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Category: Heartsong

Stories about the Alabama Heartsong Retreat, a spiritual retreat for persons living with HIV/AIDS, that Malcolm led for 15 years.

Surprised by Interruptions

jeff-thomas1We had our first “Heartsong @ 1917” gathering yesterday to create community and connection with one another and God.  We didn’t know if anyone would show up.  Thankfully they did.

But it didn’t go as planned.

Just before we began,  “John” who was in his early 20’s stopped by the room, stuck his head in the door and asked for prayers for his grandmother.  “I can’t stay,” he said, “but I saw your signs about this group having  a connection with God so I thought I’d ask you to pray for her.”  We promised we would.  He left as quickly as he had come.

We began by sitting in a circle, introduced ourselves, and remembered for a moment what was special about past Heartsong Retreats.

Heartsong reminds me that I am not alone in living with HIV,” Jeff began.  “I was diagnosed with HIV 19 years ago and Heartsong helped me to remember that I have a lot to be thankful for in my life,” as he listed a dozen gratitudes off the top of his head.

Greg added, “I made new friends at Heartsong and I need all of those I can get right now, ” as he mentioned he was diagnosed with HIV just three months ago.

I added, “Heartsong always surprises me, because the least likely person or event always teaches me something I need to learn.” Others mentioned they loved being in a safe community where they can “just be who they are and be honest with God and one another, and not worry about labels or stereotypes.”

I talked about our vision for Heartsong @ 1917 to be a place and time where we could listen to one another, learn from one another, and love one another on a weekly basis.  Our theme for the day was “Meeting God in the Present.”

And then, just as we were discussing meeting God in the here and now, the electrical power went out in our whole building.   I mean it was the “pitch-black-kind-of-dark” except for a thin beam of sunlight peeking in the door that we had left slightly ajar.   We sat for about a minute in the dark before the lights came back on.

I could feel my frustration growing over the power outage as we waited for the very loud overhead speaker system to stop beeping as we could barely hear one another over it.  Finally, silence.

We were about to begin our “Centering Prayer” to help us focus on the present and how God is experienced in the present tense, the right here, the right now, and especially in each other.

There was a quick knock on the door and two maintenance men came walking into the room and said, “We need to get to that closet door on the other side of the room to check out the electrical system,” as they walked through the center of the circle.

“Now?” I asked, trying to get them to see they were interrupting our meeting.

“I’m sorry, we really need to get in here,” they insisted.

I got up and moved a table and other furniture so they could get into the electrical closet.  I asked the group if they wanted to wait for the workers to do their job, before we started our centering prayer exercise.

Jeff just laughed it off and said, “This is cool, just like real life interruptions!  Let’s go ahead and start the centering prayer.”

So we began.  And you guessed it.

As we were sitting with our eyes closed, focusing on our own “sacred word” to help us let go of thoughts and distractions of the outside world, the men came out of the closet (no pun intended) and said, “Sorry for the interruption.  We’re done.  Have a nice day.”  I opened one eye and said, “Take care,” trying to refocus unsuccessfully.

After a few minutes, I asked the group to open their eyes and we debriefed the experience.

Joe discussed that “life is our prayer, in fact, everything we do is a prayer.  The line between prayer and living our lives doesn’t really exist,” he said as he led us to think about prayer in a different way.  He might have said that “God is even in the interruptions,” but I was too distracted to hear him if he did.

We had fifteen minutes to go so I pressed on.

I shared a reading about God being in the present, and then led the participants in a “Wisdom Circle” from the Native American tradition that my wife had taught me.  Everyone had a chance to respond to the reading.

We watched a powerful five-minute “YouTube” video and talked about how music is another way to experience community and connection with others and God (see what we watched below).

We concluded the group by going around the circle  one person at a time saying to the person on our left, “You are a child of God,” followed by silence.  Then the one being spoken to responded with, “I receive your blessing.”  My colleague of thirteen years, Kelly, was near the end and turned and said, “Joe, you are a child of God.”  “Kelly, I receive your blessing.”

