God, spirituality, and HIV
By Michelle Simek

When you think of HIV/AIDS and God or religion, the following images may come to mind: “God Hates Fags” lining the streets at the local AIDS walk. A candlelight vigil in the church sanctuary on World AIDS Day. Members of a religious congregation figuratively (and literally) turning their collective backs on someone who has AIDS. Angry ministers loudly preaching “HIV is God’s punishment.” Magic Johnson pleading with African American churches to become more involved in the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

But none of these images tells the entire story, which is full of nuance and subtlety. For some in the HIV/AIDS community, their relationship to God, faith, and spirituality is complex and diverse, much like the epidemic itself. Several Southern Californian community members and faith-based service providers share their thoughts and their messages follow. 

Expressions of love

Octavio Vallejo, MD, MPH, CHES

Octavio was born in Mexico and raised in the Catholic Church. He heard the anti-gay messages from the church but was always attracted to boys instead of girls, which was quite complicated for him. “At the age of six, when I dared to talk about my feelings and experiences in an act of confession, my soul was condemned to eternal fire by a priest who, far from listening to my cries for help, sunk me in the deepest and cruelest punishment when I learned from him that I was condemned for life and eternity.” After that, he kept his sexual orientation to himself for many years.

In 1990, he was diagnosed with HIV but he avoided medical care for four years, an irony since he was a practicing physician at the time. In 1994 he was diagnosed with AIDS due to an opportunistic infection and a T-cell count less than 100. He went to see an HIV specialist but left in a panic after five minutes. Eventually he engaged in medical care and started treatment. Like many HIV-positive people in the 1990s he swallowed multiple pills per day and says he had to endure excessive diarrhea, constant nausea that made him hate the slightest smell of food, liver enzymes all over the place, unbearable pain because of neuropathy, and changes in his physical appearance that he says made him “look like Steven Spielberg’s E.T.” Ironically, his AIDS diagnosis made him restart a spiritual (but not a religious) practice. Today, his home is filled with images and icons of both the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Buddha.

Flash-forward to 2018, he now takes a single-tablet anti-HIV regimen with virtually no side effects. “These medical and treatment advances and the reunification with my spiritual life—not religious per se—gave me the opportunity to rescue the necessary values to survive with this disease: love myself, love others, love service, and the reunification with unconditional love. All these different expressions of love brought other things to my life: strength I did not know I had—a byproduct of my lived experiences—and the capacity to value life in its totality, and the perception to value what is really valuable in this life.”

Octavio goes on to say that, “As a healthcare professional to all kinds of human beings [living] with HIV, spiritual life and the direct connection to my Creator gave me the strength to encourage and help others. It gave me the certainty that I am an instrument of my Creator and that my God does not hate, on the contrary, He provides the purest compassion and love to whomever needs them. When you live with HIV or AIDS, you start to talk with your heart without trying hard and you are more real, you are more yourself…. And when you are genuine, humanity recognizes and values it.”

Being of service to others

Andrea de Lange

Andrea (center) at a family gathering

Andrea is a self-proclaimed hippie from Southern California. She is a 55-year-old straight woman who was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 when she was only 22. Andrea was raised Jewish (Reformed). Her family honored the Sabbath every Friday and leaned towards Zionism. As a teenager, Andrea went to Jewish camp and lived in a kibbutz in Israel one summer. This being said, her family was not very religious. “The God thing was never an issue” and she never truly believed in God. Andrea now identifies as a spiritual atheist and culturally Jewish. “I’m proud of our heritage. I’m proud of the Jewish people.” In terms of her atheism, “All you have to do is look at the Holocaust and ask how did God let that happen? The same with Rwanda and Cambodia.”

However, she is a spiritual person, but not in a religious way. Both she and her husband are vegetarians, which is “part of being spiritual. I don’t do any special rituals and I tried meditation but it didn’t stick.” For Andrea, being spiritual equals being of service to others. “When you help others, you take your mind off your own stuff. Being of service is part of being a good person.” She was “in the helping profession” even before her HIV diagnosis. “I’m the person who helps little old ladies and strangers.”

