Jack and I were fast friends. We shared a similar sense of humor and he was fun to be around. I made it a point to hang around with him as much as possible.
"By the way," he said casually one day as we rode the bus together. "I'm gay."
"Cool," I said.
"But don't tell anybody okay," he cautioned.
"As if I would! What do you take me for!" I cried indignantly.
"Could you say that a little louder, I don't think the bus driver heard you," he laughed.
"Dammit...sorry," I muttered.
He and a few other friends were one of the few bright spots in my otherwise dismal experience at the studies program (the internship was still going great). Jack's boyfriend Daniel was a flight attendant with a major airline, and he had an apartment in Virginia. I hung out with Jack and Daniel a lot, anything to get away from my own apartment. The Last Two American Virgins and I were not getting along. Despite the frenetic letter-writing campaign my boyfriend had initiated, the likes of which would never been seen again, I was terribly lonely and homesick. Daniel and Jack were very kind to me at a time when I needed some kindness.
"So, what are you doing this weekend?" Jack asked me. We had just finished dinner. Daniel served his famous banana pudding with a flourish. "Nothing, probably sleeping in," I replied.
"How about coming to church with us?" Daniel proposed.
"What? Are you mad? I get enough bible thumping in class! I don't need it on a Sunday morning," I groused.
"Well, it's a gay church," Jack replied. "I think you might enjoy it."
"All right, why not," I said.
That Sunday I was a little nervous. I had no idea what to expect as I walked in the sanctuary with Daniel and Jack. Two lines of wooden pews dominated the room. The room was quite Spartan except for a carpeted platform in front and three stained glass windows on each side of the room. Same-sex couples of varying sizes and descriptions were seated and chatting quietly amongst themselves. Everyone wore a gold band on their left hand, signifying their relational status. Some people spotted us and raised their voice in greeting. A man walked towards us and immediately engulfed each of us in a bear hug. "Hello and welcome!" he beamed. I was greeted with several more enthusiastic hugs before we were finally seated.
"A lot of them are HIV-positive," Jack explained.
I was dumbfounded. I could only sit there and think stupid thoughts such as, "I hope I don't get HIV from those hugs." Shut up, I told myself fiercely. Stop being an ignorant dope.
The pastor was wheeled up to the pulpit in a wheelchair. Apparently he was in the advanced stages of HIV/AIDS.
"Before we begin, I would like to remember those who have passed away recently," he said. He read through a list of names. After we sang some hymns, he began his sermon. When he was finished, everyone chatted and there were more hugs. I was struck by how everyone was so friendly. They didn’t even know me. Many of them were HIV-positive yet still found the faith and strength to come and worship on Sunday. My cynical heart was touched by their earnestness and cordiality.
"Wow, that was great. I really enjoyed it," I said to Jack.
"I told you so," was all he would say.
He told me later that the pastor had died shortly after. Something in me changed after that day and I feared that I would never be the same again.