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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Gabi Clayton said...

Thank you Steve for posting this. Thank you Michael for the letter.
(((((hugs to you both))))

Anonymous said...

Hi stevie

We meet again. I am Michael's sister, and I am very proud of him. I applaud him. I am in that anonymous audience of accolades and tears., hit in the belly by the passing of time. I stop tp acknowledge the miracle of Michael's will to live and his success, his generosity. The lessons, hard earned, behind so many tears. We carry on with a stiff spine, and then, a time for softening, crumbling, bowing in gratitude.... love susi
hugs to you both

Steve Schalchlin said...

Gabi and Susi, I love you guys too!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say a big *HI* to everyone and thank Michael and Steve for sharing this wonderful experience.
(also Hi Gabi!)
(Hey Susi, are you the same sister we met in NYC who ate the leftovers we had from Sam's?? LOL)

Barb S/horsemom2
who hasn't tried responding on a blog before so forgive me if I am violating any netiquette rules

Steve Schalchlin said...

I assure you, barb, you've violated no rules. So happy to have you here.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

Michael shared your blog with me and I thank him and you for such a warm and uplifting experience. I miss Michael and all his wonderful friends like you since I moved to Florida, but feel very close to you all today.

Much love, Cookie Lynn

Anonymous said...

That is a great story Steve. Through all the grief and anger and loss of 25 years It is good to remember the people who have always stood by us. Thank You

Anonymous said...

Michael (and you) are both very generous of spirit ... remembering to thank those who have stood with us is very important. Helps to balance out the rest of it. :)


P.S. -- thank goodness I had him wear the blue shirt. The green just wouldn't have set off his eyes so beautifully. :)

Anonymous said...

Tavis - You were absolutely right.
(and your check is in the mail.)

jerseyaikidogirl said...

That Michael Sugar is just as good as it gets. Hot and nice and polite. And a nice Jewish boy, to boot. If I weren't already married, my mom would be thrilled :)

Steve Schalchlin said...

Travis, I don't know how he ever made it without you. How DID you two meet, anyway? :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve ~

Michael and I have known each other since we had "1's" in front of our age - I was 16 and Michael 19. We have been through thick and thin together. A lot of laughs and a lot of tears. Typical things you share with a friend.

I was devasted when he told me he was infected with the HIV virus many, many years ago. I remember Michael buying a car and not believing he would live long enough to pay the entire loan off -- 2 cars, the purchase of a home and savings for his future, Michael is and always will be one of the most amazing people I know.

I am so glad you posted this story to your blog so other people can see just how wonderful, selfless and completely inspiring Michael is.

Thank you ~ Vicki

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve. Thanks for this beautiful post. I can't stop the tears.

love ya,
Brian (Fiddler)

Steve Schalchlin said...

I'm so happy that so many people have responded to this blog entry. Michael is indeed a very special human being. And I am so very happy to have met the people at UMCH. They are a generous and compassionae congregation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this posting, Steve. Anyone who comes to know Michael knows they stand in the presence of someone truly amazing.

Anonymous said...

I'm really floored by all these comments. Thanks everyone, for all the kind words. But it ain't about me. Saying thank you isn't (or shouldn't be) anything special.

One church did the right thing and helped a lot of people in ways they probably don't even realize. That is extrordinary, particularly considering how much condemnation I hear every day coming from churches. At the time this church in Hollywood started reaching out to people with AIDS, the stand they took was practically unheard of. I'm sure they got a lot of flack and a ton of hate mail for their efforts.

That's why, after all these years of seeing that ribbon on their tower, I made a point of saying thank you.

All the nice things everyone said are amazing. If this was about me, my ego would be approaching the scale of someone else we all know and love (who shall remain nameless). But it's the Hollywood United Methodist Church that did something really extrordinary.

Love to all,

Steve Schalchlin said...

Michael, I appreciate very much that you want to make sure the spotlight stays where it belongs, on this wonderful church and the work it does. But it's equally important that people see the example that you set in writing your letter. It was an act of love that has reverberated throughout the congregation and has meant more to them than you can possibly imagine.

