Two names to be added to Craig Chaplin Memorial Award


This spring’s presentation of the award in my brother’s memory will include a couple of firsts – two individuals are being cited and they’re from across the Canada-U.S. border in neighbouring Vermont.

To be more accurate, one-half of the couple of Dr. Delores Barbeau and Carol Olstad, R.N. will be honoured posthumously as Carol, who incidentally was a Canadian born in Alberta, unfortunately died last October in their adopted home of Weston, Vermont.

The two met in 1983 while working in strife-torn Bolivia, Delores as a Maryknoll nun-turned-physician and Carol a registered nurse working under the auspices of the Canadian Baptist Overseas Mission Board.

Delores had only lived and worked with Bolivians since 1969 and, given the political climate, knew how much safer it would be to avoid becoming attached to Carol.

Bolivian authorities were already suspicious, to say the least, of church aid workers in their midst (let alone white North Americans); not easily dissuaded from their presumptions of CIA connections. Imagine if they knew they were lesbians!

But the Bolivian Ministry of Health assigned the two to work together, within a year of their first meeting, in a remote tropical jungle.

Not more than a year later the government had put Delores on a hit list and the two fled Bolivia, travelling to Nicaragua to work for five years alongside the people defending their dignity and rights against American-backed rebel forces out to destroy the successful Sandinista government.  (This corrects my earlier history-fogged equating of the rebels as the more courageous side to be on!)

In 1991 Delores and Carol returned to the United States, first New York and Massachusetts and then Vermont, sharing their lives openly as a couple while continuing to live the “social gospel” lessons of their respective faiths, even if no longer so affiliated. (They have since enjoyed the community of the Monks of Western Priory in Vermont where Carol was solemnly and happily remembered following her death in October of last year.)

In a letter to loved ones about her experiences, Delores concludes:

So. That was Bolivia.

What was it like?
It changed my life forever.
I learned to love.
I learned to look at things in a new way and walked in many different shoes.
I learned other definitions for family.
I learned that there were priorities.
I learned to dance.
I stood before mass graves, and buried many friends.
I learned what fear really felt like.
…and in all of this I never knew a time when I did not know God.

The 2012 Convocation of United Theological College, during which the Craig Chaplin Memorial Award is presented (and Delores will deliver the Convocation Address), will be held at Summerlea United Church on Wednesday, May 9 – five years to the day since Craig’s death.

With such an early spring, maybe his favourite irises will be in bloom.

“The Shack”: allegory, empathy and the question of forgiveness


“I brought a book I think you’ll find interesting,” my cousin said as we sat down for lunch recently, handing me a paperback copy of The Shack by Wm. Paul Young.

I believe, now having read it, that she might have been nudged to give me this book because she knows, perhaps as much as any confidant, “The Great Sadness” (as the novelist puts it) which has been stored, occasionally visited, and allowed to grow unchecked in my own run-down Shack.  I’m guessing she might believe some of the messages of the novel could be applicable to me.

It is not difficult for me to imagine how wrenching it would be, certainly a step out in faith, to face those men I have written about who wronged me in my childhood and youth.  At least one is dead and the others, well, I don’t even know their names let alone their current state-of-being.

That’s not the point.  Were they to appear in my dreams I would almost certainly be forced to confront them.  Would I, in such a dream, or do I now, in compartmentalized pain, feel willing – to say nothing of empowered – to symbolically release their throats from the anger of my tight grasp and hand them over to the power whose many names include God?

The message seems to be to trust that something beyond my judgment, my imagination – beyond belief often – is a better repository for my judgment (which I ultimately can’t inflict anyway) than am I.

Somehow, in releasing my grip, I imagine forgiveness looks more like letting go – leaving judgment to forces beyond me. The haunting “monsters” of my past, after all, are dead as far as I know so my preoccupation with holding on, even if it’s not uppermost in my consciousness, is clearly only hurting me. I get that. To let go completely, though, seems more than I can do – at least on my own. Another message of the book, then perhaps, is that I don’t have to do it by myself.

To the best of my ability I release my hold on these men, that in letting go of them their power over me will be lessened. I will not, however, shy away from using the experience – all of it – as best I can whenever I believe it might be of assistance to someone else.

‘The Fear’ Factor


During a lunch meeting with friends today someone spoke of past states of generalized anxiety which professionals often tried, unsuccessfully, to pin down – fear of flying, fear of social situations, “What are you afraid of?”

That didn’t work.

Then, my friend recounted, while sitting with people she didn’t know she blurted out her frustrations with a list of fears that she could not articulate to the satisfaction of people paid to understand these things. 

“Oh,” said the stranger next to her, “that’s the fear” by which he meant, and she identified with, most everyone in the room had probably experienced – however long-term or short-term it was.

The fear.”

As I heard that today, speaking of fear – not as some sort of Jell-O-on-the-wall feeling but as a noun, a state of being – really resonated with me.  Something like “I’ve caught the cold.”

The first psychiatrist I ever visited asked me one day to talk about my fear(s).

He might as well have been speaking in his native eastern European language.

“Oh,” I bull-shitted, “well I really don’t know that I have any fears, but,” I offered, “I have faith that just about everything that can go wrong in my life will go wrong!”

Hmm…I don’t think I could have been more honest.  In fact, as I look back over my life it sometimes seems as though I did an end-run around the fear state (conscious or otherwise) by seeing any number of misfortunes as proof of the theory about my fears – how could I fear anything if I imagined, or even lived out, the worst case scenarios?

Like AIDS.  It was going to kill me, just as surely as it had killed my friends – only I would die sooner.  No fear, so I thought, so long as I was accepting of this.

I have been proven wrong, so far, about this which in addition to f#%king with my mind has graced me with a dose of humility as in, “I don’t know when, or how , even whether…so just keep moving!”

It was ‘the fear’, present with me for as long as I can remember, which hid behind my early masks of self-appointed family comedian – since my horrible feelings at school made “class clown” seem out of the question most of the time.  I was quite the impressionist – Tarzan yells and Granny Clampett’s screams being my specialties.

‘The fear’ was so pervasive when I was with kids my own age (and the threats this represented), and yet I can remember trying to endear myself to a couple of Craig’s high school friends with those imitations.  (I was successful with the girls, not so much with Craig at that moment.)

So, yes, I now can speak of ‘the fear’ – rather than the apparently more difficult “fear”.

 

"The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty." (Anne Lamott)

World AIDS Day 2010 – Stories – 2 – “This friend living with AIDS who gave me so much…” by Dominique Gauvreau


Each author in this series has generously given me permission to post their work. The views and experiences shared are their own. Where applicable, links will also be provided at the end of the piece.

This is the World AIDS Day, 2010 entry in Dominique Gauvreau’s blog Rencontre sous le Chêne de Mamré (Meeting under the Oak of Mamre):

(Google translation edited by KC)

 

“This friend living with AIDS who gave me so much…”

 

 

There are people who cross our path at random and without knowing just how they transform us.

In the 1980s, a mysterious illness was striking the gay community in Montreal. Acquaintances were dying around me. I was terrified. At that time I was not “out”, essentially living in a gay underground. I hid because I was ashamed of who I was. I hid because I was told again and again that being gay was against nature, immoral, abnormal. Imagine being more affected by what was dubbed the “gay cancer.”

