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Saturday, November 29, 2008

what can we do?


December 1st is World AIDS Day - who cares, right?

What can WE really do about it?

I want to talk about what we can do for World AIDS Day.

I am starting a special fast TONIGHT through tomorrow for those with HIV/AIDS

I call on those who can and are willing to participate to join me in one united fast and one united prayer that those who struggle will have the care they need - that those who struggle with addiction that led to infection may find the help they need that leads to change - and that they will want to change, that a cure will not only be discovered, but made available to all, not just the rich. I am fasting and praying that leaders across the world and our future government leaders will do more, spend more to help educate, outreach and prevent further transmission of HIV.

Here's my story:

Three years ago today I walked out of AID Atlanta diagnosed as HIV positive.

A lot has changed in three years including my health.

Since August my T-Cells (helper cells/CD-4) have gone down and my viral load has stayed high. Doctors recommend medication to positive patients whose T-Cells have dropped below 350 or whose viral load is consistently high.

My T-Cells have been below 350 since May 2008 and have dropped down to 303. HIV positive patients that drop to 200 T-Cells are diagnosed as having AIDS (You must be HIV positive to be diagnosed with AIDS - you can't get AIDS.)

Starting this December I will be looking at medicine or my first "cocktail" (a mixture of meds) to start fighting the HIV virus in my body. Unfortunately, these potent drugs can cause adverse side effects - so I may not feel so great this holiday season. Also, I can become immune to the positive effects of a drug and have to switch to another drug which also comes with its own side effects. This is a process I have been avoiding because of school, but now I have to face the music and the holiday break is the ideal time to do this.

The point of this email is to ask you to take part in a special fast on my behalf and on the behalf of all those who struggle with HIV/AIDS including my mother. I will be fasting all day Sunday, November 30th for World AIDS Day on December 1st. I also ask that as many of you that are willing to go to the temple during this time would really be appreciated. I am not sure how it works to get my name on a temple prayer list.

This is a huge transition for me in my life, especially right now. I am praying that Heavenly Father will provide my doctor with the right knowledge needed to prolong my life as long as He wills me to be here. I am praying that the medicine that is chosen will be the right one to help me overcome HIV. I am praying that I will have the faith and courage to make better lifestyle choices to assist me in having higher quality of health. Please join me in these prayers on my behalf.

I love all of you and I am so thankful you are in my life. I trust you and know that I am in your thoughts and prayers already. I know that if we join together in this special fast that God will hear our prayers and bless us for our faith.

Just one more thing, prayers and fasting are awesome, but if anyone would be willing to make a contribution of time or financial means to your local HIV/AIDS organization for World AIDS Day it would mean a lot to me.

There are a number of things one can do to observe World AIDS Day! Buying Starbucks that donates only 5 cents to the Global AIDS Fund through product (red) is not the greatest idea - but how you observe it is up to you. I suggest an action because faith without works is dead. I never feel like my prayer will be answered if I do something on my part to make it happen or get the ball rolling.

Thank you so much for joining me and others in this united fasting and prayer.

You have been caught Jey Walking!

the not-so-lonely road

The Journey To Emmaus by Robert Z√ľnd

December 1st is World AIDS Day

Though I wrote this awhile ago for another site - I felt that I should share it again.

The Not-So-Lonely Road

I am inspired by those with cancer and other life threatening illnesses as they battle with courage and optimism to the end of their mortal existence. However, I seldom look in the mirror and witness my own courage and perseverance I exhibit each day of my own personal war with both body and soul. One day I may see that I am like those I am inspired by. Maybe this will lift the hearts of those who read on—I'm not sure—but I feel the call to share my story.

I have struggled with same-gender attraction for longer than I can remember. It wasn't until 19 that I went to a bishop for the first time and attempted to put on my armor of God and become a soldier in my own fight. For the last ten years I have wavered in my Church activity and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but I haven't given up.

