Here is an old gravestone left by the family who first lived here, the Colbys.
Cabins:A swimming pool!
A totally adorable guy who gave massages, holistic therapies, yoga, etc.

Michael joked, on the way there, that if he saw any crosses -- he being Jewish -- he would run the other way. Instead, he posed in front of the big white cross that overlooks the valley. So nu?
And this is me with retired senior minister, Ed Hanson. He was talking to Michael when I snapped this photo.
So, I sang my concert. They had a little keyboard there which was not easy to use, but I made it work. Ed told me that in the earliest years of the epidemic, when most of the people with HIV were white males, that was largely the make-up of the camp. But nowadays, most of the participants were from the inner city, there on scholarship. He said many of them come from communities where they are not only not allowed to be "out" as gay, but they also can't disclose their HIV status.

There were also a number of women and a sprinking of younger kids.

They seemed to really get into my concert, laughing along with "Friendly Fire" and "The Closet," crying along with "Going It Alone" and "Save Me A Seat," singing along with "Lazarus Come Out." I felt really good when most of them came up to me afterwards, many with tears in their eyes, giving me hugs and thanking me for coming out to sing.

I know that they will need all the comeraderie and "strength for the journey" that this camp provides as they bond with one another and share experiences. Because I know that many of them are going to go back into "the real world" where life is difficult, where they will be battling against homophobia, AIDSphobia, drug addiction, poverty and a host of challenges, none of which help when you're facing a day to day battle with a relentless virus that wants nothing more than to eat you alive.

God bless them all.

ADDENDUM: David Ray reminded me in the comments that as we were driving home last night, following him (thank god -- it is DARK in the woods), we honked the horn just as we approached the main road and asked him if we could just stop for a moment, turn off all the lights and look at the brilliantly starlit night sky. It's a scene we in the city don't get that often. Funny how you have to remember to take a breath, a moment, to look at this magnificent creation and just stare in wonder at the gift that's been given to us.
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For my birthday, also St. Francis of Assisi Day,

here is "Rescue" the song I sang to Erika Amato 's Buddy the dog. Imagine if we loved humans as much as we love our animals...