I entered adulthood marked by a childhood in the holy water, where the Catholic Church thought it was the only one which could possibly save me from eternal fire. I was influenced more by the existence of the devil, and fear of damnation, than by a God who loves unconditionally. At this time of my life, I was still marked by homophobic attitudes, having suffered beatings and taunts at school. I was so ashamed that for fifteen years I kept secret a sudden sexual assault in late adolescence.

My silence and my imprisonment in these underground confines led to hidden relationships – dangerous, anonymous, without boundaries and dead to any fear of taking medications, alcohol and street drugs to gild my non-existence. That led to a deep depression. Well-meaning Christians stretched out their hands to heal me, yet told me that marriage was the solution to my very gay problem.

I didn’t get it, seeming to sink further. Naturally! That God rejects and hates gays was well known. I did not deserve to live.

I met Marcel at a party. He told me his life story. He was one of the first I knew who spoke openly about his HIV status. Marcel was a believer and soothed by his faith even though it was very different from mine.

We did not get together too often. We met once by chance walking on Ste-Catherine. Pleased to meet and share some time together, without a pre-arranged date, we went to the chic restaurant “Cristal” in the gay village.

One day as I paced the streets, feeling out of it, at a very low point in my life, religious and social tensions at their lowest, Marcel accosted me with his big smile, hugged me and told me how much he loved me. There was universal love, unconditional. I firmly believe that his actions that day prevented me from throwing myself under a subway train. He was kind of my angel of the day.

Several years have passed since then. Today, I work for GLBT inclusiveness and I am aware of the realities of HIV and AIDS. I’m light years beyond the young man I was at that time. However, I am shocked to see that so much remains to be done in moving toward a society that’s more tolerant and inclusive. Unfortunately, prejudice remains and there is a rise of the religious right and those who would rather see the social exclusion of people with HIV, showing homophobic feelings.

When I see the repercussions in the media of intolerance and hatred on young people who end their lives or who are considering doing so, I ask myself many questions. I have to wonder if anything has really changed in forty years. Some narratives or stories that I hear have disturbing similarities to what I experienced back then. When a character like Benedict XVI speaks of homosexuality as an injustice and against the will of God it is really baseless, ideological bullshit.

Getting back to my friend Marcel, I saw him one fall evening, cold and rainy, in a restaurant. He was letting me know about his next stay in hospital. He gave me his phone number and told me he did not really like people calling it, except me.

After several attempts to contact him, I remained without news. Worried I returned to the restaurant to ask the waitress if she had seen him lately. She told me that he had died.

Every December 1, I think of Marcel and I thank God for having placed him in my path. I think of all those I knew or I know who live with the reality of AIDS. I invite you to do the same and perhaps contribute a donation to an organization or recognized charity.

For my part, in Montreal, I suggest you donate to Cocq-SIDA. I also invite you to learn about the new “Jasmin Roy Foundation” which works to fight against homophobic attitudes in schools. This is another reality which touches me closely and which unfortunately has been topical in recent months.

 

 

"Would we still be friends if I was HIV-positive?"

 

 


Biblical text of the day

Today, the biblical text is not that suggested by Taizé as I usually do.

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’

Recontres sous le Chêne de Mamré

World AIDS Day 2010 – Stories – 1 – Excerpts from the Prologue of “Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan” by Tina A. Brown


Each author in this series has generously given me permission to post their work. The views and experiences shared are their own. Where applicable, links will also be provided at the end of the piece.

AIDS didn’t become important to me until somebody I knew died.

I imagine that is also the case for most people in the U.S.

Even now, it is easy for most of us to put our thoughts about HIV/AIDS behind us because of the way the disease was introduced into our society. We were told in the mid-1980s that it was an infectious disease killing gay white men, Haitians and intravenous drug users. I didn’t know anyone who fit those categories. I had read in school about epidemics throughout history and I never expected to experience this sort of pandemic in my lifetime in such a personal way.

I was a rookie reporter when I heard about AIDS for the first time. The TV broadcaster described it as a mysterious disease that was taking the lives of mostly white gay men in New York and San Francisco. The news report sparked my curiosity. But I didn’t think much else about how AIDS would affect me personally until 1986, when one of my colleagues at the Macon Telegraph in Georgia died suddenly.

I was just getting to know this quiet, smart and young black man who worked as a copy editor. Now, he was dead. Though I had volunteered, I hated writing his obituary. I knew so little about this guy’s personal life. The word AIDS never appeared in his news obituary. As far as the public was concerned, my colleague died of a sudden illness, a popular buzz phrase coined when young people, mostly men, died of complications related to AIDS or the human immunodeficiency virus that causes the disease. The funeral home directors whispered AIDS as the cause of death for very few people.

His death was unsettling. It became apparent to me that this disease would not just strike white gay men in their prime. I realized that AIDS might become a silent killer in Black America.

But there was very little visual evidence of HIV/AIDS affecting this part of the population, despite the statistics made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta in the mid-1980s. I pushed my concern into the back of my mind.

By 1988 I was trying to advance my career as one of seven journalists selected to go to California to develop my skills at the Summer Program of Minority Journalists — now The Maynard Institute — at the University of California at Berkeley. I was assigned to write about the return of the AIDS Memorial Quilt to the Castro district in San Francisco, at the time the epicenter of the AIDS movement in the U.S. The event was one of the most emotional stories I had written. The quilt had traveled across the U.S. and was displayed at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., before arriving in San Francisco. The mayor of San Francisco and other public officials cried as the thousands of quilt panels were unfolded for miles down a city street.

This disease was real, I thought. I had never seen so many people so emotionally affected by one event. Yet as I looked closer at the quilts being paraded down the street, I noticed that there were very few photographs on display of black faces, particularly of women.

I was touched and felt sympathetic for those affected by AIDS, but I felt safe as a heterosexual black woman. My feelings about my personal safety changed five years later when the CDC announced that heterosexual black women would be the next wave of people infected by the virus in the Northeast U.S. I fit that demographic. I wondered quietly whether I could become one of those statistics. That feeling stayed with me when I left my reporting job at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey for a new reporting position in Hartford, Conn. I promised myself once I got settled that I would write a story about how the black community was responding to HIV/AIDS in Connecticut, especially since so many people in Hartford were infected. I asked my editors: What were the traditional black institutions, especially the churches, doing to help people cope with the disease?

I set out to do that story in 1994. Though in my early 30s, I was naive. My knowledge of the streets and issues associated with poverty were limited. I didn’t grow up in the slums. I had never interviewed sex workers or intravenous drug users, people health officials said were also spreading the virus. I admit now that those people scared me because I had seen too many movies.

As the daughter of African Methodist Episcopal ministers, I took the safe approach to the story and called church leaders in cities that dotted Connecticut. To my dismay, they did not return my calls. Since I was working on the special assignment, I didn’t have time to wait by the telephone. I ventured out into community-based organizations such as the Urban League and health departments in Hartford, New Britain, New Haven and Bridgeport to talk to the professionals who were serving the “at risk” populations.