Joe and I worked at the clinic together as chaplains between 1994-2006.  He is like a second father to me, a mentor, and a very close friend.  We’ve been through a lot together including my divorce in 1996 and eventual remarriage in 2004, as well as the recent death of Joe’s wife of 56 years.  Joe looked at me and said, “Malcolm, you are a child of God.”

I was surprised and couldn’t speak.  I needed the silence.  I squeaked out the words, “Joe, I receive your blessing,” and wiped the tears from my face a bit embarrassed.

I looked at everyone and said, “Amen.”  I couldn’t say anything more.

And today, as I reflect on our first gathering . . .

I am learning  a new song from my heart.  A heart-song that says God is right here, right in front of us, especially in the interruptions.

Note to Self:  Pay attention, Malcolm.


From the award-winning documentary, “Playing For Change: Peace Through Music”, comes the first of many “songs around the world” being released independently. Featured is a cover of the Ben E. King classic by musicians around the world adding their part to the song as it traveled the globe. (Also see http://www.playingforchange.com.  We used this video in “Heartsong @ 1917” yesterday.

About Heartsong @ 1917


For some time now, I have wanted to start “something” that would bring our patients together to discuss how a connection with the Sacred makes a difference in our lives.

A time that would help us connect with something larger than ourselves in order to give purpose and meaning in life.

A place that would not be confined to a specific denomination or religion, and a place where questions would be valued even more than the answers.

I’ve wanted it to be especially for persons who have been told that they are not part of God’s family because they are HIV positive, or for any other reason for that matter.

And now is the time.

Heartsong @ 1917 began on Wednesday, May 13, 2009 from 10:45-12 noon at The 1917 Clinic.   This will be a unique gathering of persons who are HIV positive (and friends and family) in Alabama from every walk of life.  Heartsong @ 1917 will meet every Wednesday at the clinic.  Participants are welcome to come whenever they can.

We will create community with one another, and discuss how a connection with God empowers us to find meaning and purpose in our lives. The group will be open to persons of all faiths and those with no faith.  We will draw from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Native American, and many other ways to connect with our Creator.

Since 1993, The 1917 Clinic has sponsored an annual spiritual retreat called the Alabama Heartsong Retreat“Heartsong @ 1917” will take many of the lessons we have learned from Heartsong and integrate it into a weekly gathering while creating something new.

Music, meditation, prayers, video, readings, blessings, and discussion are part of this wonderful gathering.

We meet downstairs in Room 151 on the first floor of the clinic.  Signs make it easy to find the room.  I will lead Heartsong @ 1917 along with my long-time colleague, Joe Elmore.  We will invite other clinic staff to assist us from time to time.

Come as you are.  And spread the good news.  Something new is starting at 1917.


For more information, contact Malcolm Marler at 205-975-8923 or mmarler@uab.edu.

Heartsong – Lessons for the Journey

campmcdowellI love to go hiking.   The only problem is I get lost almost every time I go.

I get distracted by the trees, the flowers, the birds and the butterflies.  I love to smell the pine and feel the breeze by streams of water.  But I forget about the little painted marks on the side of trees showing the way.  Hiking maps are a mystery to me.

And so last week at Heartsong, it happened again.

Heartsong staff members—Wes, Gina, Jeff, and I had free time on Tuesday afternoon and decided to explore some of the 1100 acres of the beautiful and secluded woods, streams, and canyons on Camp McDowell’s land.  As we walked, two of our Heartsong participants, Cleveland and Robert, saw us walking and asked if they could come along.

I was concerned about Cleveland’s overall health and wondered if he could keep up.  I tried to discourage him by saying, “Now Cleveland, we’re probably going to be walking for a couple of hours or so.  Are you sure you can make it?”  “No problem,” he responded with his childlike voice.  I secretly shook my head, and off we went.

Swinging bridge with other folks crossing.Before long, we found the swinging bridge and needed to cross to the other side over the creek. It’s a little scary to walk over water when the bridge is moving up and down, side to side, every time you take a step.  Add 5 or 6 people walking on it at the same time, and you get the picture.

