Toronto
3 min

‘What does God want for the future?’

Drop in AIDS deaths has changed the work of gay spiritual leaders

“The life you’ve always wanted.” That’s the subject of a series of sermons Rev Brent Hawkes will be delivering through to Easter at the gay and lesbian Metropolitan Community Church Of Toronto (MCCT).



“I couldn’t have delivered a sermon like that before,” Hawkes says. He means the topic would have been unthinkable, even unacceptable, back at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when he was presiding over one funeral a week.



The dramatic drop in AIDS deaths over the past few years has changed the work of spiritual leaders and counsellors in the gay community. During the worst of the epidemic, “death and dying was a constant, you never had time to catch your breath,” says Hawkes.



Doug Graydon is chaplain for Casey House where, over a 10-year period, 1,200 people died of AIDS. “We used to say we were helping people to live with HIV/AIDS, but maybe it’s fair to say we were, in fact, mostly helping people to die,” Graydon says. “Today, there is a need for a different kind of spiritual care: one that promotes a sense of wellness and health and healing of relationships.”



Graydon says he has to “listen harder to hear the suffering. Before, people were faced with the certainty of death. Now, there is the uncertainty of hoping for life.”



Rev Susan Mabey of Metropolitan Community Church Christos puts it this way: “People used to ask, ‘Why me? Why us?’ Now they’re asking, ‘What does God want for the future?'”



Meanwhile, Graydon worries about the spiritual pain reflected in the increased medicalization of AIDS. “We talk more of viral loads, cell counts and combination therapies than we do of people.”



In a speech last November, Graydon observed: “As people live longer and more healthy lives, I fear we are creating a whole new subculture of people, a second class citizen trapped within a world of chronic illness, living under the threat of toxic side effects, surviving on incomes insufficient to sustain healthy lifestyles.”



Many PHAs are faced with the task of “how to get a sense of contentment from a restricted life. There is the stigma of chronic illness that society has just not dealt with – these are the difficult questions I’m being asked about as a pastoral counsellor.”



It is only sensible to be alert to, and fight against, injustices. But what happened to the idea of celebrating the fact that many people have a new lease on life? Graydon suggests that window of opportunity is gone: “I’m not hearing the enthusiasm [about the new drugs] any more. The honeymoon is over.”



But Hawkes sees more room for celebration. One day, after San Francisco’s MCC pastor told him how the whole feeling in the Castro was much more positive, Hawkes wanted to raise high a vial of pills at his Sunday service and sing the praises of the new medications.



“But there was a strong pressure that we can’t celebrate,” he says, “because of the uncertainty about long-term effects of the drugs, because the HIV infection rate is still high, because of the difficulties some people have with the drugs, because of a fear of funding cuts.”



While AIDS deaths have dropped radically, attendance at the MCCT has not. Indeed, Hawkes says his congregation, which averages 550 people every Sunday, grew eight percent last year. “There has been an increase in spirituality in the gay and lesbian community. AIDS opened the door in a new way. Is it back to eat, drink and be merry now? No, the door is still open.”



Hawkes says more and more members of the congregation are asking for spiritual direction. “People are seeking spiritual direction, not about how to survive, but about how to grow spiritually.”



In fact, Hawkes says the demand from congregation members for spiritual directors (sort of a therapist, but in a religious context) is outstripping the demand for therapists – with the exception of couples’ therapists. Several people affiliated with the church, both lay and ordained, are completing courses to become spiritual directors; Hawkes hopes to establish a spiritual direction counselling centre at the church.



Meanwhile Mabey, who is completing a PhD in theology with a thesis on AIDS multiple loss, wonders about the impact of the accumulated grief suffered by so many.



Mabey fears it may be a time bomb and observes that some of it has come out as anger – anger that fuelled many worthwhile causes, but also led to “horizontal violence” -infighting within the gay and AIDS communities. She adds that she’s also worried about anger from those who expected to die and spent all their money, or who stayed in relationships, expecting their partners to die, and now have to re-evaluate that relationship.



“You’d think that now people would be able to deal with bereavement issues, but it doesn’t seem to be happening,” comments Hawkes. “We have bereavement groups, but they’re not very fully attended. People just seem to be so relieved, they just want to move on.”



Still, Hawkes says “part of the therapy for this might be a new vision, a new focus. There is a creativity now that is overwhelming… and there is renewed human rights activism.”



And Mabey suspects that the current lesbian baby boom is partly a reaction to losses suffered in the epidemic, while Hawkes also points to a new interest in adoption and fathering among gay men.





Fluid Xchange is Xtra’s AIDS and HIV issues column.

MCCT is at (416) 406-6228.

MCC Christos is at (416) 925-7924