Between 19 and 23 I was very sexually active even while being very active in Young Single Adult wards. Living a double life cost me the blessings the Lord had in store for me. I missed an opportunity to serve a mission when the branch president announced the "raising of the bar" for missionaries. Going inactive again because of my lack of faith, I ventured head-first into the shallows of the darkness off the path that led to the Lord. I sought ways to hurt myself emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically—nothing seemed to ease the pain and agony I felt because my choices only led to more pain and agony, not to mention anxiety. I made the choice to make my road lonely by leaving the path of light and truth I was on with friends, family, and even the Lord.

Later on I was motivated to return to church and make my life right, but I still didn't trust the Lord would help me or come to my aid. My bishop showed me all the love he could, even when it came to time to discipline me for my actions. He always supported me and tried to lead me back to the safety of the Lord and His gospel. I came to a point when I realized I needed to be excommunicated because I had offended the Lord and was unwilling to make sacrifices needed to be worthy in His church. I didn't realize it immediately, but that day was probably the most painful day for the Lord and me both—but it needed to happen for change to occur in my life.

Shortly afterward, I assumed being excommunicated was like a free ticket to the "sin amusement park"—I could sin as much as I wanted to without any consequences. That was the sign Satan posted on the gate anyway. I gave up my sobriety from alcohol, pornography, and sex and continued down a slippery slope to the bitterness of hell. I remember that summer vividly. I was in school full-time with three jobs and three rehearsals a week for a show I was in, not to mention it was hot, humid, and I didn't have a car. My body, mind, heart and soul ached everyday—I had no or little connection to anything or anyone—especially because I lived in a dark and lonely basement apartment. In October, I started to notice a change in my body—something very different and very physical. Maybe it was from a steady diet of Ding Dongs and Yoo-Hoos, or overworking my body and mind. Maybe it was from not having the spirit with me. Either way, I was exhausted!

One day after a shower I took to relax, I looked into my mirror and saw something new. It wasn't courage or optimism like I hope to see one day—it was yellow. My eyes and parts of my face were yellow. The last time I saw something like this was when my brother had jaundice caused by his hepatitis that came from his life long battle with cystic fibrosis. Doctors thought I had cystic fibrosis when I was born, but it was just pneumonia. In fact, I was born with a weak immune system—I can get sick quite easily. Being somewhat alarmed I decided to get it checked out after my show was over and I could relax for a bit. During the next two weeks it only got worse. It was particularly bad when others began to notice. I decided to go to a free STD clinic to check everything out, since I had been so sexually active.

On November 18th, 2005, I walked out of the clinic knowing I was HIV positive. The jaundice was caused by the Hepatitis B I also had. Apparently, I had been positive with both since early 2003 based on my low T-Cell count. The jaundice came due to my stress, unhealthy diet, and constant dehydration. Actually, it came as a blessing, because I didn't know I was living with HIV. I walked alone out of the clinic back to the train station and soon realized how different my life was going to be. I knew immediately that I was being given another chance to turn back to God—even though it was like my 21st chance; God found a way to call my name so that I would finally listen. There's nothing like a terminal illness to catch one's attention.

I am not sure this qualifies as irony, but years before in 1997 I found out that my then-imprisoned mother had contracted HIV in the late 1980's. I decided to learn a lot about HIV/AIDS and later in 2003 became an educator and activist. The problem was that I didn't believe it could ever happen to me. During my self-destructive phase, I went looking for HIV-positive men to have unprotected sex with to ensure my chances of becoming positive. My tests never came back positive for two years! I am glad that they didn't because I was more inclined to suicidal thoughts then, and I am afraid that had I known then, I would have ended my life. The good part of being an educator, even despite my ignoring what I knew was safe and right, was that I knew what steps to take now that I knew I was positive.

