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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

Bruce Garner's Acceptance Speech for the First "Faith in Action" Award

Bruce Garner's Acceptance Speech for
the First "Faith in Action" Award

Presented by Atlanta Interfaith AIDS Network


Thank you! This is such wonderful honor!

When Gary called me several months ago to see if I would consider accepting this award, I was absolutely flabbergasted….and I still am. From my perspective, all I have ever done is what was expected of me by the faith I profess.

What makes this award so important to me is the fact that it comes from the faith community. Through out this awful, awful, epidemic of AIDS, it is the faith community that has sustained many of us. My own faith community, the Episcopal Church, and my own parish, All Saints’ Atlanta, are what have sustained me personally over the last 23 years since this deadly virus raised its ugly head. That sustenance reflects the history of the epidemic.

Allow me to take you back a little over two decades ago in the AIDS epidemic for just a moment:

Two scenes:

A full-fledged Roman Catholic requiem funeral mass at St. Anthony’s parish in West End Atlanta.

A quartet consisting of two men and two drag queens pantomiming the song “That’s What Friends Are For” in HM Patterson Funeral Home’s Spring Hill Chapel.

What could these very different scenarios possibly have in common? Both were early responses – pastoral responses – to the AIDS epidemic in this city. And both were based in faith – though the scene at Patterson’s may not have been so obviously a faith-based response as the scene at St. Anthony’s.

The funeral at St. Anthony’s was for Gene Williams, the sound technician and public relations director for an all gay dance troupe known as The Buffalo Chips. I was a member of that dance team. We were cloggers – Appalachian folk dancers. Bet most of you had no idea I was ever a semi-professional dancer in my younger years did you??!! We were actually professional enough that we paid someone for that name!

The Buffalo Chips were quite good. We appeared on television a couple of times, danced at two Worlds’ Fairs (Knoxville and New Orleans), toured the Midwest and southeast. We even won the award for the best new act at the McIntosh Opry in Peachtree City. Now ain’t that a kick? Our farewell performance in September 1985 was a benefit in Gene’s honor to raise money for emergency housing for people living with AIDS. That housing took the form of an apartment building purchased by AID Atlanta in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta.

Barely a month after that performance, Gene would be dead and I would be participating in his funeral at St. Anthony’s.

The funeral at Patterson’s was for Layton Gregory – a name – at the time – that was synonymous with the gay community in Atlanta.

Layton was among the first of many of our community’s leaders to be taken from us by AIDS.

Images from both funerals are vividly etched in my memory: The priest included the following words in his eulogy for Gene at St. Anthony’s:

“Looking for a city, where we’ll never die,

Where the sainted millions never say goodbye.

There we’ll meet our Saviour and our loved ones too.

Come, the Holy Spirit, all our hopes renewed!”

These words were part of the lyrics to one of the most popular tunes to which we danced. It’s a gospel song called: “Looking for a city!” Sung by the Happy Goodman Family. The minute the priest – Father John Adamski – began to recite those words, the entire team broke down in sobs. We had lost the first of what would ultimately be over half of our dance team to AIDS. Looking back, the lyrics have always been comforting and prophetic…..where we’ll never die, where we’ll never say goodbye.

Following Layton Gregory’s funeral, the pop song “That’s What Friends Are For” became a standard at AIDS funerals, particularly those not held in a church or synagogue. The song can still bring me to tears.

Those were the early years of AIDS. I lost count of the number of funerals I attended and the ones I conducted. The ones I conducted were most often for those who felt they had no connection with organized religion. I became that connection. All of those funerals had an Episcopal flavor to them. That was all I knew! I would like to think that in some small way I was reconnecting folks to a faith that lay dormant deep inside them.

We knew at AID Atlanta that there was a desperate need for pastoral care in a community being decimated and devastated by AIDS. We created a Department of Pastoral Care in an effort to meet that need. But, we soon found out there was no grant money available to support it…not even government grant money…ironic wasn’t it…the issues of faith based initiatives was just beginning to develop. Yet we had a President at the time, who never spoke the word AIDS in public during his two terms in office. In many ways we are not much better off today, but that’s a discussion for another day.

We ended up spinning the Pastoral Care Department off to ultimately become the Atlanta Interfaith AIDS Network.

I still recall having to break the sad news that we were closing the department to its first Director of Pastoral Care, the Reverend Kathryn Cartledge. She would subsequently become the first Executive Director of AIAN. She is with us here tonight.

You may be wondering by now why you are getting this history lesson. There are two reasons: One is that this history, our history, needs to be told – there are few of us still left alive who know it. The other is that it is an integral part of my own faith journey – a journey that gave me no choice but to put the faith I professed into action.

Let me ask your indulgence in sharing some of my own personal journey

I was not raised in the Episcopal Church. My early exposure to organized religion was at the hands of the Southern Baptist Convention of the fifties and sixties. I began to look for another expression of faith when they began to teach me that Jews and Roman Catholics were condemned to hell. Even as a pre-teen and early teen, I had a problem with such absolute judgment of one segment of God’s creation against another. So I began to search and to question.

Long story very short: I ended up being baptized and confirmed at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter in East Atlanta in the Fall of 1965 at the age of 16. My mother had joined me in that journey and was baptized and confirmed at the same time. (Dad was baptized some years later.)

Well when they poured the water over my head and said the words, I expected some sort of “experience” if you will. I was looking for bells and whistles, singing angels or something. Didn’t happen! Not sure it mattered. I would become immersed in the Episcopal Church in such as way that it became a part of my being. I had found my spiritual home.

Now skip ahead to February of 1986 at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, California. I was attending the first ever conference on AIDS held by any national church body. It was sponsored by the Episcopal Church. I went to a healing service in the cathedral. Now let me tell you, I wasn’t all that thrilled about such services…they really sort of scared me! I was too accustomed to what I saw on television and that really didn’t do much for me. Having someone pop me on the forehead and shout “heal” just didn’t quite do it. I don’t belittle that type of healing – it’s just not me!

Yet as I sat through that service an amazing experience literally engulfed me. I saw people go to the altar rail looking as if they had the weight of that cathedral building resting on their shoulders. Once hands had been laid on them and they had been anointed with oil, I saw a visible change. Their faces glowed. They had been healed….not cured…but healed, made whole…and it clearly showed. In that great cathedral I felt like I was reaching out and touching God. The presence of God was just that powerful. Well folks, the so-called conversion experience I had NOT gotten at my baptism certainly fell upon me that night. I would never be the same again.

Once back in Atlanta, I became fully involved in what I perceived as the responsibilities my faith had laid upon me. But it was not always a pretty picture to behold.

Those were the years when we heard story after story of faithful members being kicked out of their own life-long faith communities because they had AIDS. Such ugly and clearly un-Godly actions were a ringing indictment of the entire faith community in Atlanta and around the nation. Atlanta was the city too busy to hate, but only up to a point. AIDS was often that point. Our work was cut out for us more clearly than ever.

So where are we now? Thankfully, just the existence of AIAN for all of these years – 15 of them - demonstrates that we have improved our responses in many areas, but much remains. Some are still shunned. Some are still told that AIDS is God’s judgment against them.

The faith community has a responsibility to address the issues of HIV/AIDS honestly, including and particularly a phenomenon known as “on the down low.” Some of you have heard me preach this before… will continue to hear me preach it until people listen and act!

In case you don’t know what “on the down low” or “on the DL” is all about: It’s about men who engage in sexual activities with other men and then go home to wives or girlfriends and engage in sexual activities with them…generally without the protection of a condom. It’s dangerous. It puts people at risk for AIDS. It’s also deceitful and hypocritical. And while it has been given the name “on the down low” in the African-American and Latino communities, the same thing takes place in the white community…we just never gave it a name. We just lied! Give it a name or not, it’s a deadly activity. I have been known to tell women who catch their man going on the down low that they should go on the up high: that is, up high against their man’s head with a frying pan! No damage intended….just to get their attention of course!

Well I suppose that’s enough preaching for now. But, if you remember nothing else that I have shared with you tonight, remember this: Being dishonest about how you express your sexuality is a deadly game to play and I must ask you: Is it worth it? Is it worth your life? Is it worth the life of someone you hold dear?? And if for whatever reason, you must keep going on the down low, at least use protection. Condoms are cheap. Life is not cheap!

My life has been incredibly blessed. I was first blessed to be born to two parents who love me more that I could ever deserve. They may not have always understood me, but they have always loved me! They are here tonight….I love you both!

Week before last I was on vacation – on a cruise ship with over 2200 other gay men (and 14 lesbians – just for a little balance!). I found myself waxing nostalgic during an afternoon dance party whose theme was dance music from the mid-70’s to the mid-80’s – the original and true disco era when that music was only played in gay bars. It was our own form of tribal music. The music was not the source of my nostalgia however. I love that music – it has real words – you can dance to it! I sound like an old fart don’t I??!!

No, the nostalgia was over the many friends who could no longer dance to any earthly music – those who now dance before God. My nostalgia was over those with whom I had planned to grow old.

Anger welled up in me. Many of those friends would probably still be here if we had had a government that cared enough to ensure the teaching of accurate prevention information about AIDS. Maybe they would still be here if we had pushed more insistently for teaching the use of condoms during sexual activities and clean needles during intravenous drug use. Maybe they would still be here if we had not allowed religious bigotry to trump medical science. Maybe they would still be here if we had put more of our faith into action and demanded that all of God’s children be treated with dignity and respect. But we didn’t and we paid the price.

