Recently, I was asked by the Boulder County AIDS Project to give a short reflection and closing words on May 15, 2016 for the 33rd Annual International AIDS Candlelight Memorial. Below is the content of the reflection. My hope in sharing this is that it will increase awareness of how–even with the advancements in medication–AIDS is still adversely affecting millions of lives every year. While I don’t go into great detail in terms of statistics below, anyone interested can visit the links above to learn more. You can also learn a lot from people sharing their HIV/AIDS stories on Youtube. Believe me, there’s quite a bit to learn.
President Abraham Lincoln was quoted as having said, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” But today I cannot remain silent about my foolishness. After many hours of reflection, I have to admit that in many ways I stand before you an ignorant man. Like all of us, there are things I do not know. There are things I do not understand now and there are things that I will never understand no matter how hard I try. In other words, there are areas where I am ignorant and there is nothing that I will ever be able to do about it. For example, there are over 6500 languages spoken in the world right now. Each of these languages—even those spoken by fewer than 1,000 people—each reflect a distinct culture with its own traditions, values, and beliefs. Even when the speakers of those languages speak about the very same subjects that I might talk about, they will talk about it in a different way—a way that I do not have access to, because I don’t speak the language. When it comes to whatever they might express in their tongue, I will be found ignorant. But that’s a type of ignorance that I can accept in myself. But there’s another kind of ignorance that I cannot accept in myself. And that’s why I agreed to speak for a few moments here today as we join 1,200 community organizations in 115 countries in the 33rd Annual International AIDS Candlelight Memorial.
When I was first asked to speak, I considered backing out of it. I thought that perhaps there was someone else closer to the movement that should address you—perhaps a person who lost someone close to them through complications from AIDS or maybe someone who knew more people living with HIV. But, it didn’t take long for me to realize that that was just my ignorance rearing its head. That’s one thing about a lot of us humans and dare I say, a lot of us Americans in particular. We typically fear what we don’t understand. Because we live in a culture that frequently discourages admitting our weaknesses, for many of us, it’s acceptable to run the other way when we hit the walls of our understanding. But you know what; some of those walls are paper thin. All it takes is just a little push—a little huff and puff and you can blow that whole house of ignorance down. That’s the ignorance we can do something about. And that’s why we’re today.
When doing some research for our time together, it became obvious quite quickly that there is so much I don’t know about HIV or AIDS. Don’t get me wrong, I know the basics—how it can and how it cannot be contracted and that HIV does not discriminate even if people often do. But that’s just a small part of the story. Knowing that is not enough. What also became obvious quite quickly was that I am closer to the stories that you hold in your heart than I thought. For one thing, as an African American— statistically speaking a group that is disproportionately affected by HIV—I very likely know more people living with HIV than I can imagine. Or to just bring it this moment, right now, I can look among you and see people who I know personally who have lost someone through AIDS related complications. Suffice it to say, you are a part of the story of my life and I am part of the story of yours and now, because we all here together, we are all part of every story that these candles represent.
As we know, the theme for this year’s memorial is Engage. Educate. Empower. Now I am going to throw in another “E” word for you to hold in your minds and hearts. And that word is “Embedded”. I offer you this word because we must remember that embedded in these ideas of Engaging, Educating, and Empowering are the people for whom and with whom we light these candles. And not only these dear souls, but also the future generations who are looking to us for guidance and hope and a new story.
These candles remind us that when we engage, we engage… people. When we educate, we educate…people. When we empower, we empower…people.
People. That’s why we’re here. People. People we love. People we miss. People we fear losing. People who could be helped by medications that are available, but because they are too poor they do not have access to them. People who think that HIV or AIDS is something they no longer have to think about. All of us, just plain old ordinary people and yet each of us a part of One extraordinary story. Let us remember this when the candles are blown out. Because at the end of the day, no matter what seems to separate us that’s what we all have in common. We’re people and we’re in this together. If this epidemic has taught us anything, it’s that. We are in this together and that is something we must always remember!
I closed the event by talking about grief and the loss of a story. Bigger than the fear of death, is the fear of insignificance–the fear that our lives do not matter. What events like these remind us is that all of our lives do matter to someone, because we are all inextricably connected. Because I was invited to say a few words at this event, I met people that I would have never met otherwise. Now, as I mentioned above, they are a part of my story and I am a part of theirs. And all of our stories are a part of the grand story of Life itself. Therefore, insignificance cannot be a reality. If we can only remember this…
As I walked to my car afterward, I couldn’t help but find myself grateful to God for bringing me there. I can’t explain it, but there’s something to the idea of entertaining angels. When I meet people that I never sought out to meet, I always entertain the possibility that they have come into my life in order to reveal to me something I needed to learn. I do this to stay open. For me, “open” means information can go in and out. When I was first invited to speak, I thought I knew all I needed to know about HIV. I was wrong. I need to learn more because I needed to relearn that HIV/AIDS is bigger than what to do to avoid infection. Like all things in this world, it’s about the people.
Let brotherly love continue. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels. Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also. — Hebrews 13:1-3