A service of remembrance will be held Dec. 1 for AIDS victims and their loved ones nearly four decades after the epidemic first began. In September, the Fifth Street Renaissance/ SARA Center dedicated a long-awaited AIDS Memorial and Labyrinth in Lincoln Park on the north side of Springfield. Rev. Dr. Bobbi Dykema, pastor of First Church of the Brethren, attended that dedication.
"It's such a beautiful memorial, and I was sitting there thinking, 'There needs to be a service of remembrance here for World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. I wonder if anyone is thinking about that? So I reached out to Penny Harris-Powell of Fifth Street Renaissance, and the next thing I knew there was a whole circle of folks from the community, from CORAL (Coalition of Rainbow Alliances), the Phoenix Center and other groups here in Springfield that came together to make this thing happen. We're planning to have an interfaith invocation followed by a reading. We have been gathering names of people beloved to the Springfield community that will be read aloud and we will invite folks in attendance to share names as well. We're also planning to use sidewalk chalk to write those names onto the empty squares of the labyrinth."
The first US cases of AIDS were reported in the early 1980s, igniting a wave of confusion, paranoia and fear. Decades later, medicine has come a long way. The disease is more manageable than it once was, and individuals with a positive diagnosis are often able to live long, full lives. However, for many of those diagnosed, the stigma of living with AIDS would prove to be as burdensome as the infection itself. Many people, especially those from the LGBT community, were ostracized from their families and communities.
Dykema said many of the folks who died from this illness had been rejected by their families and didn't have children of their own. "It's important for those who loved them and were their friends to lift up those names and share their stories so they are not forgotten," she said.
Brad Green, a local landscape artist, is helping to gather the names that will be read and written in chalk on stones of the memorial. This is deeply personal for Green, who is himself a long-term survivor. "Years ago I kept a notebook with all the names of people I knew who had died," said Green, his voice thick with emotion. "At some point I lost that notebook and I've always regretted it. I'm so grateful to begin rewriting that list, so those people aren't forgotten.
In addition to inspiring the service of remembrance Dec. 1, the dedication of the AIDS memorial reminded many of those in attendance of the need for continued activism. Rex Schadow, a member of CORAL who is helping to plan the service of remembrance, said, "It's been a while since we've done a World AIDS Day memorial in Springfield. When we had the memorial dedication at Lincoln Park it brought back a lot of memories of people we had known who had passed away and we'd sort of forgotten about. These days AIDS isn't even on the back pages anymore... people think there's a cure but there's not. There are so many people that we've lost, and so many people who are still living with it today. Back in the day I was part of a group called AIDS Walk Springfield, and in addition to the big annual walk we'd do activities throughout the year to raise awareness. At the dedication service we realized that we really need to get back to doing more of that because it brings closure for a lot of us."
Schadow said that they plan to officially announce plans to bring back AIDS Walk Springfield in September 2020, as a joint effort between the Phoenix Center and the Fifth Street Renaissance/SARA Center. A T-Shirt design contest will run from December to January, with a $200 prize for the winning design.
The World AIDS Day Service of Remembrance will be held at Lincoln Park on Dec. 1 at 2 pm. Those who want to contribute names of those affected by AIDS can email Brad Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.