Michael McColly, HIV-positive author of the Lambda Award-winning book, The After-Death Room: Journey into Spiritual Activism ( Soft Skull Press, 2006 ) , began his own journey of acceptance and treatment in 1996 when he tested positive.
A bisexual, McColly was closeted about his sexual identity, was deeply depressed and he engaged in unsafe sex. At the urging of a close friend he entered therapy. He also got tested for HIV, and found out he was positive for the virus associated with AIDS. He began treatment and continued counseling. He also had a very strong and dedicated yoga practice, which helped keep him physically healthy and offered a path for spiritual grounding. McColly slowly began to come out to friends and family. He emerged from his depression and tapped into the inner resources needed to deal with his new life state.
McColly, a journalist, attended the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000. He was there to teach yoga and to learn. He got his first serious glimpse into the scope of HIV and AIDS in non-western countries and the different way in which individuals in these cultures dealt with the disease. He was also witness to the range of government responses, and non-responses, to the devastation of AIDS.
It was eye-opening and life-transformingMcColly decided to sell all his belongings and set out on a "spiritual quest" to deeply explore the AIDS crisis internationally. The After Death Room and McColly's conception of "spiritual activism" was the result.
McColly now teaches creative writing at Northwestern University and workshops on yoga and the creative process at Kripalu Center. Below, he reflects on spiritual activism and AIDS:
Spiritual should be implied in activism, in my thinking, marked by courage, deep commitment, amazing reserves of energy and resolve with higher aims and deep faith in one's work. But, the word "spiritual" has such baggage these days with so many people throwing it about to describe themselves, their products, and actions that it has understandably lost any real meaning.
"Spiritual activism" has been used in the past to describe the work of people like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Albert Einsteinpeople who have sought to link their beliefs and actions on behalf of political or social justice to principles that transcend the limits of human reason and specific contemporary political situations. In other words, an activism that is not limited to a narrow focus for a set or group of people alone, but in activism grounded and aimed at propounding justice or law or equality or health or freedom or compassion or planetary ecological health because of its necessity for life and for the future of life.
The other aspect of spiritual activism is that the advocate is linking their work and advocacy in a spiritual practice and belief that their work is a logical out growth of this spiritual foundation. Consequently, the actions or compassionate work or demands for justice are the practice itself. The actor concerns him/herself with the practice, not the results. Sure, they want peace or justice or health or opportunities but they are not concerned when, or if, they might come. The attitude and the work of embracing the wrong and speaking out or caring for those left behind is the point.
The Boddhisattva [ Buddha of compassion ] is committed to liberating all. Christ chose to work with the poor and dispossessed to teach that the kingdom of heaven is here now in this orientation of selfless love. MLK battled the ignorance and smallness of mind behind racism and economic injustice. He felt for the suffering of allthose who support injustice and those who feel the injustice because the system supporting racism and economic injustice is destroying all as it's a selfish and fear-based political and economic system.
Struggles still persist in trying to speak directly about the complex public health crisis of HIV and AIDS and confronting the fears, ignorance and closed-mindedness that still profoundly shape the responses to this very pernicious virus. This comes from so many quartersnot just the right-wing ideologues, African officials and various religious leaders. It exists in policy makers, non-profits, health professionals, governments officials, academics and gay leaders.
HIV affects mostly poor and powerless people who have little awareness of their bodies and self-care, little access to health education or care and few avenues of economic agency. They often do not know where they will get food or where they will find money for the basic needs of themselves and their children. Their life is precarious.
The persistence of HIV in the world reflects economic, political and cultural structures and beliefs. The people in power who largely control these structures have never really been threatened by the diseaseor they don't perceive that they have.
The tremendous strides on behalf of those with the disease by activists, health care professionals, researchers, artists and social scientists is still not loud enough to make much change. In fact, the will has declined somewhat in the past few years as the economic downturn and other social factors have made it less of a priority.
Nevertheless, HIV and AIDS has been a disease that has inspired profound emotional and spiritual responses. People who are affected or infected must confront a whole range of questions and conditions about their bodies, their behaviors, their relationships and their religious and political beliefs. The past 30 years of suffering and education and scientific discoveries has given the world more understanding and maturity about just how important public health is for a community or nation.
It was HIV that brought us, and continues to bring us, awareness about the vital importance of education, access and affordability of treatment. Breast cancer awareness, addiction, emotional and mental health treatment, other STDs, obesity and a host of other public health issues all followed the awakening of HIV and AIDS. It is hard to make the case anymore that public spending should be cut for public health, the health of the society.
Michael McColly's essays have appeared in the New York Times and The Sun. Read his work at www.mikemccolly.com and www.footpatterns.blogspot.com
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.