In the winter of 2004, I dropped into a Sunday service of The Denver Church of Religious Science at 1420 Ogden. To my surprise, there was a small dark room peppered with normal looking folks all hugging teddy bears of all colors and sizes, some bears in bow ties and some bears in leather vests and chaps. Everyone was listening to this guy (turned out to be Jim Chandler) giving what must have been a sermon. It was the bear-hug service. It felt as if I had stumbled onto the set of a “Will and Grace” taping. It was completely surreal and I hope I never forget it. Here’s a tiny blurb I found about Bearhug Service.
On Valentine’s Day, our little messengers will make their final trip to Hospice. Each hospice resident will have the opportunity to select their special bear – a bear to be there even when their family or caregivers cannot. A bear to give them comfort on their journey from this life expression. The caregivers at Hospice who give so much from their heart will also choose their bear, to fill their hearts again with our love. And, any family members or friends of those in care may choose a bear to help mend their hearts at this time of loss.
The next time I saw/met Jim Chandler was when a friend and I were looking for a space to house a recovery meeting for meth users. There was another genre of recovery meeting that has just moved into the Ogden location and it seemed perfect. Jim was a complete advocate to get us clearance to use the space. He talked about how many of his gay male church members continued to struggle with meth issues, many to the point of devastation of their lives. He indicated he felt it was like a plague and wanted to help with more than just lip service. It turned out he took quite a bit of flack from his board. Many were not at all happy that tweakers would be roaming the halls of the church in the evenings unsupervised. Those meetings that started in those days are still going strong and it is not completely known how many Denver gay men (and others) that have been supported in finding their way back into a healthier lifestyle. He would never have acknowledged it, but it was because of Jim Chandler that gay men in recovery from crystal meth had easier access to find their own sober voices.
These are my experiences with Jim Chandler. He did a lot more than this for our community without fanfare and without a calling card. He didn’t always require grant money and he didn’t require research strategies to do outreach and help provide services. He was not perfect by any means, but he was a valuable and colorful member of the Denver central HIV community.
When I started this newsletter, I immediately asked him to contribute. He always did, without reservation- something I struggle to get service providers who get paid very good salaries to care for HIVsters to do. He sent article after article peppered with his own brand of idealism and religious science. I was truly saddened to hear about his transition. And I am still sad. I feel for his longtime companion Steve. I guess I will continue to have a bear hug service for the both of them.
Surprisingly, the TEN (Treatment Education Network) newsletter is still going strong. We are halfway through our 4th year and the content gets stronger. I still think it important for PLWH in Colorado to have visible proof that other people live with HIV and lead positive and happy, healthy lives-especially in rural Colorado. It must feel so isolating to be among so few. This was the initial purpose for the creation of this publication- to reassure all the readers that indeed there are everyday folks who have moved past the stun and the stigma and have gone on with their lives.
The 30th anniversary of HIV in America is probably a good time to reflect on all that has changed. If you know someone who may be challenged by their situation, please forward this to them. Maybe it will make a difference. In honor of my own 26 years of knowingly living with HIV, I am posting a vid of Carol Burnett singing Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here”. MWAH!