Why I Offer Clean Needles in Jesus' Name
As Dave finished his presentation, I eagerly asked, "Well, how can I help?"
Dave smiled and leaned back in his chair.
I was stunned. I am from a large church with outreach funds and a huge population of eager volunteers. How could a local nonprofit not need our help?
"How could you help? You are a straight female," he explained. "No guy in a gay bar is going to listen to what you have to say. Perhaps you could do HIV outreach on lesbian night, but . . . ."
He had a point. And the needle exchange would not want me either. The best volunteers are former users, not church girls who have never used a needle for illegal purposes in her life. All of my good intentions and desires to make a difference were not needed. At least not here.
Salt and Light in a 'Sketchy' Field
That conversation with Dave was 10 years ago. I eventually became the president of HIV/AIDS Services, Inc., renamed the Grand Rapids Red Project. By continuing to "show up" and listen, stumbling and falling sometimes in my efforts, I gained the trust and love of the incredible members of the Grand Rapids HIV community. I approached our interactions with the posture of a student. Who am I to speak to the realities of those living with this virus? I had so much to learn about not only the virus itself, but also about the modes of transmission, the realities facing those individuals who engage in "risky" behavior, the politics surrounding the issue, and—of course—the strange web of shame that being HIV-positive carries in this culturally Christian city.
Sadly, in Grand Rapids it can be difficult to be in the HIV prevention world and be overtly Christian. Churches and Christians have reputations, both earned and entirely unwarranted, for being unloving toward those in the HIV community. I have been challenged to love and listen and be patient in my interactions with those who have been marginalized by HIV. This has grown my heart and compassion.