by Sophia Agtarap, an interview with Rev. Gregory Gross
This weekend, the church enters a period of waiting. Advent begins, and rather than count down to the end of a season culminating in Christmas and the end of the year as many shoppers and retail outlets do, we are counting towards a new beginning; a time of fulfillment when God’s justice and righteousness are the norm.
We don’t have to look far to see that we live in a world so desperate for this fulfillment of God’s promise to restore. War ravaged nations are left with orphans and widows and child soldiers. The national debt per person living in the United States is over $50,000. Over 17% of Americans don’t have health insurance and 15% live in poverty. Last year, it was estimated that 34 million people globally were living with HIV.
In these circumstances is easy to despair. But not when we have the hope of God’s promised alternative future.
The Rev. Gregory Gross, Deacon in the Northern Illinois Annual Conference and Clinical Manager of the HIV Testing & Prevention Program at the Center on Halsted in Chicago, IL knows what it’s like to wait for this promised future, because he sees, day in and day out, a community waiting to be accepted in spite of the disease they are living with.
This is probably the most meaningful part of my work...to truly be with someone in a time that may feel like everything is falling apart, Greg says. To sit with a 16-year old boy from the south side of Chicago who has just tested positive and just be with him. To be with him as his eyes fill with tears as he says, “I know you want me to talk about my feelings, but my friends say I don't have any.” And then to listen as he tells you he's been living on the street for 2 years because he told his parents he thought he might like boys and because they kicked him out of his house for that reason. And to just listening to his story of survival of engaging in sex work to have a warm bed to sleep in at night or a hot meal. And to be with him as he looks me in the eye for the first time and says, "I'm too young to have to deal with this." And all I can respond is, "you're right...but you aren't alone. I'm gonna be with you."
The Center is holy ground. To be invited into a person's life during such a vulnerable time and to journey with him or her is holy work. And it's his faith that both calls him to do it and empowers him to continue to do it.
When Greg first became connected with the Center, he served as a social work intern who was known as “the Christian” amongst the interns. He was often assigned the clients who were looking for a counselor who was a person of faith or for a therapist who was open to talking about faith issues. He saw the growing need for so many who wanted and needed a place to talk about faith issues and their sexuality.
Now I’m the supervisor of a
staff of 25 people who provide HIV testing & counseling, answer the State
Illinois AIDS/HIV & STD Hotline, who facilitate support groups for those living with HIV and do outreach into the city, Greg admits, the work is taxing. While it's rewarding, it's very challenging. But Greg knows this is where he needs to be. Where the church needs to be. Because it’s where Christ would be. It’s where Christ is.
When I asked Greg how he managed to keep it together and find the strength to continue the work he does, he remembers those rare moments when out of the blue a client shows up to thank him after a few years--how they've been able to pull things back together. I think of a middle aged man who joined one of our support groups after living with the virus for 20 years, Greg recalls. He said he'd never gone to a group and wasn't sure why now, but felt he should. When the group ended, he just broke down in tears and told the group how they'd given him his life back. He said he hadn't realized that he'd cut himself off from other people when he was diagnosed and for the first time felt alive again. I give thanks for those moments.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief cited a UNAIDS report that showed despite the strides to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS, the stigma that haunts people living with HIV and AIDS continues. Some 46 countries and territories have restrictions on the movement of people who have HIV and AIDS. So many of the people Greg works with have experienced much stigma and discrimination in their lives and as a result have become quite isolated. Whether it's because they are living with HIV or are LGBTQ, many have felt alone. He’s seen a young black transgender woman come to the center because it's the one place she feels safe to wear women's clothes. She may come presenting as male and go into a restroom and change clothes and do her hair and makeup and her whole demeanor will change, Greg remembers...like a huge weight has been lifted...because she can be herself and meet others like her. And see she isn't alone. Or in the Center’s senior program, Greg’s met people in their 70s who finally feel safe to come out and be themselves after a lifetime of hiding. Sometimes, LGBTQ seniors who have been out their entire lives find themselves having to go back into the closet when they move into assisted living. And so they come to the Center to again find community.
Their support groups for those living with HIV have exploded. Five years ago they had a group with about three people. Last year, five groups with 80 people. These are prime examples of the deep desire for community. For a place to feel like they belong and be accepted fully for who they are because they don't in other parts of their lives.
So where’s the hope in all of this? Greg has found it in seeing community formed. I find people gaining strength and wholeness. In safe and nurturing environments, people feel safe to be themselves and to claim who they are. And as people feel safe in small groups and feel supported and affirmed, they often venture out even more, claiming wholeness in their entire lives. People may then feel safe to talk more openly about their HIV status...with friends, family, and partners. And the more those walls are taken down, the less power that stigma has. And when that happens, HIV rates will go down.
As one who lives out his faith in his work at the Center, I asked Greg where he saw the role of the church in the fight against AIDS.
The church MUST play a role in this. For too long the church has been complicit in the increasing rates of HIV infection by promoting homophobia. When I ask the parents of the young person who ended up on the street why they turned them out, they say, "Because my faith says that isn't allowed under my roof." Instead, the church needs to be a safe place where we can talk openly & honestly about sexuality in general. But we don't talk about it. When do we talk about sexuality from the pulpit unless it's in the context of who is in or who is out? Sex and sexuality are good things. Gifts from God...not something to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. We split off too much of ourselves and don't talk about it. It isn't healthy. And I would say, not how the Divine wishes us to live.
As we wrapped up our conversation, Greg had this last bit to impart:
Hope is that an HIV positive diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Medication has come such a long way that someone diagnosed with HIV in their 20s or 30s can now expect to live into their 70s with appropriate medication (which sadly isn't as available outside the western world). The challenge to the church is to start a dialogue about sexuality in general and not in terms of church polity. This is how the church can reduce HIV infections.
So this is what I do in my ministry...provide a safe place in the context of an HIV counseling session, where people can talk and ask questions...ask those things they've been too afraid to ask their doctor. And answer them in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. It's sad to me that I've had much more personal, honest conversations with clients, than I ever did when I was the pastor of a church.
December 1 marks the 24th World AIDS Day. In this season of waiting, let us remember our call to name suffering and injustice and to lean into God’s promised future.
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RMN has created images for you to use to rasie awareness of World AIDS Day on Facebook. Download here.
Sophia Agtarap serves as Minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church with United Methodist Communications, and is a candidate for deacon in the United Methodist Church through the Pacific Northwest Conference. She spends lots of time musing and crafting stories of and for the church over a good cup of coffee. She also blogs at wanderingnotlost.com
Gregory D. Gross, LCSW, AM, MDiv is the Clinical Manager of the HIV Testing & Prevention Program at Center on Halsted in Chicago, the most comprehensive community center serving the LGBTQ community in the Midwest. He provides clinical supervision for the program’s Health Educators and the State of Illinois AIDS/HIV & STD Hotline Resource Counselors. Gregory provides crisis and long-term psychotherapy for HIV testing clients and coordinates the 5 HIV+ Support Groups at the Center. He has conducted HIV/STD educational presentations in schools, colleges, churches, and agencies across the Midwest.
He serves on the Board of Directors of the Friends of Project Tariro, a holistic support program to help those living with HIV/AIDS to live positively in Zimbabwe. Project Tariro is an initiative of UM Deacons and Africa University.
Gregory holds a Master of Arts in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago and a Master of Divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He is a licensed clinical social worker and an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church. He was a clergy delegate to the 2012 General Conference of the UMC.
He was the 2010 recipient of the Red Ribbon “Compassionate Heart” Award given by the IL Department of Public Health for outstanding work in the HIV continuum of care that has significantly improved the quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS.