World Aids Day has a different feel for me than I suspect it must for many contemporaries. I spent my early adulthood in the late eighties and early nineties surrounded by the evangelical church and evangelical culture: I was exiled from a world where I could express my sexuality – an exile that left me with problems I am still trying to unpick – but it also protected me from the icy blast that was sweeping through the gay world at the time. And so, unlike many gay men of my age, I am not haunted by the young faces of old friends who withered away before their eyes, nor do I share the collective memories of a community under a terrible siege: memories of fear, ostracism, and anger.
So my approach to World Aids Day has to be different. While I share in the concerns expressed on intellectual and political levels, and while I recall and pray for those of my friends who live, now, with HIV, I have to find another story to earth the day in my own heart.
In 1994 I left the church community house I had been living in for 6 years, and moved out to stay with a kind friend in the suburbs. I was unemployed, lost, and fairly seriously depressed. I temporarily stopped attending the inner city church I was familiar with and which was the simultaneous cause of much of my stress but also most of my meaning, and started attending a large, thriving, evangelical church near where I was staying. I will not name it here, as that would not be entirely fair on the church in question, and I did receive kindnesses there. However…
It so happened that towards the end of my time in this neighbourhood this large church experienced something called ‘The Toronto Blessing’. If you are a fellow evangelical: do you remember that? If you’re not, well… Depending on whom you talk to, it was either a refreshing revival for the church in which the Holy Spirit visited congregations and healed hurting people, or it was a series of linked experiences of group hysteria. People affected in a meeting would fall down, start laughing wildly, weep uncontrollably, and sometimes make animal noises (though generally not all at once).
One evening I attended a service where the Blessing descended on the congregation. Everywhere I looked people were laughing, shaking, or falling over. Much praying in tongues was evident.
My feelings about all this were complex. Well, actually they weren’t really: I hated it. However, I did wonder: what if it was from God? If it was, why was I left out? I should say at this point that one of the leitmotifs of my emotional life is the feeling of being Left Out. Whenever I’m in a situation where I perceive this to be occurring, I generally go to pieces quite quickly. So, there I was (again, for I had had many experiences of this before), feeling myself to be observing a celebration, a party, to which God had not invited me. I was separated from the life around me by impenetrable plate glass.
I knew I needed to get out, and get out soon. This was less easy than it sounds, as I was afraid that if I made any sudden moves this might be interpreted as the work of the Holy Spirit and result in eager Helpers coming to my aid. When I eventually picked a moment that seemed safe, someone started manifesting in the entrance foyer.
Some time later I was able to escape, and found myself on the pavement outside. I cannot remember if I cried, but I can recall being desperately miserable, and feeling very lonely.
And then I met an old friend. I will name him, because he deserves it: he was Chris P. It was odd to meet him there, as he lived in inner Manchester. I had not seen him for months.
He was one of a number of people that I and some other Christians had befriended and been ‘working with’ as part of the work of my old church to reach out to the marginalized. More about that story could certainly be told, but for the moment it is enough to know that Chris had not been instantly appealing. He seemed to be perpetually on the brink of taking offence at almost anything: as he also had a very bad stutter this could happen easily. He painted detailed posters for the church, which weren’t really what we wanted but which we accepted anyway, and drove the church minibus willingly but extremely badly.
My breakthrough with him occurred when he knocked a pot of his paint all over my bible, turning much of the Old Testament yellow. I had been furious and stormed out, slamming the door. He was so refreshed to have someone stop being nice to him and lose their temper for a change that our relationship improved considerably as a result. I learnt a certain amount more of his back-story, including a history of abuse from his father.
He was the last person I was expecting to see that evening outside that church.
We went for a curry, at his suggestion. He paid. I can’t remember what he talked about, but I do remember that I found myself disclosing my sexuality to him (a newish experience for me at the time), and that he told me that he was also gay. At the end of the meal we hugged, and parted.
I never saw him again.
Many months’, possibly some years’, later, I learned that he had moved to London, and after this had died, from Aids-related illnesses.
And so, at every World Aids Day, and at every Aids Vigil, I light a candle for you, Chris, you cantankerous, straggly bearded, paint-spilling, stuttering, mad-driving old thing. To use the words of a hymn, you held the Christ light for me in the night-time of my fear: you held your hand out to me and spoke the peace I longed to hear.
You were Christ for me that evening, Chris, and I honour and remember you.