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RGOD2: Living in the imagination of God to weave conflicting dreams

(Editor’s note: This is Part II of RGOD2 column looking at the 25 years of the AIDS Service Center in Pasadena. To read Part I, click HERE.

All Saints AIDS Service Center was founded 25 years ago in the unlikely city of Pasadena, Calif.

Pasadena, although founded as a tuberculosis colony by rich Easterners, had forgotten her own dream. She was founded a long time to bring health to very ill people but 25 years ago, had a conflicting dream ... nobody got AIDS in Pasadena. That only happened to people living in West Hollywood and San Francisco.

So if you discovered you had a new disease that everyone was afraid of, it was a terrifying experience for you and your family. People were also deeply ashamed of this new disease, so a few volunteers got together at All Saints Church and had the imagination to dedicate a confidential phone line where these alienated and frightened people could talk to kindred spirits and get some support.

The first response in the San Gabriel Valley was from people like the Rev. Bob Isles and Connie McCleary, both counselors. Connie’s brother was ill with the disease and would eventually die. Then there was Mark Benson and his partner Phil who was also ill (Phil and Mark would be the first couple to have their relationship blessed at All Saints ). There was also Jim White whose partner Donald was also struggling with the new disease.

It was a very scary time when people had to deal with their own demise or the demise of s loved one, often within a year of diagnosis. Meanwhile trusted institutions like the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles, although was the first site for HIV testing, was still telling LGBT people not to take the test “It is a test for blood, not for people” was the unfortunate slogan. Diagnosis and blood testing usually followed a period of illness, night sweating, fatigue or an unusual lung infection. We all had conflicting dreams and it took a while to integrate our new reality.

I began working with these brave and visionary volunteers in 1987 and together we created a Pasadena AIDS plan with the local Health Department. Visiting Nurses Association was also active in the San Gabriel Valley and I had just completed a strategic plan for Los Angeles where it was clear the San Gabriel Valley was devoid of HIV services, education and any significant institution to take this on. I even met with some officials from World Vision who were headquartered in Pasadena but there was no indication this multi- million dollar organization was going to make HIV a part of the program in Africa or in the neighborhoods of the executives who ran it anytime soon. After all, this was Pasadena, and AIDS was not our problem.

There were a few exceptions to this rule. Mildred Goldberger, wife of the president of Cal Tech and Adelaide Hixon, a well-known local philanthropist, were thrown out of a Pasadena community event when it was discovered they were distributing AIDS literature and condoms! Parents shuffled inquisitive children past Mildred and Adelaide’s booth while hunky fireman and other upstanding citizens wondered as to while these two little old ladies from Pasadena were up to. They were distributing free contraception!

Meanwhile local hospitals would leave food outside their patient’s doors when it was discovered they had AIDS. One nurse at St. Luke’s hospital had a major meltdown when she discovered the appalling patient care and began to teach universal precautions. Charlotte believed everyone could be both protected and treated with respect if gloves were used and there was no need to gown and mask up before entering a patients room looking like some alien. There was conflicting imaginations at work and conflicting dreams. Which one would become the dominant one? Twenty five years later since the birth of the AIDS Service Center, we owe the outcome to none other than God’s saints.

We all thought the name All Saints AIDS Service Center (ASASC) would be easy to remember together as Bob Isles and I pondered one evening over a glass of wine. Everyone liked it. The name was also strategic. We needed moral protection for this infant agency if it was to have the stature needed to confront the negative forces resistant the new disease.

A generation later, it is my belief the name was actually a description of the saints who actually created and shaped the organization, its mission and values. It was incidental that All Saints Church was our mother. Initial funding and volunteer capital came from the congregation and many initial board members like Peggy Phelps and Jim Watterson were members. Many of these board members are still deeply committed and involved in some way today.

For the next three years, I would witness time and time again what ordinary people who were not trained in medicine or public health could do. We often thought of ourselves as ill prepared, outcasts and shamed or marginalized. None of us really knew what creating an AIDs Service center would actually look like.

We slowly grew the staff, Kathy from South Africa came to assist me, Art kept the books, Susan was our Development Director, Peter and his case managers, Howard and his mental health expertise and students. Jo was a Lutheran Pastor’s wife who hired an English student from Oxford I had met the previous summer and they created a stellar volunteer department. It was an organism and we were all part of a great imaginative experiment. We never stopped grieving. There was never time to have closure. People were dropping like flies. I once married a gay couple on a death bed just before his body was shipped out of their West Hollywood apartment. All Saints planned a magnificent funeral all in the same week. How can you forget these amazing weaving of dreams and hopes?

The saints were all around. An elderly couple cared for their dying son at home and did it so well that other rejected ones were welcome in their spare bedroom. We had several people whose families could not face the reality that their son or daughter had this weird new disease and so they were taken in and cared for by this retired couple as if they were their own kids. It was awesome. I don’t know how they found the strength to keep on reliving their own son’s last days. They found a strength from somewhere else.

One of these young men was Armando Rios, who was a beautiful dark sparkly eyed creature who would face the rest of his young life with the courage of a warrior. He must have been only 25 when he died. The disease robbed him of one of his legs and I will never forget his speech at the opening of the All Saints AIDS Service in front of the Mayor and Supervisor Mike Antonovich when he said there is no physical cure for AIDS, but “I found a cure at the All Saints AIDS Service Center.” I can still see tears streaming down his eyes and brightly colored balloons going up to heaven. Armando was an angel. He was part of a future we would all live into. The unconditional love and welcome of churches like All Saint’s were forged by these kind of miraculous encounters.

Even though my life as executive director would be filled with administrative work, endless fundraising and speaking to local organizations about what we were doing, for the next three years, I always kept close to at least one person who was living courageously with the disease. I wanted to make sure the model we were creating was actually helping them and their friends and families. They were more than a client of the agency, they became my teachers.

One of these teachers was Dennis who grew up in the Pasadena area. We would go on afternoon walks to the Huntington Gardens where we would walk arm and arm under the wisteria down the long path of memory. “I can taste the roses on the back of my tongue,” he told me.

Dennis was now blind and he had made sure not only his apartment was prepared for this scary phase of his life, but he created a new program with a countywide agency to make sure programs for blind clients could be created all over Los Angeles. I loved Dennis. He would share deep questions. He was afraid of dying at first and we had long conversations about suicide (all normal issues given there was little that could be done for our clients once the T-cell counts declined and infections attacked their defenseless bodies.

“I used to sit under that tree and do my homework”, he pointed towards a tree but could not physically see it. Here was the place he played and dreamed of a future. Now he was helping so many others - a kind of shaman and holy man. His wisdom was profound and he steadied us all towards a community that was redemptive, loving and forgiving.

Then there was Michael Green, another angel. Our board chair John Littlewood worked at Art Center in Pasadena. He and Ron Jernigan, another ASASC volunteer, helped to get Michael into Art Center to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a photographer. I remember the strong connections with Art Center who helped us design our brochures at the AIDS Service Center. They invited Keith Haring to come and lead a week long program on HIV and I remember seeing him work on his famous painting that is still at Art Center. Few people know how significant Art Center was to my preparation of designing the first statewide AIDS Plan of 1987 that in turn became the blueprint for the AIDS Service Center.

I have always been interested in art and architecture and in 1986 signed up for an evening class in industrial design with a teacher called Gaylord Eccles. One of our projects was to design a model chair where we would not be allowed to use glue or staples, just the properties of the materials. I created a chaise lounge out of cardboard and we all spent hours creating our models and lined them up one evening in anticipation of out teacher’s approval. Gaylord observed about 15 models lined up on a table and proceeded to crush and break them up. We were all horrified!

“The first lesson in design is – don’t get attached to your models.” I never forgot his wisdom and there are no shortcuts to the design process. If you leave out a stage, it will ultimately bite you in the ass. There was no difference in the design process for as chair and an AIDS Center and I learned this process at Art Center . I am forever grateful. I loved it when Michael was accepted into the school and watched him thrive and love the creative energy of the place while his body was slowly dying.

One day he showed up at the Center and he was giving us all little personal gifts. He gave me one of his photographs from this period which is very “heavenly” and his fountain pen which I have treasured all these years. He also died and I remember his celebration of life at Art Center. Each one had so much potential and in spite of the disease, rose to places of enormous inspiration and courage! There were so many more. …

We all received so much from these courageous angels and 25 years later, I can still hear their voices and their encouragement to be a dream weaver. Straight and gay people, institutions and sister organizations all contributed to what we know today as the AIDS Service Center. They brought us together and they will always be the Saints of All Saint’s for me.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.