Within a month, I was walking the streets or getting connected with outreach workers like Buster Jenkins and Mark Little in Hartford. Two church mothers, Gladys Pennington and Elsie Cofield, helped direct my path through New Britain and New Haven. They connected me with black and Latino women who told me their life stories, but were unwilling to allow me to use their full names or to have their faces photographed for a newspaper story. Having the virus was a secret many of them kept from their families; they didn’t want to reveal their HIV status in The Hartford Courant. So many of them and the outreach workers who distributed condoms, clean needles and bleach kits saw my frustration, and they asked me if I had met Linda Jordan, who was quickly becoming an icon in AIDS prevention communities across Connecticut.

I called Linda and she invited me over to her house in West Hartford, a suburb of Hartford. My first interview lasted about five hours. She told me that she was a recovering heroin addict who was volunteering with seven different AIDS organizations in Connecticut. That work earned her the Mary Fisher Foundation’s National Outstanding Caregiver Award in 1993. Linda showed me the posters that she and her daughters and grandson had taken for a public awareness campaign for the Connecticut Department of Revenue and the Concerned Citizens for Humanity.

Her family is believed to be one of the first African-American families in the U.S. to put a human face on the disease. The posters are still circulating the globe. Linda was so open about her story that it struck me as odd that this woman who had experienced a lifetime of tragedies wasn’t keeping it a secret. She didn’t believe in having skeletons. She shared her HIV status and the status of her oldest daughter, Tanya, and Linda’s husband Alvin, who was in prison at the time. I wasn’t prepared to hear all of what she had to share in 1994.

My limited street smarts were obvious. It showed in my facial expressions; Linda laughed about it when we talked years later. Yet she trusted that I could learn enough to write her story. At the time, I was too far removed from the life she had led to understand her resilience. She had been molested, abused and raped before she was 10 years old. She had used heroin by the time she was 18, had married and divorced her childhood sweetheart twice. She stayed with him and bore his children, even though he was incarcerated for most of their relationship. She allowed me to hang around, attend family functions and speaking engagements so that I could learn more.

My story for the Courant, “Fighting AIDS with Resilience: Sense of Unity Blacks Confront Epidemic,’’ captured only small fragments of Linda Jordan’s life story. I felt unfulfilled after it was published in October 1994 and I went back to my regular beat covering a predominantly white upper middle-class community outside of Hartford.

About six months after the story was published, I was in Puerto Rico for vacation. The ocean has always been a place for clarity for me. I remember sitting on a rock on a beach one day. I felt like I had made the wrong decision by moving to Connecticut. I asked God why he had sent me here. What was I supposed to do in Hartford? I left there thinking that once I returned to Hartford, I had to continue my work reporting about Linda Jordan.

I owed her much more as a journalist.

I want to write your book, I told her over the telephone.

When do we start? she responded.

For the next five years, I went to Linda’s house on Maplewood Avenue in West Hartford regularly before I went to work at The Courant. I’m not a morning person, so she made sure that I had coffee and she drank tea. I also brought her my copy of the daily newspaper, and was struck that she was always most interested in the obituary page. She recounted the people that she knew had died of AIDS, had overdosed on heroin or died of other premature deaths because of their lifestyles.

My concern back in the early 1980s that black American women would have to wake up and respond to this disease became clear and present. Like in the early days, very few if any of the obituaries cited the true causes of death when someone died of AIDS. So many people were dying in secret and ashamed. But here I was sitting at Linda Jordan’s kitchen table amazed that she didn’t look sick. She was very much alive. She was not afraid to reveal her HIV status and the diagnosis of her husband and her oldest daughter. She strongly believed if those in the HIV/AIDS community stopped hiding their status, more people would accept that the disease was claiming so many others and leaving their families to cope in secret. She told her story to anyone who would listen, hoping and praying that it would be the catalyst for other women who had gone down her crooked path to change their lifestyles.

“Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan” was written so that people of all races, ages, class and generations could reflect on their lives, their past sins and troubles and come to grips with things that hurt them. Linda had to forgive a lot of people because she knew that God had forgiven her. Hers is a story about choosing life despite the odds.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Linda’s story. She accepted the roots of her pain that led to her addictions. Once she accepted her faults, she learned to live.

This book is a dream come true for both of us.

Over time, my assignment at The Courant changed. In 1998, I started writing about crime, courts and social trends in Hartford, one of the poorest cities in the nation. My time in Hartford was not wasted as I became able to write Linda’s story with authority. I was here to see the housing projects where Linda grew up before the federal government tore them down. I witnessed the impact of the AIDS epidemic among the intravenous drug community in this city and others. I saw how welfare reform changed the life of a third-generation welfare recipient who moved into the world of work not just as an AIDS outreach worker, but as a factory worker once the monthly stipends she received for most of her life dried up.

Linda’s story is about living with AIDS. Her spiritual development and belief in God once she forced her way into drug treatment taught her that she could live without the medications that so many people depend upon today. Her unfilled wish was that all religious leaders, especially those in the black church, would stand and help those with the virus who were lost and forgotten. She believed that God saved her from killing herself and AIDS was just something she had to live with. She used her life story to show others that change is possible.

This story affirmed my reasons for becoming a journalist 23 years ago. I chose this profession to tell stories about the people in our society who are largely ignored by the general public. Fortunately, my mission has placed me in unfamiliar situations and enabled me to grow up and reach inside myself to find a common ground with most of the people I’ve interviewed.

www.crookedroadstraight.com

Brother André


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Millions of Roman Catholic pilgrims climb the 283 steps to St. Joseph’s Oratory – praying on their knees.

In the early days of my AIDS diagnosis I used to go to a “healing mass” at Our Lady of Lourdes on Sherbourne Street here in Toronto.  I can’t say I wholeheartedly believed there was much hope for a cure but as long as continued life accompanies my skepticism, and I’m still sucking air, I’ll remain interested in all manner of healing.

St. Joseph’s Oratory, spiritual home of Brother André, is like Montréal’s Our L of L, only much, much bigger and a great deal more famous.  It is where thousands of Montrealers will gather this weekend to watch as the Pope declares Brother André a saint.

Regardless of your mode of travel to Montréal, approaching the city from the west affords a view of the large dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory on the Côtes-des-Neiges slope of Mont-Royal.  It’s across the road from Collège Notre-Dame where, for many years, a man born Alfred Bessette in 1845 (he was later given the name Brother André) worked as a porter – a not-so-glorified doorman – for the student priests.

Brother André claimed a strong devotion to St. Joseph and eventually he was given permission to fund-raise for a shrine to St. Joseph.  The first structure was built in 1904.  Church authorities permitted a room to be added to the chapel and Brother André was instructed to live there so as to be able to receive pilgrims seeking prayer.  He received the ambulatory sick during the day, while evenings were devoted to visiting anyone who could not leave home.  In 1914 construction began on what would eventually be known as Saint Joseph’s Oratory. By the 1920’s over one million pilgrims visited each year and Brother André’s prayers, through St. Joseph, were credited for hundreds of cures.  (There are displays of antique crutches left there many years ago.)

Lest you think L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph, and its beautiful gardens, are only for the devout a few months after my brother Craig died in 2007 I went there one hot August evening with Craig’s partner, Claude, and two of his friends to hear the church’s music director play the massive pipe organ as accompaniment to a Charlie Chaplin film – the fourth or fifth such silent move night that year. It’s a building that can’t be missed and, once there, shouldn’t be missed.

