Since 1988, Dec. 1 has been observed as World AIDS Day to mourn and remember those who have died of the disease and spread awareness of the AIDS epidemic. About 40 million people have died of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to the World Health Organization, and 84.2 million people have been infected since the start of the epidemic in the early 1980s.
St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, an LGBTQ friendly house of worship in Station North, hosted an observance Thursday featuring several panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a 54-ton tapestry that includes almost 50,000 panels dedicated to more than 110,000 people who died from AIDS-related causes.
“HIV/AIDs affected this parish very much; we have always had a sizable gay and lesbian congregation,” said James Harp, director of music at St. Mark’s. “We want to use this day to remember the many lives lost but also those still living. It’s bittersweet; we remember people and are grateful for their presence in our lives, which we still feel.”
The panels are created and signed by loved ones.
“These [the panels] are profoundly personal. Each panel is a person,” said Harp, who has been with the parish for 36 years. “We don’t know these people, but we hold them in our hearts. We were all very profoundly affected by this in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”
They contain messages such as:
“A courageous colleague and wonderful friend. I’ll remember to tell others.”
“I’m sure you’re inspiring the angels to sing. I love you.”
“Thanks for helping me be a better person.”
“All my love to a son who gave so much.”
“Did you ever know that you were my hero?”
“Love lives in my memories of you.”
The AIDS Memorial Quilt was started in the 1980s by human rights activist Cleve Jones. It came after he decided to honor 1,000 San Francisco residents who died of AIDS by asking marchers to tape names of lost loved ones onto the San Francisco Federal Building.
“The wall of names looked like a patchwork quilt,” according to a history on the National AIDS Memorial’s website.
And that vision inspired Jones to create the first panel of what became the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which debuted in 1987.
Liza Hawkins, St. Mark’s parish vicar, requested four panel blocks from the quilt to display for about a month. They hang from the arches on either side of the pews, two on each side, spanning the width of the space.
“St Mark’s has several members who have died of AIDS so we have made our own panel to add to the quilt, so when we send these back, we will send that back with them,” she said. “When we first put them up it was a very emotional moment for all of us as members of the queer community, to see them draped over the pews.”
St. Mark’s quilt panel is red and gold and features eleven names of parish members who have died from the disease. The panels — both the St. Mark’s panel, and the borrowed panels — will be sent back to the National AIDS Memorial organization this weekend.
Advances in treatment over the years mean people who are diagnosed with HIV “can keep the virus suppressed and live long and healthy lives,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But new cases can still develop. In Maryland, there were 773 people age 13 and older diagnosed with HIV infection last year, according to state figures. At the end of 2021, there were 32,149 people in that age group living with diagnosed HIV in the state.
“It’s good to see this in a church not that many churches have awareness to HIV, some try to cover it, some don’t want to talk about it,” said Miriam Whitehead, who was diagnosed in 2000. Whitehead — the founder of SYSTEM, a grassroots organization — spoke at the Thursday observance.
“For me, HIV means ‘his internal vision’ what God has for me internally. AIDS stands for ‘and I don’t surrender,’” she added.
Emily Scott, pastor of St. Mark’s, led the congregation and guests to pin their own piece of a quilt on a large white square, starting from the inside out.
“Today, the epidemic is in a new place, but so much has stayed the same. There are 50,000 panels on the AIDS Quilt but tonight we can imagine a new kind of quilt; one stitched together from solidarity, hard work and imagination that shows us a vision of a world without AIDS,” Scott said. “The star is a symbol of hope and light in the darkness, the star guides us home and the constellations tell ancient stories. Tonight, we will make our own hope creating a patchwork star that we might follow.”