MY AIDS EXPERIENCE
After this training, I was a chaplain at two hospitals in Syracuse, NY from1980-1984 and then spent five years at St. Peter/s Medical Center in New Brusnswick, NJ. It was at St. Peter’s Medical Center that I met my first AIDS patient in the mid-80’s. At this time when a person entered the hospital with a diagnosis of AIDS, it was a death sentence
When I walked into the room of my first AIDS patient I was aware of my fear and a sense of powerlessness. I fumbled through the visit somehow, but certainly did not feel I was pastoral. This was very similar to the first visit, I mentioned earlier, at the start of my Chaplaincy training. So I sat with the experience for a long time. If I was to continue this ministry, I had to get help. I had to educate myself.
I sought help from the only outreach organization in the State of New Jersey at the time – the Hyacinth Foundation. An organization created by gay men to care for their own and teach others about the disease. And so I learned about AIDS and in the process went through their Buddy training program as well, and volunteered to be a Buddy to someone with AIDS.
This person turned out to be a man, named Leonce Chabernaud, He was a gay man from Texas and was also a drug user. He became my teacher and transformed my life in many ways.
I learned about his life and the pain of losing ALL one’s friends to the disease. I learned about enabling and being manipulated and I learned about the pain of addiction. This man was determined to become clean before he died, to find a relationship, to become an actor, to come out publicly so as to make a difference, to fight the stigmatization and educate kids about the epidemic on how to be safe. Quite an agenda for himself.
He became the actor he always wanted to be and became part of the AIDS Theater Project in 1988 and was part of the initial group to put on a play about AIDS and bring it to the schools in NYC. And after the play the actors would sit on the stage and just wrap with the kids . Who knows how many lives they saved.
Because of people like him, I felt drawn to do more for the AIDS community. So I left the hospital in 1989 and became Director of an outreach program for people with AIDS for the Diocese of Metuchen in New Jersey. I attended a conference in Washington, DC, which was focusing on AIDS in the religious communities and The priesthood. I was shocked to see the panel speakers literally wear paper bags over their heads for fear their Bishop or Religious superior would know who they were.
I met the man who organized the conference. His name was Lou Tesconi. Lou was a lawyer from Texas who had sold his practice and joined the Carmelites, a religious order of priests, only to discover a few months later that he was HIV positive and found himself on the street not knowing what to do with his life. He created a residence for people like himself, on the street with AIDS and nowhere to go. He also created a non-profit organization called Damien Ministries and offered a 4 day retreat program for people with AIDS inviting people from anywhere in the United States to come to Washington and spend 4 days together for support.
Lou invited me to attend these retreats and it was to change my AIDS ministry in a huge way. I wanted to offer services to the AIDS community that no one else was offering in New Jersey. I studied to become a massage practitioner and heard of a chaplain offering Reiki to AIDS patients in San Francisco which motivated me to search for a Reiki Master and attend a Level I training. I then used the model of Damien Ministries and created a non-profit organization called Chrysalis Ministry and with Lou Tesconi’s help brought similar retreat programs to New Jersey.
All of this led me to leave my work with the Diocese and work full time as the Director of Chrysalis Ministry in 1994. I went to different AIDS Coalitions in the State and offered the services of Chrysalis Ministry to them. These services included pastoral visits to wherever the AIDS patient was; massage and Reiki sessions to those open to receive it; and four day retreat programs. That is really where we got the name for our non-profit. These retreat programs were geared towards creating a chrysalis – a safe pace for people to be – at no cost to them.
These retreats were transformative for everyone who volunteered to make them happen and for those who made the courageous step to attend. People literally came out of hiding: some were homeless, some in AIDS residences, some from shelters, some were teachers, some were clergy, some from Wall Street. They all had something in common and they healed each other. We did this three times a year for 12 years for 60 people at a time.
We invited different presenters over the years, always had small groups so people could share their story and receive support, offered massage and Reiki to everyone, always had a healing circle to remember those who had died – where people were able to share publicly for the first time the names of lost loved ones in this safe environment. And we had fun times as well – people were able to live their lives once again without fear and shame in this environment.
I would like to share one story which gives a glimpse of the power of these gatherings. I ran a support group in Perth Amboy and at one point I realized that one man, lets call him Bob, stopped coming to the the support group because of the presence of gay men there. He was just very homophobic. I never pushed him, but I did tell him about the retreat program, as I knew he was getting sicker and may benefit from the experience. One day he let me know he would like to attend.
We had a thing we did at the beginning of the retreat, where each person drew a name and that person was what we called your prayer partner. You had to keep that name secret and during the retreat you would pray for him/her and do little acts of kindness towards the person. All in secret. Also you were asked to make a gift for them from the arts and crafts table which would be given to that person at the the last exercise of the retreat.
So on the last day, we are in this large circle with 60 people and each person would get up and say something about his/her prayer partner and give them a gift. Well, the biggest Queen in the group got up and walked towards Bob. He went up and stood in front of him and told him how much he had thought of him during the retreat and how much he loved him. He then took a necklace from around his neck, and said how precious the necklace was to him. It had been given to him by his grandmother, and he wanted Bob to have it. He then placed it around his neck and gave him a big hug. Bob and all 60 of us were blown away. Special things always happened during those days.
I use to go to AIDS clinics in the hospitals and when the clients came in to see their doctor, they could come before or after their appointment, to receive a Massage or Reiki session. I also did this during support groups at different venues. A person could leave the session and step in for a half hour treatment.
At one of these sessions I gave Reiki to a man who had mental health issues and was struggling with drug addiction as well. At the end of the session, he was in a very different state, not attributable to any substance he had taken. He told me he had had the most spiritual experience he had ever had. He was unable to expand on that any further – but was visibly affected. Reiki did that – it brought people to a different place – a peaceful, quiet, deep place. Quite profound.
I also use to visit AIDS patients in the hospital who were at the end of life. One particular person, I remember was in pain when I was visiting and I offered Reiki to him. After a few minutes he told me that the pain had dissipated. I was as surprised as he. It certainly helped me begin to realize that it is not about my experience, but what the person is experiencing that counts. Later whenever I walked into the room he would say “here comes my pain medication.” I often thought the nurses must think I was sneaking something to him.
I use to go to Bailey House in Greenwich Village which was an AIDS Residence housing some 20-30 people and spent the day there offering massage and Reiki. They were incredibly responsive to the sessions as the disease had made them “the untouchables” – their bodies covered with the purple blotches from the kaposi sarcoma.
Leonce,who was homeless for a while, was eventually able to live at Bailey House and from there he got an apartment of his own. Leonce then found a relationship and moved to Washington, DC where he died a couple of years later. I was able to facilitate his memorial service at Bailey House and publicly acknowledge the role he played in my life.
I had open heart surgery in 2001 and had to close Chrysalis Ministry. At times I felt there was a connection between the incredible number of people who died during that 12 year period of time and my heart failure. I remember once holding Leonce after he learned of the death of another friend, as he sobbed in my arms for over twenty minutes. The loss of his friend was just a last straw which opened up his heart to grieve for the hundreds of those he had lost. Towards the end of this ministry, I found I was experiencing similar reactions. When someone I hardly knew died, I would find myself sobbing. And I then knew the depth of grief that multiple deaths can cause.
I had open heart surgery in 2001 and had to close Chrysalis Ministry. These years with Chrysalis were the most significant years of my life. I felt this was why I was on the planet earth. One of my later teachers taught me that when you truly serve there is no giver and no receiver. I always felt this ministry to be a total gift.
To see people totally rejected by family, church, and friends, courageously living their own truth and facing their own deaths at such an incredibly young age, with such dignity, are images that stay with me and are very humbling.
And I discovered that Reiki had a profound effect on people. It made me want to learn more about it. It was then I began to search for teachers to pursue Level II and Level III and Mastership.
Bill Stevens is a Christian Brother who taught in their schools for 25 years before working for 10 years in three different hospitals as a Chaplain. This led him to work with the HIV/AIDS community for the next 12 years during which time he created a non-profit organization called Chrysalis Ministry to reach out to those affected by this epidemic. He learned Reiki at this time which started him on his 20 year journey with Reiki. He presently is a Reiki Master and has taught Reiki for the past ten years and studied with seven Reiki Masters. He presently works with the VNA Hospice in Central Jersey as a Reiki practitioner and was recognized by the NJHPCO in 2010 as Hospice Reiki Practitioner of the Year.
Bill is a Shinpiden Reiki III graduate of the International House of Reiki and is a Reiki teacher and practitioner for the Shelter Animal Reiki Association which was founded to bring Reiki to animal shelters across the country.