Beauty, Wonder & Gratitude

On June 24, the Joseph’s House community, joined by neighbors and friends, dedicated our new healing garden. These remarks were delivered by Scott Sanders, Deputy Director.

At the entrance to the garden is a plaque with the words of the activist Vito Russo from 1988, some of the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic. He said, “Someday, the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day has come and gone, there will be people alive on this earth — gay people and straight people, men and women, black and white – who will hear the story that once there was terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave their lives so that other people might live and be free.”

Today we remember hundreds of those men and women. Men and women who lived and died in this house. Men and women who were our teachers and our beloved friends, for some of you they were your child, your mother or father, brother or sister, niece or nephew; for many, they were your neighbors. These men and women knew well the deep injury of stigma and the profound sorrow of a life ending too soon. Their deaths were not only the products of a vicious virus or an insidious cancer, their deaths were also the results of poverty and racism, homophobia and transphobia, sexism, mass incarceration, and violence of all kinds.

“We remember them,” as Alice Walker said, “because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die. The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrow, is always a measure of what has gone before.”

Today we remember them and we dedicate this garden to their memory. Many of those we remember today found peace and healing in their time at Joseph’s House. It is our deep hope that this garden, too, will become a place for healing. And a place to remember those who in life were too often forgotten or discarded. Let this be, for them, a place of honor and love.

Walking beside these men and women were hundreds of caregivers, those who chose, and still choose, to turn toward the suffering, rather than away from it. Men and women like the founders here with us today, David and Marja Hilfiker and Lois Wagner. They dreamed of a beloved community coming together across race and class. They have been followed by a long line of caring and compassionate men and women, whose service to some of this city’s most vulnerable and hurting residents deserves recognition. This garden, too, is dedicated to them.

We honor those who have lived and served at Joseph’s House by marking this sacred ground as a place for healing and solace for the thousands of people affected by HIV in this city over the past 36 years.

There are many, many people to thank for the creation of the garden.

Scott Walzak and Gregory Wilkie of MakeDC turned our ideas for the garden into a beautiful, workable design. As a part of their commitment to supporting Washington DC non-profits, they donated hundreds upon hundreds of hours to create this design and help us navigate the DC approval process.

Our partners at United Bank, including Joe LