Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Long Run Down at the City Jail

Bill Andrews goes to jail every Friday morning. For six years this Memphis man has taken himself to 201 Poplar, downtown Memphis, on a weekly basis. A distinctive man, Bill is tall, good looking and charming. His smile and cheerful greeting infect the faces of guards, visitors, chaplains, counselors and inmates. They are pleased to see him over and over again. Bill voluntarily teaches a class on HIV Prevention and Treatment at 201 Poplar. Teaching up to sixty inmates at a time he begins by making it clear that HIV is a disease that nobody needs to catch. “It’s a problem we all end up paying for.” Bill’s voice has the sound of absolute authority. People listen as he explains the high cost of ignoring this killer disease.

You know Bill’s voice and face from his stage appearances at Playhouse on the Square and at Theatre Memphis. His company, Good Show LLC, designs and builds sets for major events in theater, entertainment and industry within the Memphis area. Bill has enough work and a to-do list that is on-going. Yet this high profile, white, heterosexual, happily married successful business man remains committed to talking to male inmates about risky behaviors like unprotected sex and needle sharing. He explains how the HIV virus most often gets into the human body through mucous membranes, the pink moist places in our bodies. It lives in air-tight places like the inside of human bodies. The virus lives in blood, semen, vaginal fluid, cerebral spinal fluid and breast milk. Bill describes the destruction of the human immune system as untreated HIV infection takes over the body’s defenses. He urges the men to use condoms and to take advantage of multiple opportunities for free HIV testing. As Bill sets up his overhead projector he asks, “How many of you have heard me give this lecture before?” A river of hands, perhaps one third, goes up across the room. “How many of you have heard me give this lecture more than once before?” Eight hands go up in the air. Bill is a common sight and an uncommon warrior in the war against HIV infections. “Nobody is talking about this disease any more. Not the television news and not the printed news. The politicians have forgotten all about it. It used to be up front and center, back when Hollywood was losing its brightest and best to AIDS. The most glamorous and high profile people were all wearing red ribbons and donating large sums of money for research and treatment. But now the newly infected people in our community are mostly poor and African American. The disease is no longer making headlines. It is as if people have stopped caring. But the disease has not gone away. Our silence won’t heal anybody.” Bill refuses to be silent. His commitment to the health and well being of the men in our city jail is awesome.

“Your beliefs are your own and I cannot take them away from you,” he maintains the interest of his restless audience in spite of doors clanging, voices calling and machinery humming in the concrete and metal background. “If you believe you can’t get this disease because the only sex you have is getting head, your belief can make you sick. If you believe this disease is passed only by men having sex with men your belief will leave you exposed to the virus when you have unprotected sex with an infected woman. If you believe your HIV diagnosis is a death sentence so you refuse to get treated then your belief will keep you from possibly living long and well on a prescribed regimen of drugs. If you believe that HIV is a virus created by the United States government to get rid of poor black people then I can’t make you believe otherwise. But you can choose not to get this disease, no matter where or how it came into Memphis. You can protect yourself and your partner with a latex condom every time you have sex. There’s no need to change your belief. Just change your behaviors.”

Bill served on the board of Friends for Life for many years. Friends for Life is a local nonprofit that exists to provide services to people living with HIV and AIDS. Bill has seen what the HIV virus can do to people and to the community. He takes his lecture where he finds a captive audience of mostly poor and African American men, many with a history of risky behaviors. There is no way for him to measure the effectiveness of his investment. That does not seem to bother Bill. He believes he is doing a good thing so he keeps presenting the truth about HIV to new, long-term and returning inmates, Friday after Friday.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Taking Up the Slack

She wore a flower-print, full –body apron over her dress; her ample bosom and round belly packaged neatly for a day’s work at the hospital. Her gray hair was unruly and she was forever reaching up to brush wisps away from her face. She stayed busy working from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon, pushing the gift and candy cart from floor to floor. Audrey was a volunteer, a Gray Lady. She trained new volunteers, watched them come and go. She was like a steady river of refreshment for patients, families, staff and visitors. Everyone felt noticed, appreciated and cared for in Audrey’s line of work. Her mission was to make the day a little better for people inside the hospital walls.

I worked the evening shift as charge nurse on the psychiatric unit. Audrey stopped by the nurses’ station as we were taking report, one set of nursing staff leaving and handing off information to the next: test results, progress updates and medication changes from the day. “Anybody want candy here?” Money was quickly exchanged for chocolate bars, gum, and peppermints. “Anybody want a prayer?” The two questions were standard with Audrey. And our answer was always the same. “We all need it.” Audrey reached for our hands and we connected in a circle while she invited something and someone really helpful and healing to come on our unit and into our work. And then Audrey moved along because there were so many more units to visit, so much candy to be sold, so many prayers to be offered.

Audrey’s son, Bill, had been the organist at their church for many years. People kidded him about being a bachelor. “When are you going to make some girl a lucky lady?” Church men used to pat Bill on the back and chuckle. Bill would smile his broad and contagious smile. “Isn’t he the sweetest thing ever?” Church ladies cooed over Bill and his charming manners, his music and the excellent dishes he brought to potluck dinners. Bill died of pneumonia in 1988 and the church council refused to let the family hold his funeral inside the church. Word got out that Bill’s pneumonia was a result of AIDS and the church people insisted that bringing Bill’s dead body into the sanctuary would jeopardize the health of the entire congregation. In spite of better advice from local doctors, the minds of the church people were set. Audrey and her husband, Dan, received guests at the funeral home. Few people attended and most of the men who came to the funeral were strangers to Audrey and Dan. Audrey made it her business to meet and get to know Bill’s friends after her son was gone and buried. She had met his community of gay friends but now, with Bill's death, they meant so much more to the grieving mother.