When first diagnosed, she went to the PLUS weekend seminars in Los Angeles, which were run by the now defunct LA Shanti. She first went as a participant but was then asked to return and to be on a panel, which she did several times. “Helping to heal others, heals yourself” was the mantra of the PLUS weekends, and Andrea took this to heart.

Nowadays, she volunteers twice a week with Holocaust survivors at Jewish Family Services. Andrea still identifies as Zionist but “feels empathy for Palestine. Forcing people out of their homes is bullshit.” Volunteering at Jewish Family Services is “the best thing.” The clients are “cool, loving people. If I go to my volunteer shift in a shit mood, they are so loving, giving and appreciative, my mood improves.” She “feels affinity” with them. “They survived the Holocaust. I’m a survivor also. I’ve survived different things. I almost died five times so I feel a bond with them—as survivors.”

Living the Red Ribbon Church

Joe Green

Joe is a 53-year-old out and proud gay man living with HIV and a resident of West Hollywood. His family creed is “God’s will is our command.” He is a very active member of the Hollywood United Methodist Church (HUMC, also known as “The Red Ribbon Church” or “The AIDS Church” due to the enormous red AIDS awareness ribbon on the steeple).

Originally from Wisconsin, Joe was raised Methodist and attended a Catholic university. But after college he was not involved with a church again until seven years ago. He was busy with “work, being single, and then being in relationships.” It was that red ribbon that attracted Joe to the church one eventful Sunday morning. He was considering a different open and affirming church but HUMC was closer so he ended up there. And never left. HUMC “reignited my spiritual journey.” The red ribbon in particular makes Joe feel “proud, as it is a clearly visible stance on HIV for all of Hollywood to see, and for the thousands of tourists who come to Hollywood each year.”

Joe worked at amfAR prior to testing positive for HIV in 1998. That job taught him a lot and provided a wealth of knowledge, “almost too much knowledge: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the worst ugly” about HIV. He didn’t intend to tell his family but his mother found his Kaletra bottle in his fridge. (His family knows both his sexual orientation and HIV status but they don’t discuss it—“It’s no big deal.”). His mother died six years ago and although he misses her, he says it’s okay. “I outlived my mother, which was my prayer to God. When she passed, it was a relief. I thank God for that” (many PLWH have expressed fear of having their parents see them die). He does wish that she were still alive to meet his current partner, Josep. Josep and Joe recently received a special, private communion at HUMC, from their openly lesbian minister.

For a while, Joe had a very structured spiritual practice. “I would make myself get up at 5 am, seven days a week, to pray. Now I just pray nightly before bed.” He follows the teachings of John Wesley (the co-founder of the Methodist Church). Wesley organized small groups that stressed personal accountability, discipleship, and religious instruction. Or, as Joe puts it, “small groups of people getting together, being of service, and doing the Bible talk thing.” In addition to amfAR, Joe also worked at Easter Seals. Since 2004, he has volunteered as the Regional Disaster Duty Officer for the Red Cross of Los Angeles County, and is on call one week a month. He also feeds the homeless each Sunday, and is an At-Large Member of the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV. John Wesley would probably be proud.

Raising awareness, destroying stigma

Josué Hernández

Josué, now 31 years old, grew up in a conservative Jehovah’s Witness congregation on the border between Mexico and Texas. His parents both died of cancer. As Witnesses, they were not allowed to receive blood transfusions. Josué “cannot say with certainty” that the transfusions would have helped them live, “but, with my mom, blood transfusions were highly recommended” since she had cancer surgery. Even though his father was an elder in the church, Josué was “connected to spirituality but not to church” when he was growing up. At the age of 19, he left “a lot of things behind, like Jehovah’s Witness beliefs,” and moved to San Francisco. He received his HIV diagnosis two years later, at the age of 21. He “needed to wait 10 years before going public” with his diagnosis. “It took me 10 years to come to terms with my status, because there were other trauma and negative experiences that needed greater attention and prioritization before I could deal with my status.”

