When They Die, Who Mourns Them?

Today I want to highlight a group of heroes out there doing amazing, practical work. I hope their hands-on response to the global crisis that is HIV/AIDS will inspire us to deeper compassion and give us just one example of how we can care for the people in greatest need among us.

Joseph’s House is a DC-based hospice service for homeless men and women dying of AIDS and cancer. A doctor founded the program in 1990 to address “the toll that the AIDS epidemic was taking on poor and homeless African-American men, many with addictions and mental illness.” Over the years their services have expanded to assist homeless, terminally ill women and cancer patients.

Let’s be clear, though: this is no homeless shelter. Joseph’s House is an actual house on a shady neighborhood street in DC that incorporates family meals, grief counseling, and “intentional community.” As they put it:

Joseph’s House surrounds each resident with the presence of specially trained staff and volunteers, who are continually trained in the practice of unconditional love and forgiveness, mercy and justice. We seek to practice compassionate care so that the act of service itself becomes a source of healing, both for the served and the server.  The community is nourished by regular periods of contemplative prayer and meditation.

A few weeks ago I attended a roundtable on AIDS at the Spanish Embassy with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Nikki Kahn and some of the Joseph’s House staff. Kahn produced an incredible photo series on Joseph’s House to accompany a feature article in The Washington Post about the residence.

At this roundtable, a few things stood out:

First, Joseph’s House has exceptional quality of care. Kahn says it’s the kind of place where anyone who’s dying would want to live, including herself.

She and the staff recalled one night in particular when Rob – a deeply loved man in the house – chose to die on the couch instead of in his room, where he felt isolated.

Rob reminded everyone of a tall tree. As he died with the community surrounding him, the residents, staff, and volunteers heard the wind blow through the trees outside and sensed it was fitting.

After his death, the men stayed in the room to change Rob’s clothes and move his body to the floor. The women went to the kitchen and cooked. When they regrouped it was the middle of the night. They gathered around Rob, lit candles and told stories about him until morning.

It also stood out to me how practical and intentional this work is. Joseph’s House is about as hands-on as you can get. This is the modern version of treating plague victims when other people fled the cities. It is courageous, compassionate, whole. And it’s a lot of work.

I don’t tell you about Joseph’s House because I believe everyone reading this is ready to nurse dying, homeless AIDS victims. Although I think we should be supporting organizations like this in every community, in all our neighborhoods (even and especially the suburbs), I also know we’re each called to serve people in unique ways.

But before we write it off quickly as work too difficult for us, or something we don’t have time for, it’s worth asking: are we sure this isn’t part of what we’re all called to?

At the roundtable Kahn said, “Don’t look at [HIV/AIDS] as a statistic. Look at it as a problem that affects each and every one of us.”

I would argue that for many of us, this simply isn’t true. We move into safe neighborhoods, build fences literal and figurative, and try not to know too many sick people at a time. We raise children who don’t know what AIDS is except perhaps as punishment for shameful behavior. Some of us learn to love only halfway, because we love people who are easy, pretty, and flattering.

Homeless men and women dying of AIDS are arguably the lowest rung on our societal ladder. When they die, who mourns them?

If we really want to learn how to love, properly grieving for the most stigmatized people in our community might be the only honest place to start.

(Photo credit)

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