I miss those friends terribly. And I will be damned if I will let the same thing happen again. None of us has any valid excuse for not putting our faith into action and demanding proper factual prevention education for all, regardless of race, gender, age, creed, sexual orientation or economic status. We have no excuse. The Prophet of Nazareth made it explicitly clear to us that what we do or what we fail to do for each other, we do or fail to do for God. We have no excuse. Our faith is empty and hollow if we fail to put it into action.

Guess I went to preaching again didn’t I??!! I will not apologize for that, but I will move on.

Despite losing so many friends to AIDS, I have still been blessed to have so many friends. To feel the pain of losing friends, one must first feel the joy of being blessed with friends. I can’t name all of them…many are here tonight…and not the least among those very dear to me is Tom Sheehan. And while fate did not keep us together as life partners, fate…perhaps with a little help from God…has kept us as close friends. Tom is the kind of friend who will give me honest and loving feedback even when I may not even know I want or need it! I love him for that and for being there when I have needed him.

I was blessed to find a faith community in the Episcopal Church. I found that community at a time in my life when I went searching for God. God found me, and as the hymn says: “On His shoulder gently laid, and home rejoicing brought me.”

I have been further blessed by the nurturing of my faith community at All Saints' Church. All Saints’ is a place where there is a concerted, prayerful and spirit-filled quest to personify our baptismal covenant in respecting the dignity of every human being and in seeking and serving Christ in all persons, as we strive to love our neighbors as ourselves. We may not always succeed, but we do try.

Let me offer some what of an admonition here specifically to my own faith community: The signs that identify parishes of the Episcopal Church bear the slogan: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. Well sometimes, probably most of the time, that slogan is true. Too many times however, that slogan is true with a qualification or two: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You “if” or “perhaps” or “as long as” or maybe even “unless.” These qualifiers might include: Unless you are just a little too gay or as long as you don’t look too ill with HIV or even as long as you have the proper clothes, etc. etc. etc. (You see in some ways we are not all that different from some of our more conservative sisters among the denominations. We just try to be a bit more subtle, some might mistakenly say a bit more “classy” with our qualifications and restrictions. Subtle or not, it is NOT classy – it is still prejudice and bigotry no matter which faith community trots it out.)

But let me serve notice to those of you present tonight, including my own bishop, my own rector, and other leaders in our church: As long as God sees fit to keep breath in this body of mine, I will be a thorn in the side or a pain in the butt – whatever it takes – to insure that the Episcopal Church means what it says when it proclaims that “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” And furthermore, that welcome will be without any qualifications. Remember folks, it’s not our house – it’s not our table – both belong to God. Our role is to gather, not sort. Let God do the sorting.

The state of Georgia may make outcasts of those of us who are different, but I am determined that the Episcopal Church will not!

And finally I have been blessed to survive over 22 years of living with HIV. I have learned from that experience. I credit my survival with several factors: One is having excellent medical care from a doctor who involves me in my health care. Another is having a strong resolve – something my parents probably refer to as being hard headed – wonder where they think I got it??!! Still another reason is a positive image of myself as a gay man. I never bought into the lie that God made a mistake with me.

Yet another reason is being regularly nourished at the altar in the Eucharist AND regularly receiving anointing and laying on of hands for healing.

But the biggest reason for my survival is faith in the God of my salvation. Faith in the God who called me out to live my faith in helping others in whatever small ways I could.

It has been said that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. I fell into those loving hands and found myself clutched to the bosom of that living and loving God. My prayer is that everyone will be so blessed. May we all seek such a blessing and most especially for all who live with HIV.

Before closing, there is another reality about HIV/AIDS that I – that We – must acknowledge this evening: I am no longer the face of HIV/AIDS. The face of HIV/AIDS is a face of color today: African American, Latino/Latina, Asian, etc. Despite rapid increases in the numbers of women being infected, most of the faces of HIV/AIDS, however, are still gay – whether they acknowledge that fact or not.

As a broad community of faith, we must ask ourselves a question: Do we see the faces of HIV/AIDS in our congregations? Do we look for them? Do we make it clear by word and deed that the faces of HIV/AIDS are welcome among us? If we do welcome those faces, do we welcome without condition or qualification or do we still pass judgment on them? Are still sorting or have we learned just to gather?

Have we learned to love our neighbor – even the one with HIV/AIDS – as we love ourselves? Or…are our words and actions still a ringing indictment against us as communities of faith?

I will not pose answers to these questions. I will simply leave us to search our own hearts for the truth.

I truly believe that we are called to a responsibility for each other in this life. How, or even IF, we answer that call, depends on us. Whatever service I have rendered and whatever responsibilities I have undertaken, have been my way of answering that call. What I have done has never seemed unusual or extraordinary to me. To borrow words from another: They have just been part of the rent I needed to pay for occupying space in creation. So to be honored by you with this award is a unique and yet another wonderful blessing……and I thank you for it!

Bruce Garner

November 4, 2004

Atlanta AIDS Interfaith Network 15th Anniversary Event and Awards Presentation

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