The reason I spotlighted both you AND the church was because so many people ask me, "What can I do?" as an individual. I want them to see that sometimes it really IS enough to go out of your way to write a letter to someone or to a group that has been working hard against all odds to tell them thank you.

You're a really humble person and I know you might get embarrassed by all the attention, but let us have this moment to express our love for you. We know your letter was written with a purity of heart and not to draw the spotlight on yourself. Maybe that's why it was so powerful in the first place.

Anonymous said...

To quote Churchill (on the Marshall Plan): "This is the most unsordid act in history!"

At a time when the word "Christian" connotes "hypocrite" and "moron" (at least to me), the continuing presence of the red ribbon on the church tower is almost a miracle.

I, too, say "Thank you".

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post. It was wonderful! I have so many memories of the early days of the epidemic...a co worker was the first I knew to come down with full blown AIDS in the early 80's. There was so much fear among the others in the office...they wanted to force him out. It was awful...then watching my partner die, friends much death. I don't know how we got through it. There was Reagan denying the whole thing and Princess Di and that beautiful hug of the dying man.... I felt she was hugging all of us. There was going to DC to see the quilt and feeling wave after wave of grief while being comforted by the hugs of strangers who also lost so many. There was my sweet friend who believed the drugs were worse than the disease who died right when so many were starting to survive. There are still so many around the world who do not have access to meds. We must remember them.

I am so grateful for your story. At a time when I feel churches have turned their back on me and are full of hate and fear, it is nice to know that there are places of worship out there who care and send the true message of God. God is love. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this Steve and Michael.

As a person of faith and a Christian minister I often feel like "the enemy", even though I am openly gay and serve the GLBTQI community at every opportunity possible.

I guess that my role continues to be a voice of reason in the wilderness of faith that has been so damaged by the religious right, which of course, "they" are neither! -
Rev Neil Thomas, MCCLA.

Anonymous said...

Wow - thanks for posting this! I'm a member of HUMC and I posted the letter that was sent in our weekly newsletter on my blog a week ago to much the same response.

I was one of those people in the parade. I volunteer with Project Angel Food and I was with Elvira on Sunday morning. I wish I could have been there Sunday morning! Perhaps I'll see you again sometime.

Anonymous said...

Dear Steve and Michael: A friend of mine in Hollywood sent your blog article to me (I live in Sacramento). What a surprise and how sweet of you to write about HUMC's Red Ribbon. I was honored to have been among the small group of individuals who sat on the steps of HUMC one day and wondered what we could do to bring attention to impact that AIDS was having upon our community. We came up with: "Wouldn't it be great to put a big red ribbon on the tower of the church?" Only last week, while going through boxes in my garage did I come across my original file from that project - photos, clippings, notes, etc - that chronicled what was done on that day. Thank you for sharing your story with all of us. I only wish I could share this with all of the friends that I lost through the years to AIDS. Our story had so many twists and turns, it's a wonder the red ribbon is till remembered. Shalom Aleichem and Blessings...John Ochoa

Steve Schalchlin said...

John, as we tried to indicate this blog entry, your work has reached out farther and with more impact than you could ever have possibly understood. Thank you so much for putting your comment here. I'd love to meet you some day.

Ron Hudson said...

Having never visited LA, I was somewhat surprised to receive this submission to the International Carnival of Pozitivities today. You see, I spent a couple of days with a videographer, a 23 yo straight man from LA, who was surprised to find an openly gay, HIV+ gay man driving him around to movie sets in eastern NC. At some point in our conversations, he said "There's this church out in LA that has a big red ribbon on its tower." Now, here it is....and the tears are streaming down my face.

This is a beautiful posting. Thank you so much for sharing.

Brad said...


This excellent post has been featured in the 2nd edition of the International Carnival of the Pozitivities at AIDS Combat Zone. Be sure to check it out, and please consider supporting the carnival by posting a link to it in your blog. Thank you!