Robert wasn’t so sure about crossing on the swinging bridge as he watched all of us go to the other side.  “Come on Robert, you can do it!” we encouraged.  He was obviously nervous and uncomfortable, but he trusted his friends and slowly made his way across one step at a time.  We clapped and yelled encouragement.

One of the beautiful canyons and waterfalls on our hiking journey.We continued on the trail and stopped by a cavern with a waterfall that was cool and refreshing.  We talked with an experienced Camp McDowell staff member we ran into on the trail, and he explained all of the options we had for various trails ahead of us.

He gave us so many options that as we walked away, I was hoping someone else listened better than I. They didn’t.

We expected the trail to loop around to our original starting point and after walking for an hour and a half, Jeff and I began to wonder out loud, “Is this the right trail?  Where are we on the map?  We should be closer by now.”

And then Cleveland spoke up, who by the way was keeping up with the group better than anyone expected.  He said innocently,  “Do you think we ought to go back the way we know?

I responded, “Maybe it’s just a little further down this trail, come on Cleveland you can do it.”  We kept walking, and walking, and walking.  Nothing on the map matched the trail we were on.

Time was getting short and I was nervous.  Two of the four workshop leaders for the afternoon were with us and if we didn’t make it back soon, the whole retreat would be off schedule.

ClevelandAnother fifteen minutes went by and it wasn’t getting any better.  Cleveland repeated his question, “Do you think we ought to go back the way we know?”   I was out of ideas.

Jeff (a Cub Scout leader, but not an Eagle Scout he kept reminding us) and I looked at one another, nodded and said, “Cleveland, we think you are right.  Let’s go back the way we know.”  He grinned from ear to ear.

I was aware of the time the whole way back, beating myself up for being so stubborn earlier.

After pushing ourselves a little,  we made it back with 5 minutes to spare.  Gina and Wes walked into their workshops and began without missing a beat.

And me?  I learned a few things about life.

  1. Trust your friends when your steps are unsteady.
  2. Be open to learning from everyone, you may be surprised.
  3. Enjoy the beauty of the journey, while looking for signs along the way.
  4. When lost,  retrace familiar steps to get back home.
  5. Keep exploring, getting lost is worth it.

Thanks Cleveland, I’m glad you came along for the journey.

Heartsong–Opening My Eyes

One participant's art work at HeartsongI experienced Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5:1-12) in a new way at the Alabama Heartsong Retreat last week.  I realize now I had been blind, but now I see in a new way.  Let me explain.

I moved around the circle of 50 placing my hand on a different head in random order as I read a verse or blessing.

5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

I saw Arreba and Keyona who rode a Greyhound bus from South Alabama to Birmingham, and waited half a day before they got in the van from the clinic without complaint in order to attend Heartsong.

2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

I looked into Janet’s eyes who had been given a 72 hour pass from her nursing home so that she could could be here one more time.

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I placed my hand on Jessica’s head who said she had not felt a sense of peace in her life since she was 8 years old, 24 years ago.

4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

I looked at Joe with misty eyes whose wife, Carolyn, of 57 years had died the previous month.

5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I made eye contact with Eric who had taken it on himself to acquire fifty devotional books from a publisher so that all participants could have a free book to draw them closer to God.

6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

I saw Wayne who announced this would probably his last Heartsong because he was going back to work full-time, and had realized the dream of seeing his daughter graduate from high school when he didn’t think he would live this long.

7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

I could see Cleveland smiling who has overcome mental health challenges that would hold most people back.

8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

I looked at Jackie and remembered the Support Team of volunteers we had created for her thirteen years earlier, which she no longer needs.

9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

I smiled at Greg, nicknamed Hillary (that’s another story), who walks with a cane and has a sweet spirit, and is always making others laugh.

10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

I could see Shannon who has had a rough year in relationships but did not let that stop her from showing up.

11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

I could see Wendell who finally got the courage to tell his pastor that he is HIV positive and thankfully, also received support from his church.

