Dan Pallotta is the founder of Pallotta Teamworks which organizes the Tanqueray AIDSRides and the Avon Breast Cancer Walks. Beliefnet producer Paul Raushenbush spoke with him about his own spiritual journey, and the growing spiritual nature of the AIDS Rides.

The first AIDS Ride came at a really hopeless time in the epidemic.
Yeah, it was 1993 when we started organizing it, and 1994 when it happened. I've never looked at a graph, but those were probably the peak years of AIDS deaths in the United States. I had lost friends and a former lover; there was a tremendous sense of a mission on everybody's part.

What are your memories of that first AIDS Ride?
I remember just being on my bike and coming into the closing ceremony and bawling. There's a beauty in each of these things that's unspeakable. When I'm around our events, the minute I hear the music and see the people standing in the pledge office line, or waiting for the safety video, this motley collection of people who refuse to give up on the possibility of life, I get all choked up, without fail.

Is there a relationship between AIDS and spirituality?
I think that the greatest crisis that faces the gay and lesbian community is a crisis of faith. It's a feeling of being separated or disenfranchised from God, and certainly the church and religion. There is a Lone Ranger mentality that is divorced from spirit and God and something larger than ourselves.

I think the spread of AIDS is by and large a result of a lack of self-regard, self-esteem. People drink, do drugs. They do things sexually that just aren't safe. They have a need to reinforce that feeling of being worthless, because it's the only feeling that's familiar. A fish knows water: You gravitate toward that which is psychologically familiar without really assessing whether it's healthy. In the absence of God, there doesn't seem to be any other choice.

There's a safety video that the AIDS riders watch before they start. It used to be a simple warning about bike safety. But last year, you included a lot about the death of your lover, Allen, and it had much more of a message of hope.
The impetus of the ride was always to demonstrate the forgotten possibility of humanity. Raising money [only] measures the extent to which we achieve that. So if the message in the video of hope and kindness seemed different, it's only because we're becoming more willing to directly express and articulate that.

The video reminded me of the Bible verses about how the Kingdom of God is here now. You just have to see it, to change the way you are acting to one another, and you can create the Kingdom of God right here on earth.
I would completely agree with that. The playwright Lanford Wilson has a play that talks about a civilization in some outpost galaxy--could be Earth--they've been searching the stars forever. He says, "After they have explored all the stars in the universe and all of the planets around each sun, they realize they were alone and they were glad because they now knew they would have to become all of the things they had hoped to find." Which I think is identical to what you're saying.

After Allen died, you experienced an increased sense of spirituality?
Well, I didn't go crazy. I have always been terrified of the death of my parents. I never knew if I could count on myself. I never knew if that would send me over the edge. And Alan died, and I was besieged by what-ifs. I wasn't besieged with a hatred of God or an obsession with why. Alan's death became almost a step into a place of transition for me, into another way of living, being, seeing.

Many people view the AIDS Ride as a pilgrimage, to get over, or to remember their grief, or to kind of live through it.
I have experienced just that. There's not only the quiet of the journey, and time spent in silence on your bicycle, which really avails God to you. Silence, you know, is the best place to get close to spirit for me. And then the camp is very much like the Kingdom of God that you spoke about. The people on the road who want to help you with a flat tire and the children out there who cheer you on. Nothing else leaves me with such a sense of enthusiasm about the goodness of humankind, which is of God.

What's your spiritual background?
I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. Let's see, I went to a parochial school in Boston until the fifth grade, and was an altar boy and all that good stuff. Then my family moved to the next town over, and I was in public schools for the rest of my time. But I was a lector actually, in St. Mary's Church in Melrose.

When I was 17 years old, I was a great big John Denver fan. He used to acknowledge this organization, EST, on his album. I wrote to him and said, What is this thing called "EST"? He sent me back an autographed picture and an "EST" brochure and circled the Boston office. So I called, and they said I was too young, you have to be at least 18. So a little after I was 18, when I was a freshman in college, I registered and I did the EST training.

That actually wasn't spiritual. It lacked any kind of acknowledgement of a higher power that might guide or assist us. EST was very "me-me," very Zen. It was wonderful, in the sense that it made me feel that I'm OK just the way I am and just the way I'm not. There was nothing to change; the moment is now; life happens now and sort of don't be so hard on yourself.

But it was when I was around 20 or 21, I guess, that I was really coming to grips with the fact that I was probably gay. I really didn't have any spiritual practice at time. In my later 20s, once in a while I would go to one of the lectures on "A Course in Miracles" that Marianne Williamson used to give, and someone would ask me, "Are you a spiritual person"? I would answer, "Oh yes, I'm a very spiritual person." By which I think meant, I wanted to be. But in fact, I wasn't devoting any time, effort, or energy to that really. Is this more than you want to know?

No, this is exactly what I want to know.
I've never really spoken publicly about this with anyone, but what the hell. I went...I was very unhappy with my life toward the end of my 20s. I didn't like was I was doing for work. I had spent seven years trying to get a record deal and that wasn't happening. I was working for some fund-raising consulting firms. It was very dry work, and I just didn't enjoy it. I felt light-years away from fulfilling my potential.

And like a lot of gay men in their 20s, I went through my experimenting period, and being somewhat promiscuous. It just didn't match my ideal of myself as a 16-year-old, when I admired Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, and when "The Grapes of Wrath" really touched me, and I really wanted to do something to help people. I was going to the best college in the country, and I was the president of my class, and I was a hockey player, and I had organized this bike ride across the United States, and I really had good self-regard.

And then in my late 20s, I had the opposite of that. I felt I might have gone too far down this fork in the road to ever get back. And so, I decided to go into therapy, and after a few years in therapy, I decided to get into a 12-step program.

That has become my spiritual path. Today, I do pray on a regular, daily basis. I journal, I meditate, I take long walks. I try--underline try--to live my life with the will of that higher, benevolent intelligence coming first and mine coming second. I try to understand what it is God wants me to do. How is it that God wants me to be of service.

Are you active still in the program?
Yeah, I am and I plan to be there, one day at a time, for the rest of my life. Within months of going into therapy, things began to change. It was as if I was sending a clear signal of my intentions to the universe, that I want my life to matter, that I want it to unfold fully, I want to see what the real potential and capacity of a human life is. And the universe seemed to say, "OK then, we'll start to show you. Within a year or so, the idea to pursue the California AIDS Ride really came together.

Do you have any words to describe God?
I read something years ago in a book called "My Ego, My Higher Power and I." It described God as an all-humble, all-loving being. It was a tremendous revelation when I read that. I thought, Of course, God would be humble--how could I have missed that? Of course, God would be a humble being, yet holding in his hand this unspeakable power.

I went to this image of the Snuffleupagus on "Sesame Street." It's the biggest Muppet on the show, bigger than Big Bird, yet it was always just this really, really humble friendly kind of monster thing. I started thinking, God is like Snuffleupagus. Those are my feelings about God, that God is a humble barrel of joy.

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