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December 1 is World AIDS Day–a day to remind the human
family of the toll of the AIDS epidemic and take stock of progress against the
disease. It is, indeed, a global day that connects rich and poor, people
of all races and creeds, and men, women, and children in a common understanding
of our fragility, our responsibilities, and our compassion for one another.
For those of us personally touched by AIDS, it is also a day
to remember friends and family lost–a sort of contemporary Day of the
Dead. In many ways, I was the last
person one would expect to have been directly affected by the AIDS
epidemic. In the late 1970s, I was
a student at an evangelical Christian college in California, a place known more
for New Testament scholarship and mission trips than wild weekends in San
Yet the late 1970s were the heady days of the gays rights
movement and Harvey Milk. When
Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade came to our state, many of my evangelical
classmates supported her movement.
But a few classmates did not.
Instead, they choose to come out.
One was my friend Jeffrey Michael. We were part of a tight group of people who formed a
community of questioners at the college; we tended toward theological,
literary, and political edginess in the midst of the evangelical
environment. In the safe embrace
of youthful friendship, Jeffrey Michael told us that he was gay.
He was the first person I ever knew who had come out; the
first person I ever knew who said he was “gay”; and the first person I knew who
was seriously a gay Christian. He
was kind, funny, caring, faithful, and thoughtful–with a blistering theological
intellect and a profound trust in God’s presence in one’s life. He wanted to become an Episcopal priest
(long before such things were openly discussed). While we were students, he was
in a car accident, nearly died, and suffered brain damage. But, miraculously
enough, he pressed through intensive therapy and graduated with honors in
But our friendship was not easy. Of the questioning friends, I was usually the last person to
change my mind on any issue; I struggled with Jeffrey Michael’s confident sense
of identity. I had been raised to
believe that it was wrong to be gay–socially, morally, and biblically. Jeffrey Michael and I had blistering fights
over scripture and theology.
Although I was loath to admit it at the time, his arguments shook me to
the core. And many days, it was easier
to ignore him and escape to my own comfortable prejudices than to deeply engage
the challenges he presented to my small world.
I tried not to listen, but I had heard. I heard his testimony of joy, of
self-discovery, of pain, of fear–of all the complex emotions of a young gay man
seeking to understand God and the world.
After college, he became a nurse to AIDS patients and poured himself out
to the “untouchables” of the 1980s as a sort of “Brother Teresa,” a priest
without formal ordination, among those whom the church then wanted to
forget. Eventually, he died with
them: A priest who became a
victim, the nurse who succumbed to the plague.
If you googled him, you would not find him. For all these things happened in the
days before the Internet. Jeffrey
Michael’s witness exists only in the memory of friends and family. His name may be on the AIDS quilt. Yet, in life, Jeffrey Michael heroically
embodied three great concerns of our day:
faith, homosexuality, and AIDS.
By the way he lived and died, he showed that compassion is the
foundation of true Christianity, compassion toward those who are outsiders by
either identity or disease. He
taught me that the way of Jesus is marked by practicing hospitality–the act of
welcoming the stranger–no matter how different or frightening the stranger may
be–to the table of God.
All these years later, evangelicals like Rick Warren take
great pride in their involvement in AIDS issues in Africa and get “face time”
on cable news trumpeting their compassion. Yet Rick Warren still thinks it is appropriate to deny gay
to people who don’t “deserve” AIDS.
My evangelical hero is Jeffrey Michael. As a young believer, he didn’t just preach compassion or
donate money to a cause. He lived
compassion. And he lived it
courageously by taking the risk to be fully human–just as God created him–and
was willing to challenge his community in friendship and love no matter what
the cost. And Jeffrey Michael knew
the cost of compassion. On this World AIDS Day, I remember him.