12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I also thanked God for Mary, Joyce, Gregory, Michael, Daniel, Misty, Greg, Tony, Darryl, Robert, Michael, Clarence, Gregg, Steve, James, Brett, Jimmy, Paul,  Tony, Robert, Jeff, Wes, Gina, Kelly, Barbara, Charles, Tommie, Brandon, Guy, Clarisa, Sharon, Tory, Ceonte, Joe, Richard, and Alan.  Each one of them have remarkable stories to tell.  Each one is blessed, and is a blessing to others.

I was blind.  But now I see.

The Scandal at Heartsong

St. Francis of Assisi Chapel at Camp McDowell

It has been less than 12 hours since I left the Alabama Heartsong Retreat 2009, but I feel like I have to write about a scandal that happened at this year’s retreat.  It happened on the second night of the retreat, but one needs to know the setting first.

Fifty or so people gathered at this year’s spiritual retreat at Camp McDowell, an Episcopal camp in Northwest AL. There were heterosexuals, homosexuals (gay and lesbian), bi-sexuals, black people, white people, and even a person with a Cherokee Indian background among the participants.  They were young and old.  Some were Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterians, Catholic, AME, CME, and more.

One was a fugitive running from the law in another state.  Others had been in prison for drug abuse, and some were still fighting the drug demons.  Several were alcoholics.  A few had been abused, while others were, or had been, in an abusive relationship.  I think a few people there had never said the sacred traditional word, “IacceptJesusChristasmypersonalLordandSavior,”  that I had been taught as a child.

Let’s be honest, everybody there was plain and simple “a sinner,” to use religious language.  I’m talking about the kinds of sinners whose sins are high on the “sin grading scale” that most religious people use, as if there was such a scale.  The ragtag group embodied the “disenfranchised or outsiders” that you read about in the Bible.  I read the story aloud of the woman who was a sinner and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.

Our retreat theme, “Getting in the Game of Life,” was at the center of the spiritual discussion in the large group as we sat in one unbroken circle.  We talked about what it meant to be “blessed” by other people.  Not a blessing prior to a meal or someone saying, “God bless you.”  Rather, the kind of blessedness or blessing that happens when one is emotionally and spiritually dying to hear a word of encouragement, or affirmation, or love, or hope in one’s life.  We named some of those people by name, both the living and dead.  These were the people who had been there for us.  I heard myself call out my father”s name, “Lewis Marler,” as his name lodged in my throat.  We lit a candle in the circle’s center as a reminder.  Some people didn’t name anybody.

And then the scandal happened.

“Choose a partner and sit knee to knee,” I began.  “Study the features of your partner’s face, and look into his or her eyes.  I mean really look until it is a bit uncomfortable,” I directed, and people giggled.

And then I asked one of the partners to say to the other very slowly, “You are a child of God.”  I asked for silence to let it sink in.  Then the receiver of the blessing responded with, “I receive your blessing.”   We changed it around.  “You are a child of God,” they said, with silence allowed to soak up the words like a sponge . . .  then together the blessed ones said, “I receive your blessing.”

I  suggested that each one of us in that room were called in life to be that blessing–that thread of hope to others on a daily basis.  We were to give this blessing, especially to the people we didn’t like.  The ones who irritate us, the ones who are the opposite of the kind of folks we like to hang around.  This is what it means to “get in the game of life,” to pay attention to the person in front of you.  He or she are no longer sidelined, no longer benched.  To look into the face of every person and know that he or she is a child of God.

Grace was scattered to everyone there without discrimination.  Actually, the grace was already there, we just acknowledged its presence.  From drag queens to the ordained.  Grace poured.  Tears flowed.  Others were trying to figure out what just happened.  We all knew something happened.  Powerfully so.

Whatever you want to call it, it was scandalous for sure. Sinners being called children of God.  And the kingdom of heaven, for just a moment, was not in the distant future of a life in the hereafter.  It was and is a life of the here and the now.


NOTE: Much of this entire scandalous exercise was my colleague’s, Joe Elmore, idea.  It seems like all he talks about as a retired Methodist minister is grace these days. Thank you Joe.

Janet’s Tender Grace


As I go down my final checklist to attend the 16th Heartsong Retreat, I am thinking about Janet.