When Josué was ready to share his HIV status, he went public in a big way and wrote an article about his diagnosis for A&U, a national HIV/AIDS magazine. He “started this year [2018] by contacting friends and family to share my status before I’d make it public by releasing my article. Most of my friends’ and family’s responses were favorable, except [one] family member who told me that it was my fault for being HIV positive. This person said that I had decided to choose this ‘gay lifestyle’ and I was now suffering the consequences, by being HIV-positive.” (Josué chooses not to reveal the identity of the family member as he is working on improving that relationship.) [They] also said that his “being HIV-positive was a sign that the end of times were close and that I was going to die in Armageddon. They were going to survive Armageddon and live in the new paradise that Jesus Christ promised, but I was going to die. The person added they were embarrassed to think of my parents in paradise, being asked about me and blaming them for not having done more to save me. This was very painful to hear. But, I felt prepared,” he says, although “I had a nervous feeling in my gut” before the article came out. Now Josué does not speak with anyone from his former congregation, other than a couple of family members, which he says was what he expected.

Like others highlighted in this article, Josué also believes in helping people in need and works at Radiant Health Centers (formerly AIDS Services Foundation Orange County). There he pursues his “personal mission to raise awareness, destroy the stigma associated with [HIV], and empower those at risk by sharing my personal story in Orange County. At the same time, I’m taking advantage of this opportunity to make a stronger connection with friends and family members, including those that think that their religious beliefs are enough reason to cut me off from their lives.” His job focuses on Latino MSM, who have among the highest infection rates in Orange County. He enjoys doing educational presentations on HIV and says it empowers him to be more open about his status, especially every time he says, “I am HIV positive.”

Josué “believes that religion is not the same as spirituality. I can separate the two.” Currently, he does not attend any particular church but does pray daily. “It is an everyday practice. I acknowledge that there is a God and I am thankful for what I have.”

Ministering in his truth

Dontá Morrison, MA

In addition to being the Program Manager of Youth Programs at APLA Health, Dontá is also a licensed minister at a Baptist church and he runs their youth group. Even when diagnosed with HIV, church has always been a large part of his life. “Spirituality is my base. Even when I don’t go to church, I’m still connected to God.”

Dontá came out of the closet twice, the first time at 24. Then, at the age of 32, after years of “trying to please the church and not God,” Dontá decided that he didn’t want to be gay anymore, renounced homosexuality, and lived life as a straight man for five years. He wanted to “get in right with God. I hadn’t tapped into God. I was living life to answer to the church.” Interestingly, when he took a break from church, he got closer to God. “All I had was God” during that time. During those “straight” years, “he had a lot of girlfriends and almost got married.” And yes, he did disclose his HIV status to his girlfriends. But his attraction to men returned. Dontá talked to his mother who asked, “Are you gay again?” Actually, he was still gay but had realized something important: he would not cheat on a man with another man but would cheat on a woman with another man. “I had a forced attraction to women but a natural attraction to men.” Finally, his mother understood his sexual orientation.

After his “second coming out,” he returned to the church and was preaching as a Baptist minister across Los Angeles. But people started hearing that he was gay and the phone stopped ringing. “And it hurt.” Also, everyone assumed that he was promiscuous and hypersexual. “Just because I’m gay, it doesn’t mean I’m having sex. People assume that if you’re gay, you gotta be a ho.” Point of fact, Dontá was celibate at the time. Currently, Dontá is in a committed, long-term relationship and he and his partner attend church weekly.

At church and at APLA, Dontá sees himself in the youth he serves. He tells them things that he wishes he had heard as a teenager. “I had no idea what HIV was. I saw ‘Philadelphia.’ I thought it was only white boys in WeHo who got AIDS, like Tom Hanks in the movie. I thought I was going to be dead soon. I was angry at the church. They never talked about sex from a neutral perspective. They don’t want to know [about HIV/AIDS].”

As this article goes to print, Dontá will already have been honored by his church, Church One in Long Beach, California, for his work with his youth group and he is working on his doctorate in Philosophy and Global Leadership. “Lots of people go to church but have no connection to God. I now live in my truth.”

An HIV/AIDS ministry

Rev. Chris Ponnet, MA, MDiv., BCC

Father Chris has been a priest for the Los Angeles Archdiocese for 35 years. In 1986, then Cardinal Roger Mahony (controversial for both his liberal pro-immigrant stance and also for concealing pedophilia in his parishes) started the church’s HIV/AIDS ministry when the “pandemic was experiencing tragic numbers.” The HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ ministries were originally combined but have since separated. When the HIV/AIDS
ministry first started, it consisted of many support groups for the infected and affected. Now the groups are “less needed and fewer attended” so they focus on one-on-one counseling and group education.

 In the late 1980s, there were not many AIDS service organizations (ASOs) offering services in Spanish so the Spanish ministry began doing so (and still does). Also, the HIV/AIDS ministry has had a team in every AIDS Walk Los Angeles since it began. At first the team consisted of clients living with HIV and their families and loved ones. Now the teams are filled with students from Catholic high schools. Father Chris uses the AIDS Walk as an educational moment and makes sure that every team receives HIV/AIDS education. The team also prays as a group prior to the beginning of the walk.

Nowadays, the Ministry focuses on spiritual counseling, which Father Chris describes is “like regular counseling but with an emphasis on God.” Anyone who is living with HIV can be counseled, not just Catholics. And there is no limit to the number of sessions. “Some come to hear that God doesn’t hate them, and are happy to hear it! Others need more time.” The priest accepts both self-referrals and also referrals from local ASOs and HIV/AIDS clinics.

Much of Father Chris’s work takes place in Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center (one of the largest hospitals in the United States, with over 600 beds). The social worker links patients who are HIV-positive with Father Chris and he performs spiritual counseling right at the hospital bedside. If the patient would like to see someone of a different faith, he will find someone else. Father Chris has a vast referral network of clergy in Southern California.

If he receives a report that a priest is talking about “hell and damnation” in terms of HIV/AIDS or LGBTQ issues, he can and will reach out to them to do an intervention. “Often it is an issue of ignorance. The pastor is just following what he was taught according to church doctrine.” And he has been successful in changing some hearts and minds of conservative priests.

Lastly, Father Chris also does HIV/AIDS education in schools and parishes. While the doctrine of the Catholic Church does not allow him to pass out condoms, he knows and acknowledges that most people don’t wait until marriage to become sexually active, so he encourages using protection.

Mentoring spirits with open hearts

Richard Zaldivar

Richard is Executive Director of The Wall/Las Memorias Project (TWLMP) and is considered a leader in the Los Angeles HIV/AIDS community. TWLMP started by erecting a memorial in East Los Angeles commemorating those who have died of complications from AIDS. The agency now offers services for people who are living with HIV and for those who are very vulnerable to HIV acquisition. Richard, a gay man who is HIV-negative, feels “spiritually called to do this work.” In fact, spirituality is a core part of TWLMP’s mission. The agency has a Faith Advisory Board that consists of clergy of many different religions. Also, TWLMP has been a past recipient of a faith-based HIV prevention grant. The agency has hosted and organized the annual “Conference on Latinos, Faith, Culture, HIV, and Mental Health” for the past 11 years.

According to Richard, “Everyone has to follow their own spiritual path. Some resist the God issue. It’s either not for them, they haven’t explored it, or they have had a bad past experience.” With open hearts, TWLMP staff are “mentoring clients’ spirits.”

A practicing Catholic, Richard and his partner go to The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels every Sunday. When asked why he doesn’t go to a gay specific and/or open and affirming church, Richard states, “I get to claim my space wherever I go. This is part of my spiritual journey.” He noted that the LGBTQ community didn’t always have representation in Congress and now there is the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. “We have had to fight for our space in the Democratic Party and everywhere else. For all marginalized communities in these turbulent times, it is okay to nurture a place where you can connect your spirit to your body and love that experience, and wait for things to happen from there.” 

Michelle Simek works at an HIV/AIDS clinic in Los Angeles, California. In 2006, she was given the annual “Social Service Provider Award” by the Los Angeles Women’s HIV/AIDS Task Force. She is also an actor and writer. In her spare time, she goes to see rock bands, reads voraciously, and pets her cat, Baxter.