But, alas, what would a Roman Catholic celebration be without a sexual abuse scandal? That’s the risk when nothing is done about a systemic problem!

Trying to articulate, however inadequately, my spirituality


Anyone from “the rooms” who’s heard me talk about 2, 3, 11 and others, especially since my comeback following Craig’s death, knows that I’m having trouble – at best – articulating my beliefs regarding spiritual matters and – at worst – am profoundly confused.

The way from my heart to my head, or vice versa, sometimes seems impassable.  If I’m going to believe something, or in something, my head wants to know what I’m signing up for – and I’m pretty quick to toss out anything familiar which I think maybe has not worked in the past.  Sometimes the baby has gone out with the bath water.  Not any particular baby, mind you, although the mystical (formerly literal) Christmas story was a foundational part of my upbringing and remains of sentimental and, as I noted, mystical importance.

Occasionally I feel like I need to shield people from potentially offensive, dogmatic-sounding language.  That “need to shield” is my problem, or gift, and does not necessarily mean that anyone asks for such protection.  The best example which comes to mind is changing references to “God” (whatever that means to me at the time) from “He”, “His” and “Him” (male) gender assignments.

In the bigger picture, this problem I have of my head needing to know so much about things which may be more intuitive or “unknowable” (forgive the old Donald Rumsfeldism) can, and does, sometimes get in the way of experiencing the moment.  I’ve likened it to seeing something through my camera viewfinder alone, blocking myself (however unintentionally) from a fuller, broader experience of the moment or subject being photographed.

I feel a spiritual longing in the sense that I want to eliminate the sometimes cynical flotsam and jetsam of my thoughts.  I have experienced this during meditations which begin with simple focusing on my breathing.  There’s something powerful, to me, at what I would describe as the bottom of each breath.  Note to self: revive my practice of mindfulness meditation.  Then, rather than demanding to know “who” or what I’m communicating with (it may well be me), I need to try to be open to what I can name as my longings, my yearning, and sometimes – yes – my inquiring. 

Sometimes I get so tired of my head always needing an explanation of everything so, while avoiding the outright dismissive arguments of Hitchens, Hawking et.al., I attribute what I do not know – or have not learned – to the Mystery.  What I do not, or cannot, know has power greater than me.

Maybe, just as the three great monotheistic religions believe in one God (triune hoops of Christianity notwithstanding), and the followers of each such faith pray to the same Deity, just maybe that’s what I’m doing as I contemplate, inquire of, or long for the Mystery. 

Many groups and individuals have shared with me their ideas and experiences of spirituality over the years.  I think of the former healing circle which used to meet in the old AIDS Committee of Toronto offices on Yonge Street each Sunday night; of various First Nations groups and individuals who so generously showed me their practices; of meditation groups.  There are many more examples.

In addition to the visual wonder I experience through photography, I am so appreciative of my love of music imparted to me by my mother and grandmother.  I cannot listen to recordings of the world’s great pipe organs without thinking of the devotion of Mom, Sunday after Sunday, splendidly playing the two-console Casavant organ in Valleyfield and thank her for the forty or so years of piano lessons she gave to kids in Perth, in Valleyfield, and back in Perth again – myself included (though you’d hardly know it now).

There is a power greater than myself in photography and music – in anything creative.

“God” can be short-hand for many wonderful and meaningful ideas, although the baggage the word carries seems to go flying off in all directions sometimes.

 

 

 

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Peggy’s Cove

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  Grant’s Creek (Tay River)

Really? Really! Really?


Praying over bread and wine (or grape juice) used to make them the body and blood of Christ – literally, according to the faithful. Then someone dressed Jesus in a white wafer and, poof, a melt-in-your-mouth Christ.

And, while I could see how it would upset the modern-day Pharisees, such a fuss over spontaneously giving Communion to a dog?

St. Peter’s Anglican Church on Carlton Street (pictured below on a decidedly cold winter day) does a lot of good work in the community, far more important than a dust-up over ‘dogma’.

An Easter I wish I could do over


In my second year at college I hitchhiked from Niagara to Burlington, as I would do occasionally, just a few weeks before Easter. A cousin, her husband and their young family were happy to pamper me with good food and fun. On this particular weekend they also shared their enthusiasm with me about their conversion to Christianity – more of a conversion from the liberal, mainstream Christianity we knew as kids to the ‘born again’ variety.

I was of an age, and at a time in my life, when I was susceptible to suggestions of my unworthiness – not from them directly, to be clear, but in the pamphlets they gave me from Campus Crusade for Christ. I did not realize, at the time, that I could have discussed my troubling homosexual awakening with my brother so, upon my return to my shared apartment on Sunday evening, it was one of the things I prayed to be rid of as I followed the instructions in the brochure (now available as a web page but the illustrations remain exactly the same.)

My prayer was sincere, including my wish to be rid of my homosexual thoughts, and I’d like to think that my eventual acceptance of myself and my coming out, were God’s answer to those prayers – just not the ones I had expected.

Anyway, feeling the excitement of a new convert I went to visit the pastor of a church which I had been attending. Excited by my news, of course, he told me that there was to be a baptismal service at the evening service on Easter Sunday, just a few weeks away. This was to be a full immersion baptism, with several others, wading into a tank of water at the front of the church.

News of how I was to spend Easter did not go over well at home. By then Mom and Dad had learned that Craig was gay and was quietly involved, nearly silent of necessity, in the church’s deliberations over the ordination of gays and lesbians. (They wisely chose not to disclose Craig’s sexual orientation to me at this time!) I can only imagine how upsetting my decision was for them. It’s something I regret to this day although Craig assured me, when I eventually did come out, that he understood where I was coming from.

Holding up the positive, I understand the theology of the back-to-basics, evangelical Christians. From their point of view it’s simple, matter-of-fact, and certain – just the way they like it. (I still have a weakness for Christian music which has come a long way since the heyday of gospel quartets.) The cyclical “the Bible tells me so” argument is not subject to much, if any, interpretation. It stands up to criticism and discussion by simply not engaging in it in any way that the Bible-as-authority is disputed. I actually find more meaning in the story-as-metaphor or allegory. The burden of proof is lifted and the underlying message can come forward.

When my pastor, in 1981, publicly supported Toronto police raids of several bath-houses I was really angry. I traveled to Toronto for several public rallies against the raids and soon came out to Mom and Dad and, in turn, to Craig. Far from unforgiving of my past denunciation of homosexuality they were all very supportive. Craig understood, as do I, that some of the most virulent homophobes are people who haven’t dealt with their own sexuality in some way.

So, rather than dwell on that disruptive Easter of my youth, I remember the great holidays spent with Craig for the twenty-five years plus we were able to enjoy as gay brothers and I look forward to spending this weekend with Mom and Craig’s partner Claude. I hope Claude’s tulip bulbs at Craig’s grave survived the squirrels.

The infuriating sins of the ‘Fathers’


As I walked up to the subway this morning I passed a young Tamil-Canadian family crossing the street from St. James Town to attend Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church – so a confession is in order. I have received Communion from Jesuits there which, as a Protestant, I am not permitted to do. A Basilian father or two has also served me the sacraments up at their now-closed retreat centre on beautiful Strawberry Island on Lake Simcoe. I seem to have genuflected convincingly.