Audrey stopped going to church not just because of the hurt she felt about the rejection of her son but also because Audrey’s husband developed Alzheimer’s disease. Most of her time was spent caring for a grown man who could no longer care for himself. Bill’s friends, a small group of gay men, stood by Audrey during the ten years that Alzheimer’s disease robbed her husband of his memories, his strength, and his dignity. Tony, the jewelry store owner, drove her to doctor’s appointments. Jay and Timothy, who owned the Don’t Tell Mama Bar, sat with Dan while Audrey had her hair fixed on Saturday mornings at the Kut & Kurl. Chris came over and played Bill’s piano just to entertain Audrey and Dan in their home. Keith cooked for them on weekends and put things in the freezer for later in the week. When Dan passed away Audrey didn’t even consider having his service at the church where she and her husband had been baptized and married. Audrey wanted the funeral to be in a place where her new friends would be welcome and comfortable. The service was held in a gay bar and half the town declared that Audrey had lost her mind.

And then she came to the hospital and took training to be a Gray Lady. Day after day Audrey pushed her gift and candy cart from floor to floor. She watched the people in the halls and in the waiting rooms. She listened when people needed to talk. One day Audrey stopped by the hospital cafeteria where I was taking a break. She caught me wearing worries on my face. I was almost ready to come out of the closet but I recognized how much that decision would cost me. I would have to move away, to a larger city. The people in this small town would never understand. I told Audrey my story and she told me her story. Then Audrey prayed one of her beautiful and brief prayers for me. I thanked Audrey for all of her prayers, for her commitment and her faith. “Well, I can see that the church no longer knows how to be the church, Honey. So I just try to take up the slack.” I took my coffee and went back upstairs, went back to work. I felt like I had truly been to church.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


It’s spring in Memphis. The buttercups bravely came up and checked things out first. Bright yellow wands of forsythia are waving, and lacy white Bartlett Pears make the city seem prepared for a bride to walk through our streets. I get hopeful while the weather gets warmer. Something about spring gives me courage, warms me into wondering about things that winter’s cold would not allow me to think about.

To state the obvious: It is much easier to offer compassion to our friends, those who think like we do, live in the same nation and drink from the same cooler than it is to offer compassion to our enemies and oppressors. To respond to our enemy or oppressor with compassion is a true test of our human resolve to do the right thing. In thinking about this I discovered a connection between my experience of my enemy and my experience of God. In both relationships there is mystery.

We do not know God. God is a mystery. God exists and acts in ways beyond our comprehension. The same is true for our enemies. We don’t understand why he or she would want to hurt us, label us, limit our options, and separate us from the good will of others. So often we are judged negatively, oppressed, condemned and attacked by others without benefit of knowing the underlying cause. We can ask and we can imagine but we cannot really know the full extent of our enemies’ experience.

Mysteries challenge us and stir our curiosity and help us develop the questions that expand us and deepen our richest spiritual gifts. In our relationship with God we develop patience. We pray – and then we wait. Somehow we continue to believe in God’s goodness in spite of suffering and injustice. We trust that one day we will know. We do our best to be faithful in the face of the challenge.

I am wondering if I can do the same with my enemy. Perhaps being distrusted, unjustly labeled and attacked hold clues that would point me toward something even more valuable than knowing anything as a certainty. Maybe the mysteries involved in our relationships with oppressors hold a lesson more life-giving than being liked and affirmed by family and friends. In not understanding I can find my true light, discover my unique purpose.

Even as I observe with awe the buttercups nodding in the yard, I can compassionately allow my enemies to exist in peace. No one wants an enemy. It’s a mystery to me why they have to exist at all. Yet I’ve heard it before: In my enemy I will find my greatest teacher. I can learn from each season and relationship of my life, trusting that every life and relationship share the deep mysteries of God. I can offer compassion to the one who would harm me, even as the buttercup will wilt into the ground and wait for spring’s return.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Connecting at the Ant Hill

Remember when we took time to notice good things? Remember when we trusted people and expected good things from ourselves and each other? Remember Sunday afternoon drives, stopping by to visit another family and having ice cream on the porch? Remember when children raced around the yard with glass jars—catching fireflies? Old folks were rocking and reflecting. Neighbors walked by and there was a connection, a kindness, that held us all together. We don’t have that anymore. We have been robbed. Somebody came in through the kitchen door of our lives and ran off with some absolute necessity, some nourishment that our communities depend upon to stay connected and caring.

Ants take such good care of their social connection that they are among the longest living insect in the world. “Myrmecology,” the study of ants, informs us that the long life and the success of the highly organized ant colony is due, in part, to a touch, a chemical kiss that is passed along from one ant to the next ant as they pass each other. Each ant has its job,some jobs more glamorous than others. Every ant touches the next ant as it does its job…a touch of encouragement, a touch of inspiration, a reminder that no ant is working alone. Now… imagine those same ants stopping their work long enough to watch us with our secured and gated developments, our rage-filled roads and all the greedy and competitive business going on in our relationships at home and in the work place.

According to Daniel Goleman in his book, Social Intelligence, we are wired to connect. He says we are so deeply connected to one another that we “create one another.” p. 5

“Whenever we connect face to face (or voice to voice, or skin to skin) with someone else, our social brains interlock.” p.11 and we become more because of these physical encounters with personal connections. More human. More of what we were created to be.

It is my hope that people will return to looking at one another, listening to family members and neighbors, telling stories that make us laugh and cry together. It is my passion to make kindness, conversation and story sharing a staple in our daily lives. Take a minute and watch the ants at work in your yard. Invite a neighbor to watch with you. Get connected.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Welcome to Elaine Blanchard's new blog "Can You Believe It?"