In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a diagnosis of HIV or AIDS was essentially a death sentence. Pharmaceutical representative Patrice White was fresh out of grad school at that time and employed as a social worker for the local hospitals. “It was just awful,” says White of the epidemic then. “We didn’t know anything, and if you had a patient with AIDS, there was not a lot anyone could do for them.”
Around that same time, Scott Blades was looking into joining a church. He was attending services at Saint Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church when a young man named Tim stood up and announced to the congregation that he had been diagnosed with AIDS and that he “needed help and prayers,” says Blades. Despite the stigma surrounding the disease at that time — people didn’t know if simply sitting next to a person with AIDS could cause them to contract the virus, for instance — Blades says that the community quickly took action in any way they could and the foundation of Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network, or TIHAN, was laid.
At first, the organization was set up with volunteers simply going to the homes of people with AIDS and providing them with care during the last months of their lives. But in the 1990s, new medications began coming to market that showed success in suppressing the virus and now, as TIHAN Board Vice President Jill Rich puts it, “the emphasis is on living instead of dying.”
Though people with AIDS can now live longer if given proper treatment, it does not mean an absolute end to the difficulties associated with living with the virus. An uninsured person can spend upwards of $30,000 per year on treatment for HIV/AIDS, for instance, and TIHAN says that roughly half of the people who have the virus are not receiving any medical treatment for the illness, either because they don’t know they have it, or due to financial constraints. So, rather than disbanding or reducing the activities of the organization, TIHAN simply reorganized and began offering programs that focused on making day-to-day living just a little bit easier for Tucson’s population of people with HIV.
“One of the things that we as faith communities love to do is feed people,” says Blades.
TIHAN created a means of doing just that. The monthly event, called Poz Café (short for “positive,” and pronounced “pause”) began in 1999, five years after TIHAN was founded, due to popular demand for more social activities geared toward people with HIV. What started as a potluck dinner for just a handful of people grew into a multi-congregational endeavor that feeds almost 150 people with HIV/AIDS and their guests each month at Saint Francis in the Foothills Church. To make sure the event didn’t develop a dreary “soup-kitchen” or “cafeteria” vibe, Poz Café was organized to include door prizes, gift bags, and even a rousing bingo game after the meal to help keep things light and participants more socially involved. The idea was to create an environment where people living with HIV/AIDS could come and “feel like a part of something, not apart from something,” says Blades.
The program continues to thrive, and it’s now actually the largest regular gathering of people with HIV/AIDS in Southern Arizona. Rich, who is also the social action chair for both Temple Emanu-El and the Jewish Community Relations Council, a program of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, says that although it’s a relatively simple concept, the environment provided by Poz Café is truly invaluable to its guests. While they are not so bad now as they once were, she says, stigmas still associated with the illness often keep people who are HIV/AIDS-positive “living in shame” with “no one to talk to.” Poz Café, she says, provides a safe space that is free of judgment where a person with HIV/ AIDS can “just come, have fun, and be themselves.” TIHAN volunteers tend to be “big into hugs,” adds Rich.
On the third Thursday of every month between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., volunteers from three congregations of different faiths — including synagogues like Temple Emanu-El, Congregation Chaverim, Congregation Or Chadash and Congregation Kol Simchah — get together at Poz Café to serve food, give out prizes, socialize and generally make themselves available to a portion of the estimated 2,400 people in Pima County living with HIV/AIDS (nationally, that figure is close to 1.1 million people). The congregations also provide the funds necessary to buy the food (roughly $1,000 for each event) and run drives to collect goods that can’t be purchased with food stamps (think everyday items like toothpaste, paper towels and all varieties of soaps), which are compiled and given out to café guests in gift bags.
David Vernon, treasurer of Kol Simchah, has volunteered at multiple Poz Café events and, as a second generation Boy Scout, he says that jumping in to serve a meal to a large group of people is nothing new to him. Still, Vernon points out that, due to social stigmas, “in some circles, (people living with HIV/AIDS) are regarded as pariahs.” But he says that their willingness to come and enjoy themselves at the monthly event indicates their ability to “bravely soldier on with their lives come what may,” regardless of the challenges presented to them by the disease.
Soozie Hazan, a member of the social action committee at Or Chadash, has worked at Poz Café each January for the last six years. To her, involvement with the event has been “huge.” Her presence at Poz Café , she says, struck her as “a reminder that in our community of Tucson there are people fighting this fight.” Hazan says she “had no idea” at first how important the event and the goods provided to the Poz Café guests really are. Some guests, she says, “really depend on those [gift] bags each month and so they’re really special to them.” To anyone thinking they might want to get involved at some point, Hazan urges, “Do it. It enriches you; it just makes you feel really good to be able to help.”
Though the level of required volunteer commitment to Poz Café is relatively low, with most congregations contributing to one event a year, White — who volunteered at her first event in March with Congregation Chaverim — says that the payoff is immeasurable, and that she can’t wait for her next Poz Café experience. “For such a little thing, just providing a meal and serving it,” says White, “it was just one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.” Is there a better way to spend a Thursday afternoon in Tucson? Probably not.
For more information on how you can get involved with Poz Café, ask your congregation’s social action committee if they participate, or check out TIHAN.org.
Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.