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Precious moments with the dying

Sun 14 Mar 2004 In: HIV

Michael Bancroft looks back on the late 1980s - the last time New Zealand HIV infection rates were as shocking as they are now - and reflects on the humanity behind the statistics in a conversation with Chris Banks. Since the AIDS Epidemiology Group released the news last week that 93 men were diagnosed HIV+ in 2003, emotions have been running high, especially for those for whom the figures made a deeply saddening emotional connection. For Michael Bancroft, they're far more than just numbers on a page. Armed with the knowledge that these figures are the worst since the early 90s, they take him back to a time when, in his capacity as a Catholic priest, he ministered to dozens of men – the individuals whose tragedies make up the plotting points on the epidemiology graph. Bancroft's experiences mirror those of a large number of men and women whose religious calling talk them to bedsides and gravesides during the late 1980s, the last time the HIV epidemic peaked in our community. He was ordained as a priest in 1987, and says he knew he was gay at the time “but I wasn't revealing that because it wasn't appropriate for priests to say ‘I'm gay'”. His journey began the following year when the current Bishop of Auckland, Denis Brown, asked him if he'd become a member of the Interfaith AIDS Ministry Network, a group of clergy from various mainstream churches who cared for people living with HIV, and those dying of AIDS. “To me that was great because I could get involved with HIV and AIDS but it also meant I had – I'll call it now – a cover for being involved with gay people. Very soon after that I started to get to know HIV+ people.” Within a year he had conducted his first AIDS-related funeral. It was to be the first of many. “Probably the second or third funeral that I took someone came up to me and said ‘You did a damn good job on that funeral, Michael. Can I book you in for mine?' And as it turned out, I did - about four years later. I know it sounds strange, but I got a reputation for doing good funerals.” Over the next four years, they came almost to dominate his work. “In my parish work and among people in general that I knew, I would probably have conducted approximately 40 church-related funerals each year. From 1991-94, I was involved with just on 100 AIDS-related funerals in addition to that. So that's about 25 a year, one every couple of weeks.” Most of the men Bancroft ministered to were not Catholic, but the comfort he provided during these times went beyond the rigid doctrines which continue to alienate many gay men from the church. “I think the aspect of illness and the fact that people were confronted with dying meant that some of the realities of their spirit became more important than whether or not they had money, possessions and so on. I was able to be someone that they could reflect their spirituality off... It didn't seem to matter to people that I was a Catholic priest, and I was seen for the person I was. I could identify without, in any way, seeming to want to push religion down people's throats. No one ever accused me of doing that.” The cycle of funerals took its toll on the gay community during that time. “Even the sense of hope that people had was not so great because of the numbers who were dying, numbers who were sick, and the limited amount of possibilities for treatment,” he remembers “Psychologically a lot of them gave up. I think they actually started to die psychologically long before their bodies did. There were people all the time attending funerals. You'd get there, hug each other, another tear would be shed, and say ‘well, we've lost another friend'. Some people literally said to me, ‘well one day, Michael, you're gonna be up there and it'll be my box you're standing in front of'. They talked like that. And, in some cases, within weeks or months that literally was it. Some were too sick to go to their closest friends funerals themselves.” The community response at the time was huge, and the support networks flourished. HIV treatment drugs are failing many positive people now and Bancroft is concerned that we may be unprepared for a second wave of sickness, as the lessening impact of HIV/AIDS in the late ‘90s saw many resources disappearing because they were no longer needed. He is also concerned that the safe sex message has taken a back seat. “Education is definitely missing now. I think one of the things we did right ten years ago was not just putting the message out there in the gay community and in the venues, but we were going to schools, clubs and various groups by invitation. There were ads on TV, there were articles in newspapers, and even if it was shock value there was always something coming up about AIDS.” Bancroft acknowledges that material relating to HIV/AIDS prevention is to be found in virtually every gay venue in the country, but somehow the message still isn't getting through. “People who know my involvement [with HIV] will say we never see or hear anything now. So, while the fact of the matter is that the majority being affected are men who have sex with men, the general public seem to think it has gone away, and I think that maybe that's caught on in the gay know, ‘oh well, we had all those deaths all those years ago it's kinda gone away now, we've got all these drugs now, its OK...'” Bancroft is no longer in the priesthood, but he carries his memories of those times with him in a personal journal entitled “AIDS In Memory – Precious Moments With The Dying”. It contains photographs, thoughts, newspaper obituaries, snippets of conversation, dates and times of passing, names, and most importantly, a sense of humanity and people who each have their own story to tell. “I am 42, I am gay, I have AIDS, I am a Catholic, I haven't been to church for 25 years, will you help me to die? I've had a good life. I don't want any doom and gloom.” We prayed with him till 11.15pm. He died at 11.45pm.” “Kevin sent for me (Ward 9C) [the old infectious diseases ward at Auckland Public Hospital] 6.30pm. ‘What do you want Kevin?' ‘Just hold my hand'. He talked non-stop for an hour about what he wanted for his funeral then said, ‘that's it you can go'. He went into a coma at 9pm and died within 12 hours”. “Perhaps we could say a prayer...”“Now, Mark?”“No, when you come on Sunday.” Mark died on Saturday night (28 years old). “'Could you ‘lend' me a few dollars? Could you spare me a packet of smokes?' What would you like most Jason? – a man! Sorry Father I shouldn't say things like that to you. Could we pray please? I really appreciate everything you do for me. I'm determined I'm going to get out of this bed and fire some fucking sky rockets on Guy Fawkes Day [it was cold and wet but Jason got his wish]. He died later that month (24 years old) The former Father Michael says he is an optimist, despite his experiences. He says there was never a time when he couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel, but that in no way diminishes the intensity of the tragedies he witnessed, something we may well be facing again. “I suppose the thing that hits me most apart from the sheer number of people who died was the age of them. So many guys in their 20s and 30s. In this day and age we can expect to live till we're 70 or 80. To see all these potentially long lives, good lives, all gone, finished. I don't think I could ever get used to seeing so many young faces lying in a box.” - 14th March 2004    


First published: Sunday, 14th March 2004 - 12:00pm

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