My mother was released from prison earlier in 2005 and had told me how she had changed her life in prison and was looking forward to being rebaptized. At the time I told her I was excommunicated, and why, and also that I wasn't sure what I wanted anymore. Later when I found out I was HIV-positive, I reconnected to her since she was now living with AIDS. And God blessed us both. She was able to testify to me that regardless of what happens to her body, her soul belongs to God. That testimony has stayed with me and has changed my life. Even though I had been to church off and on after my excommunication, this time I decided to really put forth an effort to gain a testimony of the gospel and exert my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It has not been easy; I have missed being rebaptized twice in the last three years because I gave in to temptations that, at the time, seemed so harmless.

HIV/AIDS is a terrible disease, like many diseases are. For my mother and me, it has been a catalyst for change. Some may say my mom found jailhouse religion, and others may say I feared my death, so I changed. Regardless, God has allowed the two of us to reclaim our souls and to be purified and made whole through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. That is what was central to my mother's testimony to me. She has been rebaptized already and testifies to me that the Atonement of Jesus Christ works deep within us to cleanse and sanctify us all. I am still looking forward to the waters of rebaptism and the rebaptism by fire and the Holy Ghost—which I miss dearly—but my mother can testify "that all things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28).

HIV/AIDS doesn't have to mean that life is over. It actually can be the sign that a new life has just begun. Some say God gave mankind HIV/AIDS to punish them; I believe I was given a second chance to turn my life to God. I find now that my path is the not-so-lonely road because I know Christ walks with me each step I choose to walk with Him—and like the story of the footprints in the sand, there are days He carries me instead.

Is it any wonder that the scriptures tell so many stories about paths and roads? Think for a moment on the stories of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, the Good Samaritan finding the beaten man on the road, the road to Emmaus, the conversion of Paul, the path towards the Tree of Life and the conversion of Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah, to name a few. Think even for a moment of the road that Jesus walked with a cross upon His back towards Calvary's hill. Paths and roads are powerful symbols of trial, tribulation, miracles, conversion, and sacrifice. What is even more powerful about paths and roads is that they either lead to light and the Lord, or to darkness and sin. The Lord is with those who choose to walk the path towards His light, truth, and joy. I have seen both roads. I testify that the Adversary will make his road look easy and comfortable, but further down it only leads to misery and pain. The Lord's path includes hardship, trial, and tribulation, but with endurance and faith in Jesus Christ, it will always lead safely home to eternal rest and joy. The road many of us travels on toward God, while enduring the hardship of HIV/AIDS, is a not-so-lonely road because Christ and His angels are with us and will guide us safely home toward the Tree of Life to have eternal joy and rest.

To my dear brothers and sister who struggle with HIV/AIDS—please know that your life is not over. Seek the understanding needed to see that this life is truly the time to prepare to meet God, regardless of our physical ailments, deformities, or hardships. When God asks his sons and daughters to do something, He also promises to prepare and provide a way to do what He has asked. I testify to you that God knows you; He loves you with or without a disease. Having HIV/AIDS is itself not a sin. It's not fun, either, but it can be an opportunity to humble yourself to ask for the mercy and help of God and His Spirit to guide you in the rest of your journey here and beyond. Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Savior, took upon Himself the sins, sicknesses, and heartaches of all mankind. I know He took on HIV/AIDS. I know that, because He did so, He knows how to succor those who struggle with it. He knows the way, because He is the way. I know the Atonement of Jesus Christ is real. It is the power to make us whole and allow us the opportunity to enjoy eternal life with our Heavenly Father and family again. If you are not on the right path, please hear the call to join Christ on His not-so-lonely road of light, peace and love. There's always room for another.

Whenever I think of my mortality and how my days may be numbered, I think of Job, whom I love for his great testimony:

"For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; And though after my [immune system, HIV/AIDS will] destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God" (Job 19:25-26)

Diseases, sickness, and ailments of all kind may destroy the flesh, but only we can make the choice to destroy our souls. "Choose you this day [whose path you will follow]…" (Joshua 24:15)

In the words of President Gordon B Hinckley:

I know that my Redeemer lives,
Triumphant Savior, Son of God,
Victorious over pain and death,
My King, my Leader, and my Lord.

He lives, my one sure rock of faith,
The one bright hope of men on earth,
The beacon to a better way,
The light beyond the veil of death.

Oh, give me thy sweet Spirit still,
The peace that comes alone from thee,
The faith to walk the [not-so-]lonely road
That leads to thine eternity.
("My Redeemer Lives," Hymns, no. 135)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

special visitor


It was only two weeks ago that I heard that Elder Jeffrey R Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve was visiting the New York New York Stake for a special conference. Apparently this is a new type of conference that the Twelve are trying out - I know Elder L. Tom Perry recently visited West Georgia and Elder Dallin H. Oaks was in Seoul, Korea today.

It's all really exciting to have a real, live prophet in the same room as me. I have been been in the same room as President Gordon B. Hinckley, Elder David B. Haight and actually shook hands with Elder Richard G. Scott and now Elder Holland. I didn't even try to shake his hand, but he did mention my name in his talk - ok that doesn't count because we have the same name and he was actually referring to himself. I know many people who know have met the prophets, shaken their hands, had them as Mission Presidents or talked with them at length. I dare not compare our experiences. I only bring it up to tell you how many times I have been humbled in the presence of the Lord's called servants. They are not perfect men - but I feel they're some of God's best and more refined.

I was struggling to feel the spirit today for several reasons that included 20% of the audience screaming, crying and running around, not to mention there were also children present. I was also distracted by my own unworthiness. I kept thinking, what if, for some reason, he meets me and shakes my hand - as a prophet he will know what a sinner I am. He will look into my tear-filled eyes of shame and feel my shaking hand and look at me with that "look" - funny enough - Elder Holland spoke of this as his fear in meeting the Savior (this is where he mentions himself by our name) He described the look as saying, without words, "Don't you get it - after all the testimonies, the lessons, the miracles, the blessings - don't you understand?" I think we have all had that look from our parents at one point or from a concerned Bishop, Stake President or spouse. It's a look of sadness, disappointment, but hope for the other - faith they will one day get it and understand - a look of compassion.

This fear Elder Holland spoke of was in reference to the story of Christ and His disciples being caught in a storm crossing the Sea of Galilee while the Savior slept in Mark 4: 35-41. The disciples asked, "Master, carest thou not that we perish?" and then Christ stood up and looked upon His disciples - that look that compels someone like me to become broken and humbled. He compassionately rebuked them saying, "Why are ye so fearful, how is it that ye have no faith?" The response after the storms were calmed was, "What manner of man is this..." I know the answer is that He is the Son of Man - the Only Begotten Son Of God and my Savior. Though the "look" is hard to receive - the refinement it offers is not only needed but a catalyst for change - we see how it helped His disciples.

Elder Holland went on to instruct us through the Spirit - he said any man can steer a boat upon the calm sea - even a child can do it - but when the storms of life come - we need to turn to the Savior (even experienced seamen like the disciples were frightened and called upon the Savior). There will always be challenges - but the gospel makes living here in mortality alright because we have a better existence to look forward to, though we must try to live that quality of life here as much as we can now. He warned that often we are tempted to jump off the boat in the middle of the storms (give up on relationships or the lack of, quit school or jobs,etc). He cautioned us to hunker down in the boat, grab on and don't let go. Now, more than ever, we need to hold onto the boat that is the gospel of Jesus Christ that will guide us safely to the lighthouse that is Celestial glory. We need the gospel in our lives more than we've ever need it before, we need the scriptures in our lives more than we've ever needed them, we need faith more than we've ever needed it, we need prayers more than we've ever needed them. This is when the Spirit finally broke through to me - though I fought it off while the children's choir sang "If the Savior Stood Before Me" and "I Am a Child of God" - but now I really knew God was talking to me directly.

Elder Holland also made a point about when Christ told His disciples that the kingdom of God is within you. He noted that the emphasis needs to be on "YOU" - meaning that we individually and collectively through our obedience and faith carry the kingdom of God within us. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a pyramid where the prophet and leaders sit at the top - it's inverted where - somehow - each of us individually and collectively sit at the top and matter most. Our leaders do their (the Lord's) work for us not necessarily for themselves - not because they're concerned with their salvation as much as they're concerned with ours.

The messages of the day were beautiful and exactly what I needed to hear today, now, this exact point in my life.

I am also excited to find out that the music and prints from the "Reflections of Christ" project ( www.reflectionsofchrist.org ) are now available. I remembered my awesome friend Ashley gave me an iTunes gift card I haven't used yet. I was able to buy the album of beautiful and spiritual music. Today has not been perfect but how many days do I get to be in the presence of a living prophet, enjoy the generous gift from a dear friend and listen to angelic music.

I still fear the time will come when, like Elder Holland, the Savior will greet me and will look into my tear-filled eyes trying to hide my shame and sins. As I write this I am overcome by the Spirit comforting me to know that despite the enormity of my sins and shame - Christ will wipe my tears away - give me that look - rebuke me as He did His disciples and say, "Why are ye so fearful, how is it that ye have no faith?" I hope He will continue and say, "You are cleansed, healed, made whole through my atoning sacrifice - you are made worthy in me - enter in and rest. He will embrace me as the hen gathereth her chicks, keeping me safe and protected and guide me home.

I have failed at many things and I know it is true that I am not clean - but I hope the Savior will help to clean me. I love Him - Jesus Christ is my Savior. He is my friend when it has seemed I had none - when I have often walked alone in this life - He has been there - maybe like He was with those on the Road to Emmaus - in my presence while I was unaware. I know He has also sent me certain angels in the form of friends and loved ones who have, maybe unknowingly, guided me back to Him.

If I had one message to leave to the world, my family and friends - it is this, what I learned today that burned inside of me:

When the storms of life come - turn to Him that is the steady compass, He who knows the course - He who will lead to safety. In these times, more than ever before - we need our Savior Jesus Christ.

"Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them" 2 Kings 6:16

You have been caught Jey Walking!

Monday, November 17, 2008

raison d'etre


I haven't posted in awhile because, while a lot of it is because of my four month transition period here to NYC, it is also due to the lack of internet connection, a major distraction called 'graduate school' and waiting to write about something considerably important. In October I found a new apartment in Central/Spanish Harlem or the very Upper East Side and three new roommates since my temporary arrangements in Brooklyn expired. The apartment I was to move into and signed a lease for was not ready - so they placed us into a temporary five bedroom apartment down the hall from ours which was being renovated. We were told we would we would move in within a week and a half - but no later than November 1st. Without going into any extravagant details - we fought our way into the new apartment by November 7th - it wasn't easy; I had to get tough! {thanks jewish mafia!} Outside from this excruciatingly painful process with an ignorant management company there was a full load of classes to worry about with lots of reading and writing to be done each week. An adventure I would only wish upon the most evil and deserving of my adversaries. {sadly, I think includes myself since I am my own worst enemy, but not in a Christian Slater way} ANYWAY...

Raison d'etre does not have much to do with the sweet dehydrated grapes I like to put into my oatmeal or those wrinkled dancing globs we remember seeing on TV in California years ago. No, raison d'etre is french for reason for being or in the English use, "suggests a degree of rationalization, as the claimed reason for the existence of something or someone." {thanks wiki!}

In attempting to figure out what I would write or how to piece stories together under one umbrella, I remembered what is being discussed in my class, Making a Difference: Global, Organizational and Individual Perspectives on Social Change, aka MAD. Among other words like vision, mission and strategy, we are also focused on this word raison d'etre and how organizations or individuals define their reason for existence or being. I will not nauseate anyone reading this blog with my deep, profound and long-winded definition or opinion on the subject, but I thought it would make for a great theme or umbrella, as it were.