At Lourdes the occasions for my being there were monthly healing masses for anyone affected by HIV/AIDS. I don’t know if they’re still going on but in their early days I attended semi-regularly with many others willing to at least pay lip service to just about anything offering hope. (I’ll try to refrain from further use of the term lip service in a Roman Catholic context.) Filipino-Canadian drag queens would attend, their resemblance to their mothers always quite striking. It did not surprise me that one of the priests at the mass was someone I would occasionally see in dimly lit establishments known for sexual activity – and he was not there to hear confessions.

My blood has been at a rolling boil this week as more and more revelations of sexual abuse, and the Vatican’s handling of these tragic cases, have been reported almost daily.

Item: Vatican knew of abuse in Ontario: Victim

I came out of the closet in the early 1980s during heated public debates over the basic civil rights of gays and lesbians in the Ontario Human Rights Code. One of the canards thrown at us by opponents was the equating of homosexuality with pedophilia. It was always a shocking, and infuriating, charge. I, therefore, have a great deal of empathy for Roman Catholic priests who do not happen to be molesters of their juvenile parishioners. They must feel betrayed by their brothers who are guilty of such crimes. I hope they have the strength to call them out on these matters.

The official Roman Catholic Church, from Pope Benedict (formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and “God’s Rottweiler”) down through the defensive male hierarchy of the Church, has unsuccessfully tried to do the impossible – saving its face and its ass at the same time. The influence it once held in western society long lost, the Church still carries on as if we all believe everything that comes out of the Holy See, down to the bishops and the pawns.

Item: Pope won’t be intimidated by ‘petty gossip’

I know a few Roman Catholics who cling to their faith as the way they know to experience the Mystery and, more importantly, to act out their faith through such entities as The Catholic Worker Movement. I know them to be good, loving people who believe in gay rights, for example, and other things which would not get an endorsement from the balcony at St. Peter’s Square. My heart aches for them as they see their Church being yanked from one priests’ scandal to another.

This jars memories of ‘Hawaiian Tropic’ Secret, a story I put into words and read for the first time in 1990 during an “AIDS Mastery” workshop. In writing, without judgment or self-censorship, I saw the plain fact that what I had carried as guilt for my behaviour was, in fact, the abuse of a minor (me) by a much older man. (I have no reason to believe the abuser was a priest but I do empathize with the Church – whose condemnations regarding morality over the years are coming back to bite it to the point where its outward-pointing fingers of yesterday are increasingly pointing inward today.)

Unfortunately The Church seems to be better at demeaning the sexual life force of lowly parishioners than dealing with the inexcusable sexual violence visited upon young people by priests who claim to hold such incredible moral authority over their charges.

The flock needs to revolt against the shepherds.

Unearthing one of my early newspaper appearances


 

After the cathartic experience here this morning of again recalling Craig’s struggles, in the early days of his ministry, I was remembering some of what was going on in my life 700 km away from Craig.  In the raucous days of an Ontario Human Rights Code amendment debate, giving gays and lesbians protection in the workplace, housing and so on, I agreed to be interviewed by another reporter (she from the newspaper, me in radio).

In a brown envelope, within a “clippings” folder, I found a photocopy of this St. Catharines Standard article stamped Dec. 29 1986.

Forgive some of the views expressed. Pop quuiz: I won’t tell you which ones. :) I was so naive!

Beneath a picture of me on the phone, a picture roughly the same size as the three-column article, picture this:

On the record

 

Kenn Chaplin has ended a double life to find contentment in the gay world

 

By TERRY SLAVIN

Standard Staff

If Kenn Chaplin had been able to choose his sexuality, he would have chosen to be gay.  Although it’s  difficult enough for most people to deal with their heterosexuality, Kenn has no regrets about the fact he was born gay.

“I’m enjoying the political side of my lifestyle immensely.  I think because I’m gay I’m more sensitive  to other oppressed people.  Despite what I now know about the difficulties of this lifestyle, if I could choose, I think I would choose to be gay.”

Kenn, a reporter with CKTB in St. Catharines, is also one of the founding members of Gay Outreach Niagara, a two-year-old support groups for gays and lesbians.

Helping other gays in the region come to terms with their homosexuality is a labor of love which occupies about half of his leisure time.  He also has devoted a great deal of time working with the AIDS committee in Toronto.

Kenn has emerged from a few closets since the day six years ago when he penned a letter to the United Church Observer objecting to the ordination of gays as ministers.

“It’s something I regret now,” the lanky 27-year old says quietly.  “But I think some of the worst homophobes can’t come to terms with their own sexuality.”

Kenn moved to the Niagara area from Valleyfield, Que., to attend Niagara College in 1977, and entered a period of emotional and mental confusion.

“When I moved here I had a truly double life, going to Toronto for sexual contacts while attending an ultra-conservative sect in Welland on Sundays as a way of suppressing it.

“It didn’t work.  It just made me feel guilty – not because I was doing what I was doing, but because I was leading this double life.”

On one trip to Toronto in 1981 he was handed a pamphlet which tore apart the biblical justifications used to denounce homosexuality, and he suddenly realized he could resolve the conflict between his gay identity and his faith in the United Church.

It was on the heels of that revelation that he decided to tell his parents the truth.

“That was the biggest hurdle, telling my parents I was gay.  I just wasn’t sure how they’d handle it.  My gut reaction was they’d either reject me or lovingly accept me.”

Fortunately for the entire family, they did the latter.

Spending Sundays hearing the anti-gay gospel expounded on the Calvary Gospel Church pulpit, however, has helped him to understand both sides of the heated debate about the sexual orientation amendment to the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“I appreciate the diverse backgrounds.  I know how the two poles operate.  I know how the born-agains operate.  They fully believed I was going to hell.”

Kenn says his goal in life is to share a normal existence with one other man “and live happily ever after”, but it has been difficult for him to find a partner.

He estimates between 40 and 50 percent of gay men aren’t secure enough about their sexuality to commit themselves to that kind of lifestyle.

It is difficult enough meeting other gays.  He says “straight people” have the opportunity to meet potential mates in school, shopping centres, work situations, as well as the bar scene, but gay people don’t have as many choices.

Outside of a gay bar, he observes wryly, “You just don’t go up and ask, if you want to keep your teeth.”

There is one bar in downtown St. Catharines which caters to a gay clientele at night, he says, but most people go to Toronto, or across the border to Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York.

“I’m not holding out much hope it’ll happen here, and that’s why I’ll never feel at home here.”

Another shadow that cannot help but creep into Kenn’s life is the fear of AIDS.  He has done some work with the AIDS committee in Toronto, and has given emotional and practical support as a “buddy” to some of the AIDS victims in Niagara.

He has had three friends die from AIDS.

“When I read the Globe or the Star I read the death pages.  It’s made me grow up fast, come home, do the crosswords and read the death notices.”

And with each new death, his thoughts can’t help but stray to his own mortality.

“I’m assuming I’ve already been exposed to the virus before safe sex started,” he says.  Because of the long incubation period (up to five years) he could still get AIDS.

“I like to live.  My philosophy is don’t worry until you have something to worry about.”

And now that the Human Rights Code has passed an amendment prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals, he does not have any fear about going public about his sexuality.

