I believe that all people experience spirituality. It informs us of our “why.” Why am I feeling this way? Why am I reacting this way? Why is this the thing that I want at this moment in time and in this particular way? As a person living with HIV, despite my good health and social acceptability, what hurts most are the spiritual complications of my disease. These are my questions: Why am I feeling ashamed of my HIV status? Why am I validated by undetectable lab results? Do I need to have safe and respectable sex in order to not feel ashamed? Similarly, people living without HIV/AIDS may ask similar questions of their positive counterparts. Why are you feeling that way? Why are you acting that way? Why is that the sex you are having? These are all spiritual questions, simply posed but not easily answered. I would argue these spiritual obstacles are the very reason HIV and AIDS exist today.
The same spiritual crisis that resulted in the slaughter of 50 million indigenous bodies and the indentured servitude of 12 million black bodies, led the Reagan administration, with their hatred of poor people and drug users, and their homophobia, to let a virus turn into an epidemic killing of 35 million worldwide. Many Reaganites argued the plague was God’s punishment for the sin of homosexuality and drug addiction; that the “abominable sin” of gay sex was reason enough for the government to do nothing. In so doing, they opted for the spiritual cure of a radical conservative faith to lead their actions. When seen this way, it is easy to understand how HIV is as much of a spiritual problem as it is a public health crisis.
When I contracted HIV, I was in my second year of seminary and in my sixth year of marriage to a heterosexual cis-female. I was in the process of becoming a commissioned as a protestant Air Force chaplain and training for my fifth marathon in as many years. I was 32 and a self-proclaimed ex-gay, which I had only disclosed to a handful of friends. A black cis-man from southeastern North Carolina, no one in my Southern black family knew about my sexuality and to tell them seemed like suicide, or at least spiritual suicide.
While many gays, and in my experience, many white gays, turn away from God, I could not. Even when faced with my HIV diagnosis. I had spent my life thinking that the answer to all my whys was God. As my Southern roots taught me, I was well trained to “hold to his hand, God’s unchanging hand” to understand my American black experience. And learning I was HIV positive was no different. In fact, because I was gay and black and scared, I turned to God. I needed God’s hand to shield me from the doom of my gayness, my blackness, and my sickness in a society that does not value any of the three. I feared being that cautionary tale whispered about by many, counted among the number of shameful black deaths of men who caught AIDS after having sex with white men. But after years of fearing God and family, my greatest fear had finally come to fruition: I was positive. But nevertheless, there I was, a married Christian minister, gay, HIV positive, and struggling to hold God’s unchanging hand.
Twelve years later, divorced, out, and healthy, my powerful story is not unique. Whenever and wherever HIV-positive friends are gathered, I hear my story as if I were baptized into a sacred community of survivors. Nearly every poz person has God or not-God in their story. There’s this feeling of being abandoned by God or by a family member who claimed to love God. God has either given them purpose and power to overcome the stigma, or they’ve had to let go of God to overcome the stigma. In most cases, we’ve had to create our own God, a God of our understanding intimately acquainted with our chronic illness and our resilient survival.
As such, it is impossible to depict our HIV and AIDS experiences without also depicting our spiritual experiences of coping with HIV and AIDS. Epidemic exhibitions are good at capturing the suffering, the pharmaceutical angle, the dying lover, the sexuality, the activism, and the anger. While these are all spiritual experiences for sure, they do not represent the totality of what it is to live with HIV for me and the many friends I have who are also living with the virus.
When you don’t include spirituality, you miss a chance to capture the everydayness of church incarnate in our spiritual communities of survival and resilience. Our faith-based tactics for living and thriving and our sacred rituals that inform our life choices become invisible, particularly among black and brown folx. Perhaps this is due to the passive atheism that seems pervasive in queer white HIV and AIDS communities and the art world. As a black Christian, I have learned to censor my spirituality in mainstream HIV and AIDS forums, so as to not offend or seem unintelligent. I imagine spiritually inclined curators, artists, and others in the art world might do the same. I have friends who say it is easier to come out as gay than it is to come out as Christian. In the rare occasion I see HIV represented in exhibitions, I wonder if the curators have considered the spiritual implications of the virus? I wonder what their connection to spirit or the virus might be. I don’t understand, how can we talk about HIV without talking about God? To help me understand this question, below are some thoughts on how to include spirituality in exhibitions about HIV and AIDS.
Feature artists who have positive religious experiences living with HIV and AIDS.