The metamorphosis has begun, unfortunately I don't feel like I am turning into a butterfly, so to speak. {I will refrain from discussing a butterfly's reason for existence, as if there were one} I completely blame this on not having my awesome Atlanta friends and support around me - however - the fault lands on my personal choices. Nothing is the same - going to church is different, going to school is different, the way I dress and present myself is different, my priorities have evolved into an almost unrecognizable creature. The last time I really looked into a mirror and studied my reflection I really felt I was looking at an entirely different person, but that was Halloween. Seriously, I knew NYC was going to be a catalyst for change, but no matter how I tried to pivot or position myself to be ready for that change, I am still a little dismayed and shocked. Not all of this experience has been negative - but in a place like this, negativity seems to reign supreme.

On November 11th 2005 I walked into AID Atlanta feeling pretty low and exhausted. I was there to figure out why my skin was yellow, eyes bloodshot and I felt weak. I went there because I knew I was at risk for Hepatitis, STD's and HIV because of my lifestyle choices of the past. I took my routine HIV test and waited 20 minutes for the preliminary results - twenty minutes turned into an hour and ten minutes. It had not crossed my mind that something was wrong with me - I was so mad I was focused on the "dimwit" tester who must have lost or forgotten about my test. He appeared with another man where I was sitting and told me my results were ready. I didn't tell him how mad I was because all of a sudden I felt like something was different. It was the volunteer's first day on the job and I was his first HIV test he had ever administered. All of his training told him what he was to do - but apparently nothing prepared him for me - his first test he gave was to an HIV positive patient who didn't know he was infected. He couldn't find the mandated counselor he had to have with him to tell me the results - that's why it took so long to get back to me. When I was told that preliminary results suggests that I am HIV positive I simply shook my head acknowledging that I had understood him, told him I didn't need counseling and left the building, alone. The next week on November 18th I found out by blood test that I was in fact, definitely HIV positive and had Hepatitis B - causing the jaundice.

Three years later - here I am. I asked God to let me live long enough to finish my BA at The Art Institute of Atlanta and today I received my diploma in the mail, finally. {thanks Beverly} Now I am asking God to let me survive getting my MS at Milano The New School for Management & Urban Policy. I don't generally focus on the "end" of my life, in fact the "woe is me" bit isn't really my style - though others may argue, it is. Things have shifted a bit recently. Up until now I have lived free of drug treatment because I have been quite healthy for a HIV positive guy. My T-Cells/CD-4 cell count has dropped to 303 {200=AIDS/>600=good} and my viral load is consistently over 50,000, which is not horrible, but not that special either. After my test, in a couple weeks, I will start drug treatment to fight against the virus, in hopes that I will prolong my life and sustain my good health. My goal is to become "undetectable" which would be a T-Cell count of over 600 and a low viral load. I was hoping not to have to do this for awhile, but part of moving here was because I knew this day was coming.

Needless to say, life and my perspective on or about it has changed. My raison d'etre has become more fluid in nature but more defined as I experience more of "life" everyday. The important things I have learned to focus on are simple truths I have known within me for most of my life - I hope that others know this about themselves as well:

I am a child of a loving, all-knowing and merciful Heavenly Father

He has sent me here to learn, grow, be tested and advance {this includes messing up BIG time}

By coming unto His Son, Jesus Christ, my Savior, seeking forgiveness through repentance and sanctification through adherence to covenants and commandments, I will be blessed, healed, made whole and brought home to live with Him again in eternal glory

Heavenly Father has given me parents, {not necessarily biological} angels, friends, teachers, leaders and His Spirit to lead me, guide me and walk beside - to help me find my way - to teach me the gospel and all that I must know to endure to the end with faith, courage, patience, joy, hope and charity

I was not sent here to fail - I am not alone

My raison d'etre is as simple as this: "I am that I might have joy"

Despite my circumstances or maybe because of them - I will do all that I can do to focus on what brings me that eternal joy I so desperately crave - to live with Him someday. I guess I have to start with the man in the mirror {thanks MJ!} and learn how to live with him first.

You have been caught Jey Walking!