This past World AIDS Day took my thoughts back to 1989 when I was completing my seminary education with Clinical Pastoral Education training as a chaplain at UNC Hospitals.
One of the floors I was assigned was a medicine floor where patients with HIV/AIDS frequently were admitted. In those days, the possibility of living a long life with AIDS was unlikely and once you were hospitalized the outlook was grim. Although there was increased education, fear about this disease abounded and even some medical professionals doubted the science that said they would not “catch it” from casual contact.
At that time, I had little experience in the hospital and got queasy at the sight of blood, so I lived in a state of dealing with my own fear. This was perhaps a redeeming factor for me because every interaction was one of managing my fears.
Not long into my experience at the hospital I was on call one evening when a nurse asked me to see a young man who had been admitted to the hospital for the first time because of his HIV. With my usual fear that I am certain was heightened by his having AIDS, I entered the room introduced myself and invited this young man to share whatever was on his mind. He began to talk casually at first, but soon moved to share the fear and isolation he felt. Isolation because of who he was, a gay man, which that was magnified because of this horrible disease.
At one point, he asked, “Can you pray with me?” I asked if I could take his hand as we prayed. I would like to say I did this to prove to him I wasn’t afraid to touch him but I am not sure I gave it that much thought; rather it was my routine. I have no clue what awkward words I shared, but at the end he gripped my hand and said, “Thanks for touching me; no one touches me anymore.” All these years later I can still hear the exact tone of his voice.
What he didn’t know and I wasn’t able to know or express at the time was that his life touched mine as well. In those moments he taught me as much as any instructor on how to provide pastoral care. The power of touch. A touch that reminded me of the beauty of his life as well as other lives that touched mine.
As we leave behind another World AIDS Day, I give thanks as well for how far we have come in treating this disease; yet, though closer, I still await the day when Worlds AIDS Day will celebrate that this disease no longer exists in our world. And I am reminded that those who die today from this disease most often are the people whom we do not see or touch, those without the means to pay for drugs or get the care they need.
What we don’t see and realize is how much not just they but we lose when we fail to see, touch and care. I would not be the pastor I am today without the words of that young man, and without my having been touched by him.
We frequently ask in our world today, how can we heal the divides that bring so much struggle to us? It is a big question, but part of the answer is the positive power of touch, not just hands but lives. Indeed, it has been connecting to those who did not look like me, did not express themselves as I did, who came from a different place, whose orientation or gender expression was different from mine that has brought beauty and value to my life. And as as a pastor and human, I am reminded that seeing at times is a challenge.
To see and be touched bye another means we are changed, and that is a risk. Yet, as that young man taught me, when we fail to see and touch those who share this journey with us it is not only they but each of us who are left alone in the place of fear and isolation, in a world that is incomplete without the power of touch.
The Rev. J. Jay Kennett is the pastor of Hillsborough United Church of Christ.