Janet went to Heartsong last year.  I remember her love of singing, her quick sense of humor, her self-awareness, and her love of dancing.  She was a 50 something year old African American woman who made friends quickly with other participants.

I noticed how Janet looked for persons who were holding back.  She used her slow Southern drawl and warm personality to make them feel at ease and to reassure them there is nothing to fear here.

One of those persons who came for the first time last year was “Jerry.” He was a quiet young man in his early 20’s who wasn’t so sure on the first night if he had made a good decision to come to Heartsong with all the laughter surrounding him.  I watched Janet introduce him to others, sit beside him in large group time so that he wouldn’t be alone, and even encouraged  him to dance with her in the talent show on Wednesday night.  Together, they brought the house down with their dancing and had everyone on their feet shouting encouragement and clapping their hands by the time the music stopped.

A few weeks after Heartsong ended last year, we got the shocking news that Jerry was shot and killed on the streets of Birmingham.  We were all numbed and grieved by the news.

In the last year, Janet hasn’t been doing so well. She has had a very difficult life since being diagnosed with HIV 21 years ago.  She has been in the hospital a half dozen times in the past year.  Her health has declined significantly.  And her attendance at this year’s Heartsong was in doubt as late as Friday, before we leave on this Monday.

I sat with Janet in Kathy Gaddis’ office, her social worker at the clinic.   “Janet,” I began, “I don’t know if you are healthy enough to attend this year’s retreat.  What do you think?”

She sat up straight in the chair, smiled and said resolutely,  “Malcolm, I am well enough to go to Heartsong.  I can do it.”   I looked at Kathy, and she nodded in agreement.

And so this year, if Janet can get to the clinic to catch the van tomorrow afternoon, she will attend another Heartsong.

Except this year, I hope some of the other participants will look out for Janet, like she has done for others before.

The tender grace will be passed along once again.  This is what Heartsong is all about.

Note:  You can see and hear Janet on The 1917 Clinic video called “Positive” by clicking here.

Update: Janet made it to Heartsong 2009, and she got stronger each day she was there.  Many participants stepped up to make sure she had what she needed.  On August 29th, 2009, Janet died.  I will miss you Janet.  Peace to you.

Alan and Manny

This post fits in both series:  “One Christian Minister’s Response to Homosexuality,” and “The Alabama Heartsong Retreat.”

Alan Woellhart

Friendships change us. Alan Woellhart is one of those friends in my life.

I met Alan in 1993 when I was interviewing for my job at The 1917 (HIV/AIDS) Clinic at UAB.  He was on the Chaplain search committee, and a patient at the clinic.  Alan was also one of the instrumental figures in starting the Alabama Heartsong Retreat, and he is the only person in Heartsong’s history who has helped coordinate and attend all of the retreats since 1993.  An amazing accomplishment by itself.

Alan met Manny on July 4th weekend in 1993 and like many love stories, the two of them were a perfect fit for one another.  I observed the tenderness in the way they talked and listened to one another, and how thoughtful they were in their actions towards one another.  They were best friends, as well as partners in life.  Their personalities complimented one another.  They were quick to smile and laugh when in each other’s presence.

After dating for about a year, Alan asked, “Malcolm, I want to talk with you about something.  Manny and I want to get married and we were wondering if you would do the ceremony?”  It was the first time I had been asked by a gay couple to officiate at their wedding. In Alabama of course, this really meant a union “blessing” since they would not even receive civil rights of a married couple by the state.

I told Alan that I would be honored to participate in their wedding if the two of them would be open to pre-marital counseling.  After all, I had performed many weddings as a minister and had done pre-marital counseling with the heterosexual couples.  (Alan secretly told me later that he thought I was trying to find something in their relationship so that I could respectfully decline.)

I met four or five times with the happy couple who always held hands in my presence and we talked about finances, issues related to their families of origin, faith and its importance in their lives, communication skills, and more.  They were clear that they wanted to make a life long commitment to one another in front of family and friends.

