December 11 , 2006
Quilt honors the intention to survive
Melanie Sovine, Executive Director, AIDS Survival Project
Each time I see the AIDS Memorial Quilt, I walk slowly and deliberately around the squares and study every face, every name and every word sewn, and as time spent begins to accumulate, I begin to feel more and more enlivened by the fellowship I am sharing with the memorialized men and women.
Somehow, the makers of the quilt have captured the spirits of their loved ones in the panels. When I see the faces and read the names, I always feel introduced to the person behind the picture, beneath the fabric.
Remarkably, the quilt seems both to confirm and exceed death; our losses are certainly stated in the stitching but the HIV/AIDS community’s intention to live is in the handi-work of those who passionately create the quilt panels.
I am the executive director of AIDS Survival Project, a community of women and men who survive the AIDS epidemic. Most of our members are living with AIDS, and some of our members are now deceased, but their intention to survive lives among us. We are an advocacy and service organization, committed to prevention and dedicated to peer-driven HIV education and treatment services.
Every other month, we gather with newly HIV-infected community members from across the American southeast for Thrive! Weekend in support of their intention to fully live with HIV/AIDS. Each year, we are present at the Georgia Legislative Assembly on watch for legislative decisions that will facilitate life’s continuance for women and men infected with HIV. Each week day, we are available for peer support and guidance, and open for HIV testing, counseling and referral. We link those who test positive to primary health care, and support them in adhering to complex treatment regimens.
AIDS Survival Project is a community where the theology of life and the public policy of life come together. Because I have an essentially religious world view, I like to say that AIDS Survival Project is a resurrection community, one that lives well beyond the walls of the church. Very reasonably speaking, if you want to know what it means to have lived, and then to live again, you will want to come to AIDS Survival Project and get to know our members.
Twenty-five years ago, I had just finished my doctoral studies in anthropology, and took a four-month hiatus on Fire Island before starting a National Endowment for the Humanities postdoctoral fellowship. The AIDS epidemic was sweeping New York City, and our community members were dying within two or three months of a diagnosis.
I made a commitment then not to let this disease devastate my community; I joined women and men across the country who, with gladness and with determination, set their prior professional preparations aside to work against this disease and its accompanying discriminations.
I started my work first in the community and then gradually moved forward from the development of HIV/AIDS private and public funding sources into organizational management roles. This is the story of so many of the women who began work early in the epidemic; ironically, HIV/AIDS created an executive managerial career path where women were unimpeded by sex and gender discrimination in the workplace.
Again moving with the development of the epidemic, I began a national consulting practice fifteen years ago, working mostly in HIV/AIDS primary health care. And two years ago, this time probably moving in human development with my age set (I am 52), I began to long for a closer affiliation with a local community.
Twenty-five years having passed, I have come to Candler School of Theology to study more systematically the relationship between theology and public policy. I am bringing to that study the profound experience of living with a community who survives even though theologies and public policies seem to cyclically war against us.
We have lived through a difficult four years with public policies regressing and public funds dwindling. The public discourse on AIDS and the church has stiffened, and in many ecclesial settings this discourse has lost its theological flexibility to heal and restore.
But, the AIDS Quilt panels unfold on the Emory campus, and the life spirit that is the HIV/AIDS community finds its freedom here, as it always does.
I was there, slowly and deliberately walking around the squares, studying every face and every word sewn. I looked across the huge expanse of panels that have accumulated with time, and know from experience that life only increases in our community.