He said he expects some negative reaction when “people who’ve been dealing with Kenn Chaplin, CKTB reporter, find out they’ve been dealing with a gay all along…but I accept it.  I’m going to have to deal with it all my life.  By coming out the only choice I’ve made is to be honest.  If other people can’t handle that it’s their problem, it’s not mine.”

 

If I was spoiling for a fight I got one – but nothing as bad as it could have been.

It just so happened (wink, wink) that the article came out on the first of my two days off.  When I returned to work my fellow reporters showed a variety of levels of support but when my boss called me in I got a truer picture.

He nervously assured me that he had no problem with the substance of the article, the unorthodoxy of a newspaper interviewing a competing radio station notwithstanding.  He wished that I had given him a heads up.  It was his boss, he said, the station manager, who was having a harder time with it.

His office was my next stop.

Again, I was treated with courtesy but he gave me a double-pronged objection:  I was opening up the radio station to unnecessary scrutiny by listeners and he was Roman Catholic and struggled with some of my views.  No big surprise there.

The whole exercise was an adrenaline rush and I wholly admit to being in a frame-of-mind at the time of, “Go ahead.  Challenge me!”

It’s a reminder to me of those days when “pride”, as in LGBT Pride displayed in the annual festivals and parades, was much more political here in Canada than has since become the case.  However, echoing the words of Alyson Huntly to me earlier, “I don’t think people realize how much hatred glbtq people experience just for being who we are, or how hard it is for young people especially. It’s still socially acceptable to be anti-gay even when it is no longer socially acceptable to promote racial hatred.”

Alyson Huntly receives this year’s Craig Chaplin Memorial Award



From left to right:  my sister Lynn, Alyson Huntly, and Claude on my left2472243872_3ce770b56c_b

Google Alyson Huntly’s name, as I did even before I knew with absolute certainty that I’d be writing this, and you’ll see what an accomplished author, educator, Diaconal Minister, grandmother (and on and on) she is!  Add Doctor, too, Alyson having received her Ph.D. in Education (Curriculum) from Queen’s University last fall.

So for these, and more particular, reasons for many of us it was never a question of if, only when, Alyson would receive the award my late brother Craig left for McGill University’s United Theological College.

I emailed her a few questions this week and she replied with warm and loving memories of a dear friendship.

My first point of contact with Alyson comes from her acclaimed 1998 book Daring To Be United: Including Lesbians and Gays in The United Church of Canada (United Church Publishing House) but her friendship with Craig went well beyond that.

My first question to Alyson was, given her understanding of Craig’s intent for the award, what her feelings are in being selected to receive it.

“I am of course very honoured to be recognized this way. It makes me feel quite humble, though, when I think of all those who are doing so much to work for justice for glbtq people in the church and in the wider community. Although many people think the issue is over, of course there is still so much prejudice and oppression – within the church and in Canadian society. Of particular concern for me is the way that young people experience such hatred and misunderstanding, including from their peers, as they are coming out.

“Craig and I talked about this award when he was first thinking of creating it. I know that his hope was to continue to raise up the issue of sexual orientation, as a way of continuing to place it in front of the church in a public way, through the UTC convocation. He saw this as a way of continuing to name the “issue” that no one wanted to talk about. I think it’s still somewhat the case. I work in a congregation and I am quite sure that there are many who would say that they are fine with me being lesbian, but let’s not be public about it – which is of course a way of silencing glbtq experience and stories.”

Published ten years following the denomination’s historic decision not to exclude qualified lesbians and gay men from ordained ministry, Daring to Be United weaves together the many stories as told by passionate church members on both sides of “The Issue”.

One of those stories was Craig’s and, re-reading it even now, the inner turmoil and fear of those days leaps off the page.  I asked Alyson to reflect on the interactions she had with Craig, particularly in the preparation of the book, and on Claude’s quoting – from the book – of Craig a few years ago that “living in the closet was worse than his personal experience of HIV”.  I remember that even at the worst moments of  “the issue” Craig, like so many, never lost hope completely nor the collective sense of humour.

“Craig was a good friend. We worked together on a few different projects, related to lay education, during the time I was working at UTC (1990-94) and often met for supper to chat about work or just to talk. We often met at his and Claude’s apartment and had long unhurried conversations about everything under the sun. Craig was always so easy to talk to and such a compassionate listener but he also talked about his own life, his struggles and hopes, and about this award.

“I know he was hoping to write a memoir and I have often wondered what happened to that project. He did write a bit, I know. When I interviewed him for Daring to Be United he was more out (that would have been in 1997) but he talked a lot about his experiences of being in the closet and how oppressive that had been. I think it was a great joy for him that later in his life he could be public about who he was. Though many people at the church knew, there was still that oppressive silence hanging over him. I think he was very relieved when that ended and he could be fully out. And, yes, he did have an incredible sense of humour – and a deep love of life. He was an introvert by nature and needed time apart but he also loved people – his friends, his family, and the people he ministered with.

“That is what I remember most about Craig – his loving presence. This award is a reminder of how much Craig gave of himself, and his love and care.  That’s also what is humbling about receiving this award. He touched so many people in such a significant way. And he continues to do so, through this bequest.”

Chaplin was ordained in 1980, in an era when “don’t ask, don’t tell” seemed the norm for gay and lesbian candidates. “I don’t even remember contemplating coming out as a serious option,” he recalls.  “With anyone I did tell in those early years, the response was always the same: don’t rock the boat and everything will be fine.”  He went to enormous lengths to hide his sexual orientation and his relationship from his first congregation.  His partner never answered the phone.  He could only enter the house through the back door.  If anyone came to the door he went upstairs immediately.  The pressure was horrendous.  “I needed to believe people didn’t know he was in the house,” Chaplin explains.  “We managed to eke out a life , but it was very stressful.”

In 1984, he moved to Union United Church in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, near Montreal.  In 1986, when the congregation studied the issue, they invited a “real gay person” to come and talk to them.  It was ironic.  They could have talked to their minister, if anyone had known.  By 1988, Chaplin had come out to a number of key people in the congregation, but most still were not aware of his sexual orientation.  A commissioner to the 1988 General Council, he sat in the auditorium, a closeted gay, HIV-positive man.  When he joined in the debate, he spoke carefully, in the third person.

9781551340821

Chaplin’s deteriorating health finally forced him to go public.  In 1992, he stood in front of his  congregation and told them who he was.  He would have preferred to come out in different circumstances but knows that, but for AIDS, he might never have done so.  “I’m grateful that if I had to develop HIV, at least it became a catalyst for the kind of growth and change I needed to do,” he says.  It became a very life-affirming opportunity to claim his life back both from the closet and the disease.  He feels both were deadly.  “In many ways, the closet was killing me faster than the virus, spiritually if not physically, because of the enormous pressure I felt to conform outwardly to an image that wasn’t who I was.”

Chaplin recognizes the cost of all those years of speaking in the third person, answering evasively.  As closets go, it wasn’t too uncomfortable.  He had come out to a lot of people in the congregation, but that just meant they, too, were part of the web of silence. “I may be feeling more liberated but, really, all I’ve done is broadened the web of deceit.  I have brought them into my closet.  But they haven’t brought me out into the sunshine.  It was quite different the day I stood up in a public forum and said, ‘This is who I am.’  Because, at that point, I wasn’t inviting them into the closet, I was knocking the door down.”  Chaplin regrets that it had to be done under those kind of circumstances.  “In the best of all possible worlds, it’s not the  kind of script I would have written,” he says.  “But given the hand I was dealt, I did the best I could.”

Alyson has been very involved with Affirm United for many years.  (That’s a group within the Church for support of, and outreach from, lgbt members – ordained, laity and friends.)  I wondered how she sees the Affirming Ministries movement going in the United Church of Canada – ever-growing in some areas and yet, perhaps, a little complacent in others.

“I think the Affirming Ministry movement continues to be very important, even though there are many who would say this issue is just not that important anymore (because we have glbt ministers and gay marriage and so on). Even people who understand the importance of working on issues like anti-racism will say to me sometimes, ‘Why are you still going on about gay rights when there are so many more important things to be done in the world?’ I don’t think people realize how much hatred glbtq people experience just for being who we are, or how hard it is for young people especially. It’s still socially acceptable to be anti-gay even when it is no longer socially acceptable to promote racial hatred.”

Does Alyson not enthusiastically embody Craig’s vision for this memorial award?

I’ll editorialize with some extra emphasis but this is how United Theological College announced the establishment of the Fund at the time of Craig’s death:

The Rev. Craig Chaplin, friend, pastor, teacher and graduate of the United Theological College died on Wednesday, May 9, 2007.

Over a decade ago Craig made the decision to make a bequest to the United Theological College that would support an award recognizing the remarkable contributions of ministry offered by gay and lesbian people.  In initiating this fund Craig envisioned an award that would be given regularly, and publicly, to a gay or lesbian person, ministering within the formal, organized structures of the Christian Church or in other faith traditions.  This award is intended to be not only a symbol of affirmation, but also a means of fostering and encouraging positive role models within the GLBT community.

It was Craig who proposed that this award be announced at the time of his death and that others be encouraged to be Craig’s partners in contributing to it and the vision it promotes.

We are honoured that Rev. Chaplin has entrusted the United Theological College with the disbursement of this memorial fund.  His affirming vision of the ministry of gay and lesbian people within and beyond the life of the Church is one we seek to affirm in tangible ways through our ministry of theological education.  This memorial fund allows us to live more fully into this vision and mission.

During the time Craig was so selectively “out” he would tell me how proud he was of me, and envious, as my eventual coming out (preceded by a “Me thinks he doth protest too much” homophobia at a time when I could have been much more supportive) allowed me to be at lgbt rallies ‘in the trenches’.  In kind, I have absolute goose-bumps of pride reading over those terms of reference for Craig’s Memorial.

Alyson will be honoured as part of the Spring Convocation of the United Theological College to be held this year on Wednesday, May 12 at 2 pm at Union United Church of Montreal (not to be confused with Union in Ste. Anne de Bellevue) located at 3007 Delisle Street near the Lionel-Groulx Metro station (see map).

As this is an on-going memorial, donations to the Craig Chaplin Memorial are always greatly appreciated. A secure on-line link can be accessed from here or gifts to “United Theological College” (Chaplin Memorial in memo line) can be mailed to:

United Theological College,
3521 University St.,
Montréal, Québec H3A 2A9

Youth for Christ partners with Winnipeg City Hall; Stephen Harper and ‘the Theo-cons’ – are we way past ‘scary’?


A dog-eared, repeatedly-read copy of The Walrus from a few years ago sits beside my comfy chair. Its cover reads “Stephen Harper and the Theo-cons: The rising clout of Canada’s religious right”

(Simon, in comments, points us to news of the author’s forthcoming book The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada)

I was reminded of the piece by my friend John in Ottawa who has a link, sans commentaires, to the article on his blog.

I commend it to your reading.

The article came to mind, again, when the Harper government’s scariness, again, broke through the Olympic celebrations.

I was invited to join a Facebook group which, too late this time, mobilized against government funding of a building in Winnipeg to be operated by the oh-so-inclusive name of Youth for Christ.

They’re not a new name in the conservative, evangelical Christian milieu and, as they themselves describe their work, they see nothing wrong with receiving public funds while proselytizing in any number of ways to the poor – immigrant, aboriginal, “at risk”.

Columnist Dan Lett of the Winnipeg Free Press, noting “the big-box Christian churches peppered around Winnipeg regularly mix politics and religion” takes us through some of the strongest misconceptions for and against public funding of such a centre.

Existing service providers, far from declining additional help in the troubled downtown, reasonably argue against this proposal.

With all the hallmarks of a George W. Bush “faith-based initiative” (which also received public money as often as Congress allowed it) this Youth for Christ initiative has some high-ranking government cheerleaders including Justice Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

Check out Youth for Christ (Winnipeg)’s website and see if this sounds like your favourite municipal community centre.

Christmas church candles and Coca-Cola chuckles


As I look forward to hearing and singing the music of the Christmas season I think back to the break-neck pace we kept in the family at this time of year when I was a kid.

This probably would have been the Sunday for our church’s candlelight service, or perhaps the 20th, and it was always a very full day. It  began with the regular morning service and then Mom, the church organist for thirty-one years, would round up both the junior and senior choirs (ad any available chauffeurs) for an after-lunch drive.

We took something of a triangular route to two English-language nursing homes – one near Ormstown, the other just outside of Huntingdon – where we sang carols, both in the main living-rooms and at the bed-sides of anyone who couldn’t make it to the larger gathering. They were, my mother recalls with more vivid detail than can I, unlicensed homes so using the term “nursing” belies a level of care that would not meet the standards of professionals, neither now nor then. I do vivdly remember a fair amount of good-natured shouting, which I would now recognize as simple attempts to communicate with one another, an almost suffocating heat, even with drafty windows, and a few pungent aromas.

Some of this usually frightened me as a youngster (most residents were older and in much rougher shape than my grandparents) but it was a valuable life lesson and, in fact, I grew to have quite a particular affinity with the more elderly subscribers along my paper route during my teens. I remember Mom would spend an evening a day or two before our outing packing little plastic bags with Christmas-coloured hard candies, tied with a festive ribbon, for us to hand out to the seniors.

Dusk was upon us when we got home for a light supper and then we set off for the candlelight service. It was a very pretty little church and on this night it was always amazing with, I swear, more candles per square metre than any other church would have considered safe, not to mention the fire marshal. The only electric lighting used was over my mother on the organ (and maybe the choir, too, but most couldn’t read music so lighting wasn’t a priority.)

The church would be very warm, thanks to a boiler furnace and associated radiators which pinged, hissed and banged at times of their choosing which rarely matched the beat of the music. There was more than the usual amount of body heat, too, with regular attendees out-numbered by Christmas and Easter seasonal devotees.

The music was pretty good, all things considered, as Mom always had at least one and sometimes two excellent soprano soloists in the choir – and Mom had a very good two-manual Casavant Frères pipe organ to work with. (I’ve been a big fan of pipe organs ever since.) Mom had taken over as organist – she a piano teacher, mind you, not an organist – from Bob Anderson. There was a character! I suppose he would have been in his seventies when I first was old enough to remember him but he and his wife Effie lasted well into their eighties. Bob had a booming baritone voice which could be heard all over the church during the singing of an old hymn. When I was young enough to be getting the “Say thank you” advice he would reach into his suit pocket and haul out a selection of wrapped candies. He and Effie were immigrants from Scotland and their brogue was very thick. As I grew up I mastered pretty good imitations of both of them.

Valleyfield United was a small English-language Protestant church in a mostly French-speaking, Roman Catholic city so I can only remember two great preachers since it tended to attract clergy either just starting out, relatively speaking, or those close to, or perhaps overdue to, retire. Richard and Harold were my favourites. Richard was there when I was in the first few grades of school while Harold managed to keep me interested in the church through my high school years. Otherwise, we cycled through quite an assortment of clergy who probably sped up the rapid decline in church attendance in those days.

The church is being transformed into a local museum. Newspaper reports I’ve read about it, and pictures on its Facebook page, show that all the beautiful stained glass memorial windows have been maintained. They really are spectacular having been installed gradually, and well cared for, over the long life of the congregation.

After the candlelight service we would usually take a short detour on the way home so that we could pass the Coca-Cola bottling plant where a more secular version of Christmas was on display. In a large picture window, where the assembly line would normally be in view, sat a twice-life-sized mechanical Santa Claus in a setting that probably came from the company’s earliest magazine ads. One of his low-tech arms would go up as a voice, through loud-speakers, boomed, “Ho ho ho!” This was a traffic stopper, particularly at night with lots of twinkling lights adding to the atmosphere.

My grandmother, who would be part of this drive home a few nights later on Christmas Eve, got a big kick out of Santa which to kids like us, accustomed to a rather staid grandmother, made us laugh all the harder.

Happy Christmas memories of Valleyfield United Church and the Coca-Cola Santa Claus are inseparable!

Artwork from www.thecoca-colacompany.com

It’s been twenty years


Because I do not know the exact date in May this seems as good a time as any to mark the twentieth anniversary of my HIV-positive diagnosis.

It was March of 1990 when I received definitive word at which time suspicious blood samples from the previous May were tested for HIV specifically and they were also positive. It seemed in hindsight, to my doctor, that I might have been sero-converting in May when I had unbearable shakes, chills, fever and other flu-like symptoms.

I remember spending most of the night in hospital where emergency room personnel hemmed and hawed over blood test results, double-checked to make sure I was practicing safer sex (so their suspicions were not lost on me entirely) and sent me on my way by daybreak. The day was particularly miserable because the apartment building I lived in at that time was being renovated when I might otherwise have been sleeping so I rather pitifully took blankets and a pillow and wrapped myself into a bundle on the lawn behind the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Ironic, isn’t it, given that about four years later the AIDS Memorial would open on those very grounds (pictured below in autumn).

When it came time for me to leave work in late 1990 my doctor at the time suggested that I look upon the forthcoming ten years, that was the figure he used, as my retirement, saying that many 65-year old retirees do well to survive ten years.  In other words I’d do well to see 40.

While there have been times when I thought I should have been, even wished I could have been, dead – before the ten years was up and since – it is amazing to look back and see all the things I would have missed had that happened. Sort of a reverse bucket list.  I’ll leave out the obvious bad news of the world and list, in no particular order lest it be seen as a ranking of favourites, the blessings I have enjoyed during these twenty – not ten – unanticipated retirement years:

There was the beautiful wedding of my youngest sister Janice to Randy, the marriage presided over by my brother, at the gorgeous botanical gardens in Montreal.

Their first child, Kailey, was born in August of 2001, the year making it easy to remember her age because on September 11, 2001 Craig was on the train from Montréal to see her for the first time and called me several times along the way to be kept abreast of the day’s tragic events.  I’ve seen Kailey grow up through those baby-cute years to be a wonderful young school girl and a terrific older sister.

Brennan is another blessing, whose birth in 2003 I remember for the reason that it was just a few days after holding him at McMaster Medical Centre that I was in hospital myself in Toronto, following a mishap with a taxi-cab.

Dad did not live to see Brennan but our last pictures of him have him holding Kailey on his lap for his seventy-fifth birthday in 2002.  It has been very moving to watch Mom adjust to a life together lasting fifty years, now without Dad.

We could not have foreseen Craig’s death just five years later; nor is it easy to find blessings in it other than the knowledge that he was never in any pain, based on him showing no agitation of any kind. I really didn’t want this in the wouldn’t-want-to-miss list but it doesn’t hurt to remind myself of how plans and assumptions have a way of changing, whether I like it or not.  (I was absolutely certain that I would be a goner by 1994 at the latest, and many are pleased to remind me of my certainty.)

I can’t mention Craig without acknowledging the blessing Claude has been to our whole family, for their sixteen years together, and continuing to this day.

The aforementioned collision between my femur, wrist and the front of a taxi afforded me the opportunity to travel in luxury for a tour of the Canadian maritime provinces in 2005.  Having only been as far east as New Brunswick previously this was a delightful excursion by train, bus and ferry.  It was the first year I had a digital camera, too, so the trip was very well documented!

Any list is certain to have omissions so I would ask you, my loyal reader, to add great things that I have missed – or not as is the case here – over the last ten to twenty years.

The return home from family, following Craig’s death, laid bare some stark choices I had to face in my life and so it was in June of 2007 that I rejoined my “recovery” family.  Old friendships have been renewed and new acquaintances made – a few would have to be called more than ‘acquaintances’.  These friends manage to keep my life within some kind of perspective, always in good cheer.

I’ve also been part of a rich family of seekers since early 1999 at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church.  They, too, have seen me through much these past ten years – almost from the point of my forecasted demise!

What to me is, or has been, the mystery of my survival stems from the life and death of a friend named Jim Revell.  I met him in 1990 and we became fast, intimate friends, as Jim did with many people.  Although he, too, was HIV-positive he approached his health in many ways that I did not, and too often still do not.  He ate well.  He swam and worked out at the gym.  To me he was the model of surmounting illness.  His CD-4 count was such that he still was not on preventative therapies.  Then he started having severe pains in his stomach.  After a lot of checking and re-checking he was diagnosed with lymphoma.  We were all shocked but Jim doggedly took all treatments being offered and remained in high spirits, building and enjoying a new relationship, and it took a while before any of us could believe that he might not make it.  I could not believe that he was dying before me, so certain I had been that we’d be in reverse situations.  He died on January 14, 1994.  That brief time he spent in my life is a collection of very, very rich memories, even if some are desperately sad.

Jim was one of so many guys in my circle lost in the 1980s and 1990s.  Their names and faces come back to me often.

In 1996, the year the first of the drug combinations which have become known as the “cocktail” was available, I was a delegate to the International AIDS Conference in Vancouver.  What an experience – something else I’m so happy not to have missed – if for no other reason than it was my first visit to the west coast.  Of course it was much more than that.  Par example. I remember having breakfast with some women from Africa and they stared in wonder at the pills and capsules I was taking, telling me that they have to walk several miles to another village if and when they can afford to buy common aspirin.  That’s an awakening that is still going on here in rich countries.

I reiterate that is by no means a complete list.  You could help me by adding your picks of some of the highlights of the last ten, or even twenty, years; things that you would have not wanted to miss that have changed the world for the better.  Send me a reply in the comments section.

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A leading instigator of Toronto’s AIDS Memorial, Michael Lynch (who would himself die of AIDS-related illness) wrote this poem which greets visitors to the memorial:

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