My first class with the Joseph’s House interns met this afternoon. It was wonderful.
Joseph’s House is a home and hospice for homeless people with terminal diseases. My family and I founded it in 1990 as a home and community for homeless men with AIDS and we lived there together for three years. It was a wonderful place, an experiment in deep community between white and black, rich and poor, sick and well. We took men in when they were just becoming ill, so they could participate fully in the community until they became sick and died, usually about a year after coming in. It was easily the most intense period of my life. I haven’t been director there for years and I left my position as the finance person about five years ago. I still keep in touch as a founder connected with fundraising and as a friend to Patty Wudel, the Executive Director who has shaped Joseph’s House into a profoundly beautiful place of silence, presence, care and love. Now that my disease has allowed me to look back over my life, Joseph’s House is one of those things in which I take great deal of pride. It was a great privilege to have been involved in its creation.
The most important contribution I currently make to the house is to teach the year-long volunteers, most of whom are just out of college. They learn about presence and compassionate care quite naturally by working there, so our class emphasizes the social injustice that brought these men and women into the house. We meet once a week for an hour and a half, studying some history of early oppression of African Americans, reading Urban Injustice, my book on the history of the ghetto, and reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to discover the profound injustice of the American criminal justice system. It’s usually a wonderful class.
As is usually true, this group of young people seems bright and eager, and we seemed to establish a bond immediately. I had been a bit reluctant to teach this year because of my diagnosis, but Patty and I decided I would teach as long I could. But I felt it was only fair to let the interns know about my diagnosis. I’m glad I did. I think I’ll be able to handle things okay, but, since we’re going to be spending almost five months together, I wanted them to understand my memory lapses (and whatever other symptoms came along) to give them permission to talk with me or Patty if my behavior started affecting the class. As with others I have told, these moments have been full of respect, caring and love. Yet again, the moment felt beautiful: a great sense of spiritual connection.
I fear I’m sounding like a broken record, stuck in la-la land, telling everyone how wonderful this is, denying the realities of this disease. But I’m quite aware of what's coming. And that doesn't change the beauty of the present moments.