AIDS is not just an epidemic of tragedy but an epidemic of compassion, according to John McDargh, an associate professor of theology at Boston College.
“The stories I want to tell about [AIDS] are really the stories of what I saw of an epidemic, not just of tragedy, but also of courage and heroism and faithfulness, stories that often aren’t told enough,” he said.
McDargh shared those stories with the BC community on Wednesday—World AIDS Day—during a prayer service of hope hosted by Campus Ministry.
“So I want to talk a little bit about AIDS not from the perspective of science, but from the perspective of the heart—what it was like … when it was officially identified,” McDargh said.
McDargh told the story of the first BC student with AIDS—John Huffman. McDargh said Huffman was taking his intro to theology course when he was first diagnosed.
“What happened in those days is people would go in, as he did because he had this really bad cough that didn’t seem to want to go away, and they gave him a diagnosis of AIDS,” he said.
Huffman tried to continue at BC, but ultimately decided to go home to California, McDargh said.
“His boyfriend did not do the ‘I’m sorry, this wasn’t part of the deal, I’m out of here,’’’ McDargh said. “It was ‘If you’re going to California, I’m going to California.’”
Huffman’s boyfriend stayed with him until the end, McDargh said, and after Huffman passed, the family made him a quilt.
The quilt became a part of the National AIDS Memorial Quilt in D.C., which is comprised of individual quilts. According to McDargh, it has been a way for communities stricken by AIDS to capture people’s names and tell their stories.
“These quilts were just heartbreakingly beautiful and very, very particular,” he said.
McDargh noticed one man standing near a quilt for a long time. McDargh later found out that the family of the man’s partner would not tell him where they buried his partner’s body, so this was the only grave he had to visit.
The quilt is a prime example of the ways communities can rally together and take action, McDargh said.
“I have been thinking about the way in which people live lives of solidarity, and often the diagnosis or discovery that one had HIV was something that propelled people into a kind of passion and action,” he said.
McDargh told the story of another man, Bob Corey, who was diagnosed with AIDS. Corey had been seeing a Catholic spiritual director who refused to continue counseling him after learning about his diagnosis. McDargh said he ended up counselling Corey until the end of his life.
“I’m sure for every lady who got out of her seat or man who got out of his seat and said ‘I’m out of here,’ I know there are a great many more who said ‘I’m not going anywhere,’” McDargh said.
McDargh reminded attendees that there was an epidemic of courage and compassion amid the AIDS epidemic, and that is the story he wants people to know.
“The thing about these stories is they really are about courage,” he said. “They really are about people showing up … and that maybe is the thing that we’ll want to take away from this.”
The talk was followed by a prayer service and a time for reflection.
Claire Johnson Allen, associate director of the BC Women’s Center, read Essex Hemphill’s
“When My Brother Fell” and provided reflections on the poem in the context of World AIDS Day.
Ayana Henry, MCAS ’24, said McDargh’s talk helped her gain a new perspective on an issue she did not know much about prior to the event.
“I think hearing the narratives—the personal narratives—really put faces to … what I thought was a general topic, and I thought that was really good,” Henry said. “The talk kind of helped me to view AIDS in a different way and a more compassionate way because it’s realizing that this actually affects real people.”
McDargh told The Heights he was overwhelmed by the attendees’ response.
“I was very, very struck at how emotionally available people were,” McDargh said. “So I think that World AIDS Day events provide opportunities to remember.”
McDargh highlighted the importance of creating a place for people who have been impacted by the AIDS epidemic.
“I think it was for people whose lives have been touched by AIDS or people who know that this is not going away,” McDargh said. “There needs to be a space to remember to acknowledge it.”
Featured Image Courtesy of John McDargh