The wedding was at Alan’s home in Jasper, AL. Most of the staff of The 1917 Clinic were present along with Alan’s family.  Some of the Catholic nuns who were friends from our previous Heartsong Retreats were also present to celebrate the day.  We all stood in the living room, shoulder to shoulder, face to face, for Alan and Manny to declare their vows before God, friends, and family.

I used the same service I had used for most weddings I had conducted with a few changes of pronouns in the vows.  The language changes were minor.  The reception afterwards was joyous and the food was delicious with smiles, hugs, music, and lots of laughter.

Alan even won his mother-in-law over in subsequent years and he became like another son to her.  He said, “after I painted her house and hung ceiling fans, she came around!”

And then one day Manny noticed blood in his urine and Alan took him to the doctor. After some tests, the diagnosis and prognosis were grim–renal cell carcinoma.  Treatment was scheduled but Manny’s health declined over the next year.

In 1996, Alan convinced Manny into coming to Heartsong with him.  The rest of the participants loved Manny and I will never forget Alan singing to Manny in the Wednesday night talent show.  They were inseparable.  Ironically, it was the year after I had been divorced and I wondered if I would ever have a love like the two of them shared.  They gave me hope.

Over the next year, Manny was hospitalized and there were times when Alan couldn’t see Manny in ICU when he was critical because medical staff stated that only his “family could see him.”  That just wasn’t right.

Both decided that Manny would be cared for at home in his last few months.  The extraordinary hours and tender loving care given to Manny by Alan were like couples I had visited in similar circumstances over the years.  I visited him at their home.

On September 19th, 1997, Manny died at home with Alan at his side.

I had the privilege and honor of conducting Manny’s wedding and his funeral.  It was the first time I had conducted the wedding and funeral for the same person within such a short period of time.

Understandably, it took Alan several years to work through his grief.  I remember that he came to Heartsong for the next couple of years and he hardly said a word the whole week.  His grief was almost too much to bear.  For all of us.

Finally, Alan became the sassy, no-nonsense guy so many of us knew him to be previously.  He began living again.  His faith was one of the things that made a difference.

Today, Alan has been HIV positive since 1989.  

Maybe now you can understand why I felt a lump in my throat this week when I was sitting across the table from Alan as we put together the 16th annual Heartsong Retreat starting on Monday .

I thank God for giving me friends like Alan Woellhart.

Friendships make a difference.  Alan sure has.

Heartsong Stories — Harry

Harry C.S. Wingfield

Harry C.S. Wingfield

As our annual Heartsong Retreat is coming up in a couple of weeks,  I am thinking about Harry Wingfield.

Soon after I began at the clinic in ’94, Harry came to my office and said enthusiastically, “I want you to know about a spiritual retreat I went to in Louisiana for persons living with HIV. We had the first one in Alabama last year.  Would you like to coordinate the next one and get the clinic to be its sponsor?”

I was still trying to find my way around the clinic and I must have looked like a deer caught in headlights. I said, “That’s great Harry, but I need a few months to get my feet on the ground,”  hoping that I could put him off so that he would forget about it.  I didn’t know about Harry’s persistance.

A few months later he was back in my office and I knew then that I better learn about this spiritual retreat.  He and another patient, Alan, met with me to talk about their ideas, where we could have it, what the retreat should be like, and how our retreat could be “even better.”  They worked out most of the details and invited friends and patients from Alabama and Georgia to attend.  Harry added, “I play the guitar and sing some.  I’ll bring my guitar if you want.”

I learned that Harry was a gifted songwriter and musician who had sung all over the United States. He had written and performed an album called “But I Have Promises to Keep” about what it was like to live with HIV.   Some songs were hilarious, others were sad about the friends he had lost, while others connected one’s heart to the Creator.  All of them were “heart songs.”   When Harry sang, I knew I made the right choice to come home from New England to work in an HIV clinic.

Joe Elmore and I led discussions in the large group during the four-day, three-night Heartsong Retreat at The Bendictine Sisters Retreat Center in Cullman, AL.  The Sisters welcomed us and showered us with love and hospitality.  We asked Harry to sing, a lot.  We also had a talent show, a memorial service to remember those who had died, art activities to express ourselves, and even a bonfire to let go of the grief we were carrying.  I discovered that Heartsong was all about hope.  Heartsong was and is a safe place for persons living with HIV to just be.

