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AIDS 2020 interfaith service invokes healing

by Brian Bromberger

Bishop Marc Handley Andrus gestured to the Keith Haring triptych altarpiece, "The Life of Christ," at AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral during Tuesday's interfaith service. Photo: Screengrab via Grace Cathedral
Bishop Marc Handley Andrus gestured to the Keith Haring triptych altarpiece, "The Life of Christ," at AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral during Tuesday's interfaith service. Photo: Screengrab via Grace Cathedral  

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Diocese-California welcomed viewers to a virtual service Tuesday by standing in front of the Haring altarpiece in Grace Cathedral's AIDS Interfaith Memorial Chapel as he explained that in the art, a radiant child was surrounded by loving hands.

Bishop Marc Handley Andrus then stood away from the piece so that online viewers could see it clearly. Called "The Life of Christ," the late gay artist Keith Haring created the triptych altarpiece in 1990, just two weeks before his death of AIDS-related complications.

The July 7 interfaith service was part of this year's 23rd International AIDS Conference that was to have been held in San Francisco and Oakland but was moved online because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Andrus explained that the child is cradled by two arms of a divine figure with 12 hands reaching out, embracing all people and warding off evil.

"Every person is a radiant child and the many hands of God are our hands, we who reach out to all the radiant children forgotten, hidden away, or in danger of dying alone from AIDS," Andrus said.

He commented that the AIDS Memorial Quilt was an essential response of the religious, interfaith community to the first outbreak of AIDS in San Francisco and still is today. A panel hangs in the chapel.

Andrus introduced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who recalled that in her first floor speech in Congress (1987) she said she came to Washington, D.C. to fight against AIDS, which she believed was a moral imperative. While listing all the legislative accomplishments in the struggle to overcome the disease, she noted the battle isn't over, noting discrimination against trans women of color and disparity of access to care are just two areas that still need attention.

"Together we will continue turning faith into action and principles into progress to achieve, finally, the dream of an AIDS-free generation," she said.

Cecil Makgoba, archbishop of the Anglican Church of South Africa in Cape Town, recited a prayer for the half-million people, many in Africa, who died of AIDS last year, and interceded on behalf of those poor HIV-positive folks who are denied life-saving medicines, noting that stigma against people living with AIDS actually increases the number of people who contract the disease.

Yvette Flunder, presiding bishop of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries in Oakland, urged resiliency, that God will give people strength to accomplish whatever task lies in front of them, "to move with intentionality until everyone is at the table, even if justice isn't fulfilled in our lifetimes," she said.

Kim Shuck, poet laureate of San Francisco, hoped people would learn to cherish each other and that the things we call community would be real communities of support.

"May we be better than we've been," she said.

Khadijah I. Abdullah, founder and executive director of RAHMA, a Washington, D.C.-based group that works to end AIDS stigma in faith communities, said that Muslims begin every prayer imploring God's mercy, which is especially needed in this time of coping with COVID-19 and systemic racism. She said that African Americans are still enslaved, fighting for their lives, in that every morning when they step outside, they hope they won't be murdered.

"We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go ... but let us want for our brother, sister, they and them, what you want for yourself," she said.

There were additional prayers from the Hindu tradition by Dr. Asavari Herwadkar, director of the Ojus Medical Institute in Mumbai, India; the Jewish tradition by Rabbi Denise L. Eger from Congregation Kol Ami in Los Angeles and Rabbi Shlomo Rosen, international director, interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee in Israel; the Baha'i tradition by Teresa Morales, a representative from the Baha'i Center San Francisco; the Buddhist tradition delivered by Alistair Shanks, volunteer program manager at the Zen Caregiving Project San Francisco; and the Islamic tradition by Ishaq Pathan, Bay Area director of the Islamic Networks Group of California.

Andrew Galvan, an Ohlone leader and museum director of Mission Dolores, opened the service and recalled his ancestors' welcome to the original white settlers in California: "You can stay here if you are good."

There were musical interludes by the combined choirs of the Angel City Chorale, Los Angeles and the Amy Foundation Choir of Cape Town, singing "We Are Marching in the Light of God;" the Oakland Interfaith Community Choir chanting "Open Your Mouth, Say Somethin;'" and the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performing "Amazing Grace."

The service was hosted by Grace Cathedral in partnership with the Episcopal Diocese-California, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance of the World Council of Churches, the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, the San Francisco Interfaith Council, and UNAIDS.

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