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The Cardinals' Blessing

Male Cardinal and AIDS Ribbon

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:26)

New York City has been my home for 25 years. I was living here when HIV/AIDS first gained a toehold in the early 1980s. Who at that time could have imagined how many people's lives this disease would claim? About 20 years later, I was in my apartment on the upper westside of Manhattan when the World Trade Center collapsed and thousands died. Gray and white smoke billowed up from that mass grave. The foreboding clouds could be seen for miles.

Like many in our country, especially those who lost friends and family or live closest to the September 11 disaster sites, I have spent time grieving, feeling afraid, and reflecting on my life-- where I have been and want go in the near and distant future. Mortality has sat down right in front of me and peered coldly into my eyes. I hope I have a distant future.

Death first appeared dramatically before me when several friends died of AIDS. Back then, as I learned more about this disease and the projected deaths in New York, the United States, and the world, I felt overwhelmed. Most of the people upon whom I tried to impress this frightening information seemed either not to care or did not want to touch an illness associated with sex and drugs. Nevertheless a remnant of concerned people were working to stave off this impending disaster.

Beyond New York, fewer people cared about the epidemic that was spreading here. Some saw AIDS as God's judgment on certain groups of people and even on the city itself. What a difference September 11 has made in attitudes toward New York City. The outpouring of love and concern truly has been touching. I have felt comforted, as have millions of others.

On September 15, 2001 I was impressed by these words about how people with AIDS could help in the aftermath:

"...the gift we can offer is our extensive experience with grief. We have all lost so many it is difficult to go to another memorial service, but yet we go, because we must keep on living. We go because we know how to grieve. We are intimate with this present pain.... We can offer our valuable experience with the pain of loss and the knowledge of grief survival. We can give our support in this way, perhaps more so than any other group of people.

"We know that we are always in the presence of God in life and in death."1

I too learned how to grieve because of the AIDS epidemic. Probably I need to learn even more about how to grieve.

Dealing with fear and anxiety is even more difficult. For me, the first couple weeks after the disaster were the worst; I can't imagine how it has been for the people who lost friends, colleagues, and loved ones. I suffered nightmares and other sleep disturbances. One night thunder clapped and I bolted awake thinking it was a bomb.

Near the end of September, I visited a friend upstate for about a week. I was glad to leave the city; I simply did not feel safe. I arrived at my friend's house just after dusk. As I got out of the car, I heard my favorite birds, the cardinals, calling, but I also detected distress in their voices. I feared that maybe a cat was after them. I followed the sound but to no avail; it was too dark to find them.

Not until the next day did I discern the real situation. I had been correct that the bird songs reflected distress but wrong to believe that the cardinals were in danger. The sounds I had heard the night before were the insistent cries of three hungry fledglings! Now I saw the young ones sitting in a row on the branch of an oak tree, mouths wide open. They looked like the proverbial birds in the wilderness waiting to be fed.

In cardinal families, the male does most of the feeding while mother stays in the nest. They mate for life and care jointly for the young. Now that the babies were out and about, both parents were feeding their noisy brood.

I laughed at the fledglings, whose downy immature feathers were a mottled brown and red. Though they were pretty big, they had not yet gained all of the outward characteristics of adult cardinals. The funniest baby had a wispy cowlick sticking up on the top of his head instead of a fully developed crest.

Even as I enjoyed the cardinals, the pall of September 11 hung heavily over me. I thought about new life in the midst of death. These three new lives, which emerged from eggs about the time that smoke began to rise above New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, seemed minuscule next to 2,800 human deaths.2 I envied the cardinals because their world, unlike mine, was the same as it had been. The birds were not grieving; they did not worry about bombs, biological attacks, or the threat of HIV.

Because of AIDS, every day is September 11 in Africa. 6,575 people on that continent and 1,650 more people from the rest of the world die of this disease each day.3 Although they do not die suddenly in a single place within a single hour like those who were in the World Trade Center, humanity is diminished by their loss just as it was diminished by the deaths in the twin towers. Thousands of children lost parents on September 11; millions of children have been orphaned because of AIDS.

As I watched the cardinal family and reflected on these things, I was reminded of a scripture passage, "'Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? ... So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.'" (Matthew 6:26-27, 34).

When I was a child, I regarded these verses as beautiful and comforting, but now the words "do not worry about tomorrow" do not soothe me. I have discovered, however, that I am comforted by watching adult cardinals care for their young and seeing fledglings hop about on tree branches and try their wings. Jesus said, "Look at the birds of the air..."

I looked at the birds of the air and I saw. The cardinals gave me a blessing. I returned to New York City, more relaxed than when I had left.

Another message in Jesus' teaching about seeing the birds is God's love for all creatures, both great and small, and particularly for humanity. God cares for us... therefore we are to care for ourselves and others, including those who are the "least of these" in society.

Barnswallow BirdLove is more powerful than fear, more powerful than hate. We are but fledglings in love compared to God, who has been likened to a mother bird in scripture (Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11). We need time and practice to move us toward perfection in love. Those of us who ministered with others in response to a variety of needs have experienced love's power. Those of us who have covenanted to care for people with AIDS and their families know that love is more powerful than death. The power of caring also has been illustrated dramatically in the compassionate responses toward those most affected by the attacks on September 11. Before this time, who could have imagined, for example, a joint media broadcast around the world of a fund raiser for the victims? Most people, when they know about crucial needs of others, particularly in a disaster, want to help. We have seen that clearly these past few months.

I invite you to reach out to another and to communicate that you care about them and about the devastation caused by AIDS. You can do that locally, through state and national organizations, and you can do that globally through The United Methodist Church.

I also invite you to go outside and watch the birds, whether they are cardinals, sparrows, chickadees, swallows, or eagles. Look at the birds of the air, see how they fly, and know that you are loved by God.

The Rev. Dr. Nancy A. Carter, a clergy member of New York Annual Conference, was the web system operator for Health & Welfare Ministries and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, General Board of Global Ministries when she wrote this reflection.

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1 Excerpted from an email message from W. Maxwell Lawton, posted September 15, 2001, to Computerized AIDS Ministries (CAM), a private electronic discussion group sponsored by General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church. Used by permission of the author.
2 Figure updated, September 2002. At the time this reflection was originally written in October 2001, the number of dead from the world trade center disaster was estimated to be 5,000 people.
3 Based on UNAIDS statistics for the year 2000.