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.
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.”