Day 22: Tom Keefer – Building Bridges, not Walls

I first met Tom when I was working at Canticle Ministries, an HIV/AIDS ministry in DuPage and Kane County, IL. Tom was on the ministry staff of a large evangelical church and had been asked to help develop a response to HIV. DuPage County’s conservative faith community had only recently gotten involved in HIV/AIDS work thanks to the appearance of Bono at Wheaton College. The energy and focus, however, was almost exclusively on Africa, allowing for many to think they could address the HIV/AIDS pandemic and avoid talking about homosexuality and drug use.  Many people, including Rep. Henry Hyde, only wanted to talk about Africa. As one church representative told me, in Africa “we don’t have to deal with homosexuality.” Tom Keefer knew otherwise. Growing up in the south, his church led African missions but did not allow people of color in the pews so, before delving into far-away AIDS work, Tom wanted to make sure his church was a place of welcome for people with HIV. TomKeefer

What unfolded was transformational. Tom opened my eyes to an evangelical community that was not a monolithic group of Bible-thumpers, but made up of a broad range of thinkers and doers; people of deep faith, deep compassion and deep thought. This led to getting to know or be acquainted with such people as Ruth Bell-Olsson (Rob Bell’s sister), Andrew Marin, Jennifer Grant, Suzie Goering, and Cathleen Falsani. He got me to see the amazing goodness where I had assumed it did not exist, and to seeing people not just living in the tension, but embracing it. He did this more with his actions than words, including helping lead local HIV testing efforts with openness and humility, confronting stigma with love. This has been fundamental to what we do at William Penn House and William Penn Quaker Workcamps.

In addition, Tom challenged me – ever so gently – to more deeply explore my own faith. By asking “so what do Quakers believe?” I realized that I could list the “not’s” (war, violence, greed, etc.), but to state affirmations was less simple. Because of his simple question, I can now state with certainty that I believe that there is that of God in All, and mine is to joyfully seek it. Sharing his faith, and encouraging me to explore mine, deepened my Quaker faith while more deeply appreciating his. This now guides the Quaker Workcamps engagement with places like the Southeast White House and Our Daily Bread, as we create opportunities for groups to become comfortable with religious talk so they can see the good works. We also ask Workcamp participants to develop a greater comfort in affirming one’s own faith.

background-bridge-winter-picIn 2006, an election year when gay marriage was again a hot-button issue, Tom and I were working with Chip Huber from Wheaton Academy to hold a workshop exploring global and local issues related to HIV. As the date neared, Tom called me to say we had to talk. My first thought was he had to back out because of church pressure about doing this with an openly-gay, HIV+ person at a religious school. Instead, Tom wanted me to know that if the question of gay marriage came up and he was asked his opinion, he had to speak his truth – that he believed marriage is for one man and one woman. More importantly, Tom did not want this to hurt our friendship. I was deeply moved by his trust and his faith, and realized then that when his “t”ruth and my “t”ruth come together, a greater “T”ruth” emerges – that we can live together.

In honor of Tom’s gentleness and spirit, take a moment to reflect on these simple words from Isaac Newton: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

Submitted by Brad Ogilvie
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Day 36: Lois Johnson

I first met Lois (1930-2012) on World AIDS Day in 1996. Lois had lost her oldest son, David Arnesan, to AIDS in 1995. During David’s illness, Lois and her family had to face not only his illness, but the fact that David was gay. Lois had long known this, but felt David would let her know in his own time. Once out, Lois worked with her church to make sure it was a place where her son was welcome. “I just can’t see how you cannot love your children” was a constant message. Her church became the first in conservative Wheaton to be “open and affirming” and, later to perform same-gender weddings. After David’s death, through a grieving parents’ support group, Lois was presented with the fact that she had an opportunity to use her story to help break the prejudice and fear that was fueling the AIDS pandemic, and “with that opportunity comes responsibility”. For the 13 years I knew Lois, she was my “partner in crime”, as she called it. She was also my friend and guide. She embraced opportunities as responsibilities. She kept David’s spirit alive while adapting to changes in the pandemic. She led HIV-testing efforts at her church and wherever she went with a clear message that we are all at-risk, and she joined me in the efforts to advocate for approval of self-testing. She was always willing to challenge assumptions and the status quo, such as the time she and a 20 year-old Wheaton College student got tested for HIV together, causing gossip about the age difference of this “couple”. I still hear her laughing about that.

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Lois (center) hitting the pavement in DC advocating for more HIV testing and options

It was not all light and easy for her. Shortly after David’s passing, her own marriage ended. She later reconnected with and married a high-school sweetheart who sadly died from cancer after 6 years. But there was great joy, including three grandchildren, and all the love that surrounded her right up until her own sudden passing in 2012. Shortly before David died, he said to Lois “If I had only known how much I was loved, maybe it would have been different”. For Lois, it was always about love, and it was her love that made things so different for so many of us. As she so often said, she was grateful for her life after David’s death; she just wished he could have been here to be a part of it. For those that knew her, we are better for having been graced with her love.

So for today, take some time to reflect on these words from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross that evoke the spirit of Lois: “I think modern medicine has become like a prophet offering a life free of pain. It is nonsense. The only thing I know that truly heals people is unconditional love.”

Submitted by Brad Ogilvie