I don’t know when exactly it was that I realized that I wasn’t going to be an opera singer, but I do know when I realized I was going to be a pastor.
Growing up in Montana, church was my favorite place to be and my favorite thing to do there was sing. It seemed that singing was my gift, so with one degree in music under my belt, I moved to Maryland to begin a master’s degree in opera. I worked my way through my graduate school by being a soloist in a large synagogue, a director of music at a Baptist church and working at the University Bookstore where I met a cashier who would one day be my husband.
In 1994 my husband and I were married and moved to NYC so that I could pursue a career in opera.In choir, they were not “men living with AIDS.” They were musicians and not every part of them was sick.
I’d lived in the city for nearly a year when I received news that a college friend in the mid-west, Patrick, had AIDS. He wasn’t HIV positive, not early diagnosis, but full blown, not-much-time-left to live AIDS. This was the ‘90s and even though it was not the domino-tipping number of deaths that scarred the ‘80s, it was still a disease that would most likely kill you.
Patrick hadn’t told anyone that he had AIDS. He had suffered alone and none of us had had the opportunity to be a friend to him when he was sick. I needed to respond in some way. I wasn’t able to be there for Patrick, but maybe I could be there for someone else.
After Patrick’s funeral, I decided to started a choir at Gay Men’s Health Crisis for men living with AIDS.
I had lots of big ideas for my choir. We would sing all over the city as ambassadors for GMHC. We would make great music and educate people as to the humanity and real people behind the disease. But the men let me know in no uncertain terms that they were not interested in being poster children for AIDS. Most of them were not even out about their HIV status to many of their friends and family. They had a much better idea: Let’s just sing.
So we met on Monday nights. I was hoping for some beautiful four-part choral music, but they preferred Broadway tunes. I worked on teaching them good breathing technique and how to listen to one another. I taught them how to read music and sing in harmony, and I had two rules: 1. No coming to rehearsal drunk or high. 2. No talking about your white cell count or meds. In choir, they were not “men living with AIDS.” They were musicians and not every part of them was sick. Some part of them was healthy and strong and ready to sing.
I loved those rehearsals and I loved those men. In the years that we were together we sadly lost a couple of our members, and when you lose members of a chorus, the absence of their voices is palpable; suddenly the chord is smaller and the harmony much thinner. In that same time, a new combination of drugs referred to as “the cocktail” was made available and though the side affects were awful, it was working for some men. It was a tenuous strand of hope we all seemed to be hanging onto.
Three years into our work together, I became pregnant with my son and the most amazing thing happened. For the first time I heard them talking about the future. They were talking about all that they were going to teach my son. They broke it gently to me that I was a terrible dancer, so they would have to take over in that area and teach this boy how to dance.
When my son Satchel was a few weeks old, I brought him to choir rehearsal and he was passed from one to another. They smiled and cooed. They smelled his head and kissed his chubby cheeks. My beautiful choir; my men who had been thrown away by family members and friends and sometimes even their churches were talking about the future instead of worrying about who would take care of them when they were dying.
One night when we were leaving rehearsal, a man named Charles and I were the last ones to leave. We hugged goodbye just like we always did and turned to walk our separate ways home. When both of us were a good half-a-block away, Charles turned and yelled to me, “Cheri! Call me this week!” And I yelled back, “Why?” And he answered, “Call me and tell me that you love me!”
And I did.
Less than a year later I was enrolled at Union Seminary and on my way to becoming a minister. Seminary is a tough road. It is a field of study that is intended to shake your spiritual foundation. It makes you ask the existential as well as the everyday questions of life like, “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” But the most important question that I work to answer in my ministry is “Am I loved?” And to answer “Yes, yes, yes!”
I became a minister because God spoke to me every Monday night through 10 brave and beautiful men who loved to sing. I became a minister because God doesn’t throw people away and I’m called to embody that message and live it out every day.