In the Christian calendar, yesterday, today, and tomorrow are memento mori, days when we remember our death, the saints who have gone before us, and the lives of our dearly departed. While these days developed out of a desire to cancel out the harvest festivals of Europe, they give us a good opportunity to remember the finitude of life and those we have lost. One of the best ways to honor our ancestors, our saints, those we have lost, is to tell their stories. I'd like to tell you about some of the ordinary saints in my life, in hopes that you will take some time to remember those in
I grew up in the 80's & 90's in a wealthy, white, conservative suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. A lot of the people I grew up with didn't get the opportunity to meet people who were not wealthy, white, and straight. Fortunately, thanks to both chance and choices my parents made, I did. One of these people was Jim (I am just now realizing that I never knew Jim's last name, he was always just Jim).
Jim and his partner, Bill, lived down the street from me. They both had HIV. I can't remember if I ever got to meet Bill -- I think he was too sick with AIDS by the time I got to know Jim. Jim would hang out at my neighbors house, smoke cigarettes and drink chardonnay with my best friend's mom as we played (or terrorized) the neighborhood. Jim was incredibly kind, and absolutely hilarious -- he was one of the few people who could tell my friend's mom truths she didn't want to hear and get away with it.
For a lot of us 80's kids (especially those of us in the suburbs or rural America), to know an out gay person was incredibly rare. To know an out gay person with HIV even more so. These were people we were told to be afraid of. For far too long, people with HIV were pariahs, people you should be afraid of touching, much less hanging out with. Yet there Jiim was, kind and caring and hilarious, unintentionally opening a door to me that I didn't know I needed opened.
Honestly, being an out gay man with HIV in a conservative town in the 80's is enough to make anyone an ordinary saint in my book. Showing me one of the ways it looked to be gay is more than enough. But Jim also worked with people who had HIV and AIDS for the entire time I knew him. He cared for his partner and people in the community -- people who were lonely, people who were scared, people who were discriminated against, often living sick and in poverty. He cared for his community in incredibly selfless ways while still managing to have a life. Eventually, due to the side effects of AZT (the main medication for HIV/AIDS at the time), he went blind. He still did care and advocacy work, right up until he died in 1998.
Jim was a trailblazer, one of the people who fought tirelessly to the rights and well being of LGBTQIA+ people today. He's one of the elders who died far too soon because the government refused to act on a health crisis, letting hundreds of thousands of people die because of homophobia. It was an honor to know him, and I wish he was still around to tell his story.
Before I was born, my mom was a librarian at Glenville High School in Cleveland. While there, she became friends with Dr. A. Grace Lee Mims. You see that Lee in her name? She was Spike Lee's aunt. However you imagine Spike Lee's aunt, she was that and then some, and it was my privilege to grow up in her presence.
Mrs. Mims (I was never given permission to call her by her first name and I'm not going to start now) was a Black Opera singer, a librarian and archivist, a radio host and producer, an educator, and a constant worker in the fight for racial justice.
To list all of the things she did would take far more than this email could hold, from being in a band with her siblings called The Descendents of Mike and Phoebe, to creating an archive of Negro Spirituals (a passion project from which she frequently sang), to starting a long running radio show called "The Black Arts" on Cleveland's classical music station. She started a Black arts festival in Cleveland, brought together the largest collection of African-American History and culture in Ohio and on and on and on. She was fiercely dedicated to her community, to broadcasting Black arts, and to her students.
Mrs. Mims just had a presence. She was the kind of person who made you sit up straight, act better, slow down, and pay attention. Her presence in my life taught me more than I will probably ever be able to explain about justice, about being a powerful woman, and about Black arts and culture. She also had the most amazing laugh. If you'd like to hear some of the voice that gave me chills as a child (and does to this day), here's a recording of a performance of spirituals she did in the 80's.
May her music stir you.
May my memories move you to your own, and may you be blessed by them.