Remembering Father Henry
July 28, 2022
Yesterday, I found out a friend died. Father Henry had a positive impact on my life at a time when I felt alone and frightened. Here is the story:
A few weeks after I left my teaching job due to an AIDS diagnosis, the UAB 1917 Clinic, that served AIDS patients from Alabama and some surrounding states, started a clinical trial of a new class of AIDS drug being developed by one of the major pharmaceutical companies. One of the Birmingham TV stations, Channel 6/WBRC, wanted to interview someone on the study. The research teams started looking for someone willing to be interviewed, who would also be willing to show their face on camera. When they asked me, I realized this was something I could do. I had a background in broadcast news, I spoke well, I was on disability so I wouldn’t have to worry about losing my job, and I didn’t have family in town who could be impacted by my putting my face on camera. This was a time when children were being thrown out of schools across the country if people found out they had AIDS. People with AIDS were having their houses burned down. People with AIDS were being thrown out of churches. I talked it over with my life partner (now my husband), Vern, and we agreed that we were willing to take the risk. I let Channel 6 send a news team over to interview me.
We did the interview in my garden, while I was planting rose bushes. I wanted to show their audience that some people with AIDS were still leading fairly normal lives, that we weren’t all at death’s door yet. The reporter thought this was a good idea. The report aired. Immediately my phone began ringing, all from friends calling with their support and wishing me well. Since the news team used my name in the report, and my phone number was listed, I also got calls from strangers. Some of these wished me well. Some wanted to know if they were in danger, and how they could get tested. A few said God was punishing me for my sins, and that I should be put into a quarantine camp.
The Sunday morning after the story ran, I was in my usual place in the church choir, in front of the congregation. As the parishioners came in, I could see people whispering to each other and glancing my direction. The choir member next to me put her hand on my knee, leaned over and whispered: “It’s going to be all right.”
In Catholic worship services, there is a part of the liturgy every week when the priest says “The peace of God be with you.” The congregation responds with “And also with you.” Then the priest says, “Let us share with one another a sign of God’s peace.” For the next few minutes, the people in attendance will shake hands, hug, introduce themselves to strangers, and say “Peace be with you.” It’s one of my favorite parts of Catholic mass.
Usually during the passing of the peace, Father Henry would walk out into the congregation, and “pass the peace” to a few people in the front rows before going back to his place at the altar. This week, though, he walked directly over to where the choir stood, walked through the other choir members, and greeted me with “Peace be with you” and hugged me tight for several minutes. Tears ran down my face. When I looked up, I saw my fellow choir members, and many of the people in the congregation, were also crying. Most Catholics want to be good Catholics. In new situations, though, they look to their leaders to help them see how to respond as a good Catholic. Father Henry showed by example. Good Catholics, like all good Christians, and like Jesus himself, respond to illness with love. I’m sure the same can be said of most religions.