Published September 22, 2005
Kenya Griffin held a quilt and danced gracefully among AIDS ministers and others gathered at Our Lady of Lourdes parish hall Aug. 19.
“My heart spills overflowing with tears / I cry for your suffering and for your shortened years / and I’ll take you with me as I walk away / remembering you who have died with AIDS,” went the lyrics of “Patchwork Quilt,” interpreted a capella by members of Our Lady of Lourdes Choir.
Griffin passed the quilt to several AIDS ministers until it returned to her and concluded her dance by placing it in the arms of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
Moved by the gesture, the archbishop lifted the quilt to his heart and embraced it.
“That the leader of the Catholic Church of Atlanta held a quilt in his arms may have no meaning to most, but this particular quilt was lovingly made by parishioners from Our Lady of Lourdes with reminders and names of friends and relatives who have died from AIDS,” explained Irene Miranda, director of the archdiocesan Office of HIV/AIDS Ministry. “When he embraced it, he embraced our work; he embraced each and every one of the AIDS ministers in the archdiocese, as well as those who we serve.”
The ministry’s advisory board, led by David Caron, director of Sacred Heart’s AIDS Ministry, organized the reception where Catholic AIDS ministers, priests, Religious and representatives from local organizations gathered to welcome Archbishop Gregory as Atlanta’s new archbishop.
“You could hear this collective sigh in the room from people who were deeply moved by that gesture,” said Caron, who has been involved in the ministry for over 20 years. “Most of us have lost loved ones to AIDS and when the archbishop embraced the quilt, it was like he was embracing all our departed and all of us. You could not help but be moved.”
He added that Catholic AIDS ministers in Atlanta are looking forward to working with the new archbishop and to his guidance “as he supports our work in the years to come. We have been through varying degrees of encouragement from the archdiocese, and the archbishop seems sincerely supportive of our ministry.”
Face To Face With AIDS
During the reception, Archbishop Gregory shared his experiences during a visit to Sudan and Kenya in 2001, when he was vice-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was during that visit that Archbishop Gregory encountered the global face of AIDS.
“In going through the various places there, it was clear that AIDS is really a pandemic,” said the archbishop. “I had never understood what that term meant until I spent that afternoon with Archbishop (Raphael) Ndingi (of Nairobi, Kenya) in the shanty town because almost every dwelling had some evidence of AIDS: either one or both of the parents had died from AIDS, or the children were born with AIDS.”
He said he was proud that the Catholic Church is present in comforting those afflicted by HIV/AIDS and acknowledged the ministry of other churches, such as the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and other evangelical communities.
Archbishop Gregory said it is clear to him that what the world is living with is what Jesus would be confronting if these were biblical times.
“These are the ones that he would search for and bring near him to comfort. So, whatever you are doing by way of assisting those who are living with HIV and AIDS, you are continuing the ministry of Jesus. And you do that without judging, as Jesus cared for those people,” Archbishop Gregory said with a smile. “He didn’t say, ‘How did you get it?’ He cared for them because they were suffering and they needed him, as the people who are living with HIV/AIDS in our own city, in our own community need us.”
The archbishop then thanked all AIDS ministers, clergy and Religious at the parish level, as well as physicians and guests from organizations that reach out to people with HIV/AIDS.
“This moment in history is our moment,” said Archbishop Gregory. “We could have been born during the height of the bubonic plague. We could have been born at another moment where there were some other catastrophic illnesses, but the good Lord put us in this moment because Jesus needs to continue his ministry, and he needs to continue his ministry through us. So, I thank you for doing that.”
Later, on behalf of all AIDS ministries in the archdiocese, Archbishop Gregory was presented with a framed icon from the National Catholic AIDS Network titled “Mother of God, Light in All Darkness.”
AIDS Ministers Feel Encouraged
Archbishop Gregory’s words and actions at the gathering “speak volumes to me of how he feels about those living with HIV/AIDS and those who reach out to help them,” said Ann Prosek, AIDS minister from St. Oliver Plunkett Church, Snellville. “He demonstrated his love, compassion, humility and his love of Christ in everything he did that evening.”
“I was tremendously moved by the presentation of the quilt and the words from the archbishop,” said Martha Scott Reich, director of development for Jerusalem House, which provides housing for homeless individuals and families with HIV/AIDS. “In my work, we are often so busy trying to identify and recruit donors that we are insulated to our mission; we know what we do day in and day out,” said Reich, who is Baptist. “Taking the time to be still and to reflect on what we are really about caused a re-dedication for me. I am extremely grateful to have been included in this reception.”
Her husband, Rev. Lanny Reich, a Baptist minister, said that collaborative efforts are probably the only way to fight the AIDS pandemic.
“I am a strong supporter of all faiths working together on issues that impact our global population, especially ones that devastate families and communities to the extent HIV/AIDS does,” said Rev. Reich. “We need ministers and lay people from all faiths to bring their gifts and talent to the table in order to have productive dialogue within the faith community. There seems to be a tremendous support base in attendance, which is very encouraging. I would be willing to lend what I have to the cause.”
Two Decades Of Compassion
The Atlanta archdiocese’s involvement in AIDS ministry dates back to the early 1980s, when several priests started to pay attention to the increasing number of persons living with HIV and AIDS in their own parishes.
In 1995, Father T.J. Meehan, now pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Atlanta, established the archdiocesan HIV/AIDS Task Force. In 2000, Sister Nora Ryan, OP, took charge of the task force and established the HIV/AIDS Ministry Advisory Board. Irene Miranda was hired as coordinator of the ministry in September 2003.
Father Meehan said he is glad to see that the archdiocese has strengthened its support of the ministry and that Catholic AIDS ministers are being recognized for their work.
“This is the most remarkable number of people that we ever had together, and it is a testimony to the leadership of Irene and Archbishop Gregory,” said Father Meehan. “I don’t know if we would even have considered getting parishes at a gathering like this a few years ago; there would have been only a handful of people. But there’s a great deal of interest and this is a different time. People want to be involved, and they want to draw in the energy of the archbishop, of Irene and the people who challenge us to do more.”
Since the end of the last millennium, AIDS has presented one of the greatest challenges for people of faith all over the world because of the stigma, Miranda explained.
“Many people still insist in associating HIV and AIDS with persons of our society with whom, unfortunately, they would rather not deal with,” she said. “Sadly, and as hard as it is to admit it, this issue still prevails among many of our Christian brothers and sisters—including Catholics—who have found an environment where they feel comfortable rejecting the least among us.”
“But let’s face it,” Miranda continued. “Regardless if the person afflicted by AIDS is homosexual or is an African-American woman, an addict, a white man or a Latino, if we call ourselves Christians, if we call ourselves followers of Christ, not even HIV or AIDS can be used as an excuse for judging anyone, much less for rejection.”