It’s Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. As I’ve done each Tuesday evening for the past four years I’m sitting in the first booth next to the front door at my favorite diner, talking with a man whom I love as a brother.
The diner is in a storefront located in the heart of my neighborhood: a rainbow flagged, sex-shop filled, bar- and club-laced, LGBT inhabited one square mile radius on Chicago’s North Side known as Boystown. Almost 11 years ago I chose, as a straight man, to live here and try to understand what it means to love the way that love was meant to be lived. I did so because of my failings with my three best friends who all ‘came out’ to me in three months that previous summer.
Sitting across from me is a 50 year old Orthodox Jewish man with AIDS on a unique life-ending quest: to figure out who Yeshua is and discover what G-d’s original plan was for his life before it got derailed with this horrible disease.
The first time we met he cried and told me I was the only one he could trust. When I asked why he slowly moved his eyes, which were gazing out the window, to meet mine and said:
“Because you chose to be here with us. Identify with us. Take on our pain. People think you’re one of us when you’re not. You could blend in and never care or think about us. Do you realize you have to go through your own ‘coming out’ everyday choosing to be with us? That is why I trust you.”
My friend got infected almost 30 years ago, and all his friends who had acquired HIV at the same time are now dead. He is one of the last documented people living with HIV’s original strand–what many originally thought as God’s final judgment for LGBTs.
In the hospital a few years earlier he was lying in his own death bed–eyes and cheeks sunken in, jaundiced skin and a weight of one hundred pounds–waiting to meet the same fate as everyone he once knew. His family flew in from the East Coast and Israel to say goodbye to their shamed grandson, son, brother, uncle and cousin. The hours passed, the goodbyes were spoken, and the wait for death began.
Yet he kept living. In his native Hebrew, that word is hai: “To give life; living.” The picture you see is the symbol for hai. For my birthday last year he gave me a necklace with that Hebrew symbol saying that I gave him life; that for the first time he is content knowing what will kill him one day because he now knows how to live.
I didn’t give him life. All I did was try to give him love.
So here we are, every Tuesday night, meeting to intentionally seek G-d’s face as we journey to discover why this man’s fate is life and not an early death.
And yes, he was right about taking on the names and labels of those in my neighborhood. Just last week I was walking to get my hair cut a man stuck his head out of the window of his truck and called me a Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaag. Then he sped off to continue his day like that was a normal thing to do.
Those occurrences are far more common then any of us living in Boystown would like to admit. Yet my daily decision to stay in Boystown on this journey of love has shown me moments like that are worth every minute of the Kingdom I boldly claim to be a part of — because I can’t love someone who has been ignorantly labeled unless I take that label on myself.