Harry’s health changed for the worse the next year. His T-Cell count dropped to 4.  He didn’t lose his sense of humor when he said that he had named all “four of his T-Cells, John, Paul, George, and Ringo.”  He lost weight and became weaker and short of breath.  We developed a “Support Team” from a local church to give him extra support for meals, transportation, tending his flower garden, and friendship.  I wondered if this would be his last Heartsong.

During the next annual retreat, a frail woman introduced herself to Harry.  The two of them had gone to high school together, dated, and had been close friends.  Harry had not recognized her until she spoke because HIV had devastated her body.  They embraced and held one another.  When it came time for the talent show, Harry asked “Holly” if she would come forward with him so that he could sing a song to her he had written about their relationship years before.  Tears flowed.  It was a tender, sacred moment.  Holly died a few months later.

Listen to the song, “Hollywood” that Harry sang to “Holly” at The Heartsong Retreat here.

Another year during one of our retreats, Harry participated in a “journaling workshop” at Heartsong.  He decided to write a letter, “just as an exercise,” to a former employer who had let him go not long after disclosing he was HIV positive.  The letter expressed his forgiveness of his boss, even though it had not been requested.   He decided to mail that letter.  It was a significant turning point in his life.

Over the next few years, Harry got better rather than worse.  He discontinued his disability benefits and got a job full-time at our clinic in the research department, and later moved to another job at UAB where he still works.  We held a “graduation party” for his Support Team at his house because he didn’t need their help in the same way anymore.  He is still friends with many of them a decade later.

Harry still lives in Birmingham, AL with his partner, Vern, of 21 years. He recently said the following about Vern,

“He took care of me when I was sick with AIDS, and I’ve taken care of him when he broke his foot and when he broke his wrist.  We are both ready for less of the “in sickness,” and more of the “and in health!'”

The Alabama Heartsong Retreat has flourished as the 16th annual retreat will be held April 27-30, 2009.   How could Harry have known that more than 750 persons living with HIV would experience Heartsong? When asked why he wanted to start Heartsong so many years ago, he said recently,

“My hopes were that it would help me and others with HIV, and that we could use each others’ strength to find a spiritual connection once again with God.  A lot of people weren’t finding what they needed in organized religion.   Many of us had been wounded by the church.  Since so much of HIV is lonely, a spiritual emphasis is needed to remind us we are not alone.   A neutral spiritual setting is what I hoped for, a safe place where we could discover that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”



Heartsong Stories — Andy

I am thinking about the Alabama Heartsong Retreat  in a few weeks and remembering people who have attended in the past, like “Andy.”

Andy was a handsome Italian man in his 20’s in 1998.  He was a loving father, a devoted son, a caring brother, and a committed life partner.  I remember his health had deteriorated quite a bit and he came to the clinic in a wheelchair.  He was always an optimist and he still cared about whomever he met.  He never sat silently by anyone in the waiting room and before they knew it, he had coached them to keep on living life to its fullest.

Andy looked at me at the clinic that day and said “I’m going to Heartsong in a couple of weeks.” I didn’t see how it would be physically possible for him.  But I told him if he wanted to go, we would help him.  His mother later said he couldn’t go to Heartsong unless Carol Linn, one of our clinic nurses, went with him to give him the daily infusions he needed.  So Carol said she would go if Andy wanted to be there.

When Andy arrived at Heartsong, it was incredible to see participants take the time to help him with various activities. At mealtimes different people carried his tray or pushed his wheelchair.  Everyone wanted to sit by him.  During workshop activities, many were inspired by his willingness to try to participate though his frail body made it difficult.  He had to nap in his room during some sessions so that he would have the strength to come to the large group gatherings.  When Andy spoke in large group, everyone listened.

Kelly Ross-Davis, our Director of Education at the clinic wrote about that experience:

Andy received his care at our clinic.   No, I think Andy taught our clinic about care. While I didn’t often work directly with Andy, I heard the stories of his remarkable courage and uplifting spirit despite the incredible pain in much of his body.

