Monday, December 01, 2014

AIDS spiritual resources: Art connects Christ and HIV on World AIDS Day

“Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs and Known Our Sorrows” by Tobias Haller

World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 supports everyone affected by HIV. The day is dedicated to prevention and treatment, and honors those who died of AIDS -- more than 25 million people worldwide. Started in 1988, it was the first global health day for any disease.

A variety of artworks connect AIDS with Christ and the saints. A traditional Jesus wears a red ribbon to show AIDS solidarity in “Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs and Known Our Sorrows” by Tobias Haller. He is an iconographer, author, composer, and vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx. He wrote “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his spouse were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.

Patrons of the AIDS Pandemic by Lewis Williams, SFO

The icon “Patrons of the AIDS Pandemic” by Lewis Williams shows two pairs of medieval male saints who faced disease epidemics together with friendship and faith. Their man-to-man bonds speak to the gay community, where AIDS has a disproportionately large impact. The couples stand on each side of a chestnut tree, a symbol of life after death.

“It is hoped that they offer solace to companions who have survived a loved one’s death, or to friends\family burdened by the death of two companions,” says the text accompanying the icon.

On the left are 13th-century Franciscans who ministered in an Italian leper colony: Blessed Bartolo Buonpedoni and Blessed Vivaldo. Bartolo got leprosy while caring for the sick, so he had to live in segregated housing. His loyal friend Vivaldo moved into the leper house with him, even though he himself had not contracted the disease. They lived together for 20 years until Bartolo’s death. Today there are effective treatments for leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease. AIDS has taken its place as a dreaded and stigmatized disease.

On the right stand 14th-century Carmelite monks St.Avertanus and Blessed Romeo, traveling companions who died together of the plague. Avertanus felt inspired to go to Rome, so he got permission to take Romeo with him. They faced rain and snow as they made an adventurous pilgrimage over the Alps from France to Italy. No Italian city would let them in, for an epidemic of plague was raging. Avertanus died first, followed a week later by Romeo. For more info, see our previous post Vivaldo and Bartolo: Love stronger than death for AIDS patron saints.

The icon was painted by New Mexico artist Lewis Williams of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). He studied with master iconographer Robert Lentz and has made social justice a theme of his icons.

Station 10 from “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality”
 by Mary Button, courtesy of Believe Out Loud

AIDS is connected with the suffering of Christ in the painting of Station 10 from “Stations of the Cross: The Struggle For LGBT Equality” by Mary Button. Jesus is stripped of his garments beside images of the AIDS virus. The round structure of the human immunodeficiency virus forms a halo around Jesus’ head. Jesus being stripped is a scene of loss… and the LGBT community lost thousands of people due to AIDS. Button matches scenes from Christ’s journey to Calvary with milestones from the last 100 years of LGBT history in her LGBT Stations series. For an overview of all 15 paintings in the series, see my article “LGBT Stations of the Cross shows struggle for equality.”

Christ with Ants from the

David Wojnarowicz video
“A Fire in My Belly”
Another artist who used Christian imagery to express the suffering and holiness of the AIDS experience was David Wojnarowicz. A vocal critic of the church’s silence during the AIDS crisis, he mixed gay imagery with religious symbols from his Roman Catholic childhood. He was a frequent target of the religious right during the culture wars of 1980s. Controversy continued in 2010 when the Smithsonian removed his video "A Fire in My Belly" from exhibit because religious conservatives objected to his use of a crucifix to symbolize AIDS patients. For more info, see my article "Smithsonian censors gay artist when conservatives attack."

World AIDS Day holds great personal meaning for me. I lost many friends to AIDS when I was ministering in the LGBT community of San Francisco in the late 1980s. Back then there were no effective treatments and many gay men were dying of AIDS.

I wrote about some of my AIDS ministry experiences for Christian Century magazine in a now-classic article titled “We Are the Church Alive, the Church with AIDS.” The 1988 article, co-authored with Jim Mitulski, is reprinted in the book The Church with AIDS: Renewal in the Midst of Crisis, edited by Letty Russell.

I still keep a small brick on my desk that says, “We are the body of Christ and we have AIDS.” It is a treasured gift from a friend who lived through those years with me at Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco.

New books continue to be published about AIDS and religion. Two 2015 titles are especially important:

Religion, Flesh, and Blood: The Convergence of HIV/AIDS, Black Sexual Expression, and Therapeutic Religion” by Pamela Leong. Successful AIDS ministry by one black LGBT congregation in Unity Fellowship is the focus of a rich case study by a sociology professor. She describes how they blend African-American Christianity with the therapeutic ethic of American pop culture. The author focuses on the Los Angeles congregation through field work, interviews and analysis of sermons. Unity Fellowship founder Carl Bean is discussed in depth. Leong is assistant professor of sociology at Salem State University in Massachusetts.

After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion” by Anthony M. Petro. The religious history of AIDS in America is examined by a Boston University religion professor. He goes way beyond the usual discussion of the Religious Right to cover a wide range of mainline Protestant, evangelical, and Catholic groups as well as AIDS activist organizations. The author reveals how the AIDS crisis prompted American Christians to start discussing homosexuality, fostering a moral discourse whose legacy includes abstinence education and same-sex marriage. This detailed and discerning history was published by the prestigious Oxford University Press. The section on Metropolitan Community Churches includes the ministry of long-time AIDS survivor Stephen Pieters.

A book released in 2014, "Rebels Rebel: AIDS, Art and Activism in New York, 1979-1989" by Tommaso Speretta, looks at some of the many ways that AIDS sparked the creation of radical art demanding social change.

For those who want to learn about -- or remember -- what it was like, I recommend the 2011 documentary We Were Here. With honesty and grace, the film examines the arrival and impact of AIDS on San Francisco. It focuses on give people who were there before and during the AIDS crisis and has lots of film documenting the LGBT experience in the San Francisco over the decades. For me everyone in the movie looked like someone I knew. ALL the faces were familiar! It seemed like I recognized every face, even though they were strangers. Watching the video is both heartbreaking and inspirational.

A spiritual response it provided by the following AIDS prayer by Diann L. Neu, cofounder and codirector of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER). It was published in Equal Rites: Lesbian and Gay Worship, Ceremonies, and Celebrations:

One Person: Compassionate Holy One, open our hearts and minds and hands so that we may connect ourselves to the global community of others responding to AIDS as we pray:
We remember all the women, men, and children in this country and around the world who are living with AIDS.

All: Justice demands that we remember and respond.

One: We remember all who care for people living and dying with AIDS in their homes, in hospices, and in support centers.

All: Justice demands that we remember and respond.

One: We remember all who are involved in research and hospital care that they may respect the dignity of each person.

All: Justice demands that we remember and respond.

One: We remember all partners who are left mourning for their beloved ones.

All: Justice demands that we remember and respond.

One: We remember all parents who learn the truth of their children’s lives through their process of facing death….
We remain vigilant,
Until a cure for AIDS is found,
Until those dying with AIDS are comforted,
Until truth sets us free,
Until love drives out injustice.
We shall not give up the fight.

candle rust animated Pictures, Images and Photos
In memory of: Brian Dose, Rev. Ron Russell-Coons, Scott B, Stephen Clover, Richard O’Dell, Bruce Bunger, Scott Galuteria, Kevin Y, Harold O, Ric Hand, Paul Francis, Rev. Larry Uhrig, Rev. Jim Sandmire, David C, Wayne Mielke, Rev. Dan Mahoney, Bill Knox, Sue H, Tom, Jesse Oden, Jim Veilleux, John from Axios, Robert P, Daven Balcomb, Dave Eckert, Martin Lounsberry, Mark S, David Castagna, Kevin Calegari, Rev. Rick Weatherly, Don K, Michael Mank, David Ward, Rev. Howard Wells, Rev. Howard Warren, Ken Bland, Lanny Dykes, Rob Eichberg, Virgil Hall, Randy Cypherd, Charles Hosley... and all others who lost their lives to HIV and AIDS.
More spiritual resources for World AIDS Day are available at:

World AIDS Day resources (Metropolitan Community Church)

World AIDS Day resources (United Church of Christ)

Related links:

“We are the Church Alive, the Church with AIDS” by Kittredge Cherry and Jim Mitulski (Christian Century magazine, Jan. 27, 1988:
PDF or html

Christ’s torment and queer suffering: More on Wojnarowicz censorship (Jesus in Love)

Interfaith AIDS Memorial Chapel at Grace Cathedral with Altarpiece by Keith Haring

Confronting Echoes Of The AIDS Hysteria As We Battle Ebola by Irene Monroe

Timeline: 30 Years of AIDS in Black America (PBS)

Santos Avertanus, Romeo, Bartolo y Vivaldo: Patronos de la pandemia del VIH/SIDA (Santos Queer)

Another beautiful artwork supporting people with AIDS is “Il Martir (The Martyr)” by Armando Lopez (pictured at left). For the story behind the painting, see my previous post, “Art honors AIDS martyrs on World AIDS Day.”

This post is part of the LGBT Calendar series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series celebrates religious and spiritual holidays, holy days, feast days, festivals, anniversaries, liturgical seasons and other occasions of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people of faith and our allies.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

Patrons of the AIDS Pandemic and many other icons are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores


Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is too private a question but I've wondered as a person with certain sexual preferences including more than one partner is that permitted in Christian union? I have two partners and we all love each other and we'd like to sanctify our relations in the Lord. We all three are bisexual and we hunger for the spirit of unity in our amidst in spirit and body. Is this a sin? I'd prefer to keep this anonymous as I would not want anyone to take offence nor to have anyone hurt by our choices even though we are adult, some Christians would judge us. Can offer us some guidance?

Kittredge Cherry said...

There’s no easy answer to your question. I suggest that you look at the principles for ethical sexual relationships in “Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People” by gay theologian Patrick Cheng. You can find it at this link: