Story

The Church and HIV/AIDS in Jamaica

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Carol finds inspiration at her church, the Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Image by Andre Lambertson. Jamaica, 2014.

Returning to Jamaica is never emotionally uncomplicated for me. I am a reporter reporting on a subject that is at once distant from my experience and yet deeply intimate to me. I am connected to the church in Jamaica in intimate and formative ways. But I have only anecdotal knowledge of how the church has dealt with people living with HIV/AIDS. My task is to understand this better and to do so with enough distance to ensure a willingness to be truthful, to be probing in my questioning, and to be constantly resisting the urge to assume.

Jamaica is where my family lives. My mother turned 80 this week, and so coming to Jamaica allows me to play out the typical narrative of a middle-aged person dealing with the struggles of his parent to face the inevitable. These encounters are fraught with guilt, joy, amusement and confusion. Jamaica is complicated.

On this second trip, I am seeking answers to the questions that I forgot to ask the first time around. I am asking questions that emerged when I had time to reflect on the interviews of the last trip. I have been haunted by the gaps in the stories people tell.

Here is the truth: None of us, except those trained in the art of shaping a consistent narrative about ourselves, tells the whole story on one occasion. We tell what we think should be said for the moment based on our mood, our preoccupations, or the weather. We are often testing ground. But for those who are telling our stories for the first time, we are actually discovering what we think and feel only when we begin to talk. These conversations can surprise us and frighten us at the same time. Sometimes we hold back, not daring to speak the unspoken things.

On this second trip I have been asking the same questions again. And the mere fact of our return with our cameras, our laughter, our curiosity has changed the dynamic of the conversation. There is a greater sense of intimacy and trust. We think we know each other better, and we do. And this kind of trust is especially relevant for people living with HIV/AIDS who are constantly assessing people, testing to see what they can disclose and what they can't.

There is something liberating about getting the raw fact of one's status out of the way. When that is followed by a genuine embrace, touch, eye to eye connection, something has replaced uncertainty. Even if it is premature to call it trust, it is something close enough to that for truth to be spoken.

On this trip I asked Carol how her husband contracted HIV/AIDS, the disease that killed him after he infected her with it. The first time we spoke she said he did not say. She was not lying. This time she told me the rest. She knew.

On this trip I asked Patrick exactly why he never attempted to return to Canada after things spiraled out of control in his life in Jamaica. This time the chronology of events explained just how tragic his fall has been. This time he has shown us the shelter where he lives.

HOW TO SURVIVE THE FALL

I call this roofless enclosure
My safe house, my shelter—

on this slab of concrete
I learn to soften my bones to sleep.

This is my bed, this is my shelter

I call the murmur of people in the lane
my assurance, my living

I call my clothes washed and folded
my security, my superiority

this is my assurance, my dignity

I call the day coming up again, the water
cupped in my hands to cleanse me

my anointing, my blessing, at seven
each morning, I walk, my feet, my bruised

carriage moving throng this city
of fallen men and women, my treasure

this is my anointing, my treasure.

You ask me how I live through this,
I say that my sin of pride is my hope,

I say that my bitter condescension is my strength
I say my perfect English—I am better than them, better.

You may not like me—this does not burden me.
Come seven in the morning I am stubbornly here,

filled with secrets I will keep inside me,
head held above the teeming mob.

Every encounter is a transaction for food,
I know how to ask, not to beg,

I know how to negotiate my need, I train
people to do mercy for me—it is a gift;

this is the art of the survivor
I have mastered this art,

I have pawned my license for a bowl
of rice, I have calculated and I have lost.

My pride, my bed, my shelter, my anointing,
my hope, my dignity, my reason, my reason.

On this trip, Andre Lambertson and I are collecting the images that have settled in us as icons of what we have heard. The church will sometimes protect the sick, the downtrodden, the abused, and sometimes the church will not.

On this trip I asked Denise if she decided to disclose her status to her church—a decision she said she would have to make the last time I saw her. At the time, she told me that the church had been asking her to assume more and more responsibilities and she was beginning to worry that they were giving her leadership roles without knowing who she really was. She said that she did not know what their policy was towards HIV-positive people in the church. She worried that if they found out they would regard her as a liar and someone who betrayed them. So I asked her what she had decided to do, and she gave me an answer that was full of the complexities that mark the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS.

On this trip asked Cheryl about her man Devon, the one for whom she was scarred, for whom she scarred others, for whom she shed tears, the one who gave her the disease and who she loved, anyway, despite the approbation of her sisters the Christians who do not want her to tell anyone she is HIV positive. She told me why she stays away from the church, she laughed, she was open, wide open, full of stories—she said, “That is why I like HIV,” and she explained why.

On this trip we spent time at Eve for Life, an NGO that serves young mothers who are HIV positive. We met people living with HIV/AIDS who were filled with the optimism of people on the mission of helping other people. We met the “gospeler” of humanism and kindness and compassion, Joy Crawford, who spoke of what she does as co-founder and director of Eve for Life as work that is ultimately authoritative, urgent and necessary. We heard her analyze the idea of relationship between humanism, spirituality and the enabling that comes from surviving the disease. Crawford is interested in the ways in which people living with the disease become agents of social change by their willingness to disclose their status even when it is risky.

On this trip we walked through the cemeteries of neglect and brokenness with their crypts, invaded mausoleums, and crumbling tombstones festooned by the uncontrolled consumption of acacia bushes and the entanglement of brush and bramble. There the dead seem to have been forgotten. There the rugged gravediggers loiter in the shade, waiting to be summoned.

On this trip, they told me that Glendon had died. Glendon, the small-bodied, energetic and persistently optimistic man I met six years ago sharing his laughter and hope in Portmore and then around the country—that man whose eyes would turn from bright alertness to a soft escape into dream when he did not have to speak, that man who talked with animation about his dream of establishing a candle making factory to make ends meet, that man who announced to an auditorium full of school children that despite his illness, despite his body sometimes betraying him, despite the shame of stigma and of being abandoned by family, he was engaged to be married and he was happy. How they cheered and cheered and cheered, those children at the Claude McKay Primary School in the hills of Clarendon. How they cheered for Glendon. Glendon is dead. The language is the same: “of complications associated with HIV/AIDS.”

ELEGY FOR THE CANDLE MAKER

For Glendon

For those hours of another interim,
you dreamed of lighting all the dark
corners of the city where the poor
settled in shadows, thankful for
the occasional illumination of a car’s
headlights casually swooping
over the walls before the second
and third darkness, with candles
scented with lavender; you dreamed
of giving respite in the gloom to those
waiting for the sun—that unflinching
ball of white flattening everything.
This is what your hands could do,
you said; you with eyes wearily
seeking focus before the short
sharp glare of a smile. You show
your hands—the hands of a man
returned again from the dead,
this is what miracle hands can do,
what resurrection hands can do,
what Lazarus hands can do.
You take the soft coil of white thread,
the wick, the fuel, the persistence
of life, and lay it down on the wax
embossed board. Then the raw
square of beeswax, with its soapy
scent; malleable as clay when warmed—
those you stack neatly so that the light
through the broken window
spreads inside the wax, as if lit
from within. On the sill, you have
lined the vials of dye and the silver
saucers of every aroma you have
imagined (for days, your crushed
leaves and grasses, rubbing
your fingers and sniffing, frowning.
This, you say, is what a man’s hands
can do in the in between, the place
of restoration, of replenishment,
the place between the emptying
of death and the reimagining of futures.
You know that the body can return
to walk the streets, marry into love,
dream of making babies, laugh, and build
dreams of filling the world with light.
May they, Glendon, cover your grave
with a thousand candles, and may they
light them after the sankey and the tears,
and may they leave them there to illuminate
this last darkness we all must enter,
and may this torch turn the broken
sepulchers and crypts into a sudden
temple of grace, here in the interim
between memory and forgetting.

On this trip I have tried in vain to interview gay men and women who are worshiping in congregations on the island, but who have not told anyone they are gay. One may have said that he was an advocate, but could not afford to be out—he is a senior, much admired teacher in a Christian school and he would lose his job if he came out in an interview. Others said they preferred to stay quiet.

On this trip I have learned that there have been secret meetings with clergy in Jamaica to discuss the church’s response to homosexuality. Someone who was at these secret meetings tells me that the long discussions around the theology of homosexuality left many questioning their hardened positions on the sin of homosexuality, and gradually they said that while they saw enough theological room to offer a more compassionate and inclusive place for homosexuality in the church, they were more worried about the response of their congregations, the response of their fellow clergymen, the response of those who give to the church, the response of the ubiquitous American presence of sponsoring evangelical churches. There is a strange kind of hope in this sordid story. The meetings have remained a secret.

This second trip was about finding the complexities, the contradictions, the grace notes inside the stories we had heard before. Jamaica is always emotionally complicated, it is as simple as that.