I was privileged to experience Andy’s amazing heart up close.  In our small group, we were tracing the outline of our bodies on a large white paper in an exercise as we defined ourselves from our head to our feet.  Carol and some dear friends patiently and lovingly assisted him as he got out of his wheelchair and laid on his back as we traced his body.  While other participants laughed and relaxed as they worked on their projects, Andy was intently focused on his.  I wondered if it was his way of finding some closure – saying goodbye to his physical body and embracing his eternal soul.

Harry Wingfield, another Heartsong Retreat participant that year, said that when it came time for the “nature walk,” Andy couldn’t go outside, so he stayed behind with him.  Harry added,

We talked about a lot of things related to living with this illness.  But Andy looked up at me and said that he thought he was ready to let go (die), but there were so many people to take care of in his own family, he didn’t know what to do.  He was so tired, but he also didn’t want to let them down.  I suggested to him that maybe it was time to take care of himself and that it would be ok for him to talk to them about it, and to let go if that is what he wanted to do.

One night when Carol was giving Andy his treatment in his room he said he wanted to call his son at home.  This was before cell phones were common and so Carol pushed his wheelchair into the hallway where the one wall phone was located. Carol said,

I sat with him as he called home and asked his partner if his son was already asleep.  I could tell he said yes by the disappointment on his face.  He was already asleep and he would miss talking with him.  And then, Andy asked him if he would put the phone by his son’s face and let him just listen to him breathe for a short time.  After a couple of minutes he hung up and said to me ‘Carol, that is the most beautiful sound in the world to listen to your own son breathe peacefully in his sleep.’  I knew then he was one of the best dads I had ever known.

At the end of the retreat, Andy said to me as he was leaving, “I am at peace now, Malcolm.  I finally have peace.”  His face was beaming.  He really was at peace and he had shared it with all of us.

Just six weeks later, Andy died a couple of days after Easter.

Andy is one of the reasons I go to the Heartsong Retreat every year. And Carol, and Kelly, and Harry also give me hope to return to Heartsong.

You just never know who might give you peace and hope this year.

(More information about how you can help sponsor a retreat participant.)

Heartsong Retreat

heartsong-logoThe Alabama Heartsong Retreat is the most meaningful event that I have ever been involved in on an annual basis.  This will be my 15th year in a row to participate.  In fact, I can’t think of anything I’ve attended for 15 years in a row.

Heartsong is an annual spiritual retreat for persons living with HIV as well as those affected by HIV.   People come from every corner of Alabama and surrounding states of GA, FL, and MS.   This year’s retreat will be our 16th annual retreat on April 27-30, 2009.

Heartsong is a safe place for persons to gather, share, and learn from one another.  For some, it is the first time they have ever said out loud to another, “I am HIV positive.”   They discover they are not alone.   Some persons have been diagnosed for over 20 years, while others found out only in the last month.  Black and white, gay and straight, young and old.  They all show up.   Some come running, others move slowly on their walkers.  All are welcomed with open arms.

Heartsong is an opportunity to listen to one’s own “heart song,” to connect to the Creator and to a community.  The healing power of Heartsong is balm for one’s soul.   It is open to persons of all faiths, those who have lost their faith, and those who have never discovered a faith.

The four day, three night retreat costs $150 per person and includes nine nutritious meals.  Most participants cannot pay anything.  No one is turned away due to inability to pay.  All workshop leaders donate their time.

And that’s where you and I come in. Can you help sponsor a scholarship for one participant?  Whether it is $25, $50, $75, or $150, everything is appreciated.

This is an opportunity to make a difference for someone who is HIV positive in Alabama.

Will you join me by making a donation from you, your family, friends, congregation, or organization?

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of our Heartsong participants.

Please make your check payable to:
UAB 1917 Clinic
“Heartsong Retreat” on the memo line
Mail to:
Malcolm Marler
908 20th ST S, Room 189
Birmingham, AL 35294-2050
Call Malcolm Marler at 205.975.8923
Email mmarler@uab.edu

See brochure here.

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