We’ve all seen Angels in America where the Midwestern mom is mystified by the urban gay son living in close proximity to the AIDS pandemic. Or when HIV becomes the symbol of black disappointment in Tyler Perry’s Temptation as an estranged lover seeks to rescue his distressed damsel from the violent arms of an HIV-positive love interest. What we rarely hear about is the one whose faith added meaning and fulfillment to their HIV and AIDS diagnosis, or dare we say vice versa. What about the prodigal survivor whose father welcomes him home with open arms as depicted in the Gospel of Luke. Yes, these are rare, but also true and more common than we may think. Curators can include healthier narratives alongside tragic ones.
Towards Spiritual Liberation in HIV and AIDS Exhibitions
Just beneath the civil rights movement of the 1960s was a theology revival that gave spiritual expression in both North and South America. James Cone’s black liberation theology in the north alongside Gustavo Gutierrez’s Latin American liberation theology in the South provided great hope for those living on the underside of imperialism and white supremacy. Their gospel was God’s solidarity with the Latin poor and oppressed black masses. While angering Catholic nobility and frustrating mainline protestant elitism, these polarizing theologies liberated those in need of God the most. A parallel spiritual truth is available to the downtrodden living with HIV and AIDS. Far from a death sentence, the liberation gospel subverts the experience of shame, sorrow, and stigma into an experience of justice, joy, and triumph. Such spirituality is manifest in the work of painter, sculptor, songwriter, and poet Joyce Mcdonald, who serves her church’s AIDS ministry and leads the youth choir. She reveals the existence and resilience of non-white, non-gay, non-male bodies, yet beautifully bearing the yoke of HIV and AIDS.
Capture the experience of black women and children.
For the better part of thirty years of HIV and AIDS in America, the experiences of white gay men have been at the center, as the rest of us strive to attain their asymptomatic undetectable standard of perfection. Art exhibitions would be well served by moving beyond such narrow depictions of communities impacted by HIV, starting with meaningful and rigorous explorations of spiritual practices of women and children living with HIV and AIDS. Depicting the spiritual experiences of all women, especially women of color, would provide a fuller perspective as to how the disease impacts single mothers, multiple births, parenting, poverty, and extended family support. Katherine Cheairs’ film Ending Silence, Stigma and Shame: HIV in African American Families, follows the impact of HIV through the lens of black women living in Atlanta. For a historic and ongoing view of HIV within the lived context of black women and children, Lenn Keller is too often overlooked. While not everyone in Keller’s photos is living with HIV, the ubiquity and interconnection of HIV in their lives is palpable.
Depictions that capture full/whole lives, rather than a crisis in time.
My final thought on how to include spirituality in exhibitions about HIV and AIDS is to feature biopic depictions that extend beyond diagnosis and treatment and capture the whole person. Since the dawning of the age of AIDS and HIV, the lives of the sexually liberated have revolved around our diagnosis. Thus, nullifying our liberation. Healthy sex is considered safe sex and spiritual maturity is presumed to be free of risk. People living with HIV and AIDS are often perceived as sympathetic, or just plain pathetic people because all our accomplishments are viewed through the prism of our diagnosis. Art that captures the full stories of people living with HIV and AIDS moves beyond the diagnosis to embrace all the flaws and futures of one’s life. The result will be a spirituality that sustains and uplifts throughout a life of trials and tribulations, celebrations and triumphs.
The work of Ronald Lockett exposes the deepest tragedy of AIDS, that we have been robbed of souls who reveal who we are. Gratefully, Lockett left behind works that bear witness to the dexterity of life lived by blacks in the South. His works are as definitive as they are abstract, as he weaves together tin and rust and grate and wood that seem to tell of the travesty of being black and gay in the Southern United States. His works attest to a life lived in exile long before and long after AIDS claimed his body.
One last thought—it was said by James Baldwin that he left the pulpit to preach the gospel. And so it is with many a black gay preacher, like myself. Like Baldwin, we all have that Go Tell It On the Mountain’s “threshing floor” experience that forces us from the faith of our fathers and mothers into a faith that is not old, but not new. It’s the faith that liberated our ancestors from that old world of antebellum slavery and liberated us from that old world religion that demonized the gay son alongside white massa. The sons of Baldwin who left home to have our sex and live our lives have found resilience and meaning in the black spiritual tradition that not only liberated us from slavery’s chains, but also from the chains of despair that comes with being diagnosed with HIV. We have learned to accept our disease with the same grace with which we had already accepted ourselves.
Rev. Michael J. Crumpler is writer, and the LGBTQ and Intercultural Programs Manager at the Unitarian Universalist Association. He was ordained to Reverend in the United Church of Christ, after graduating from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he studied with Black Liberation founder James Cone. Crumpler is active in social justice ministry at the historic Judson Memorial Church of New York City and is passionate about intersectional ministry centered in blackness, queerness, HIV/AIDS, economic justice, and emotional well-being. He is a founding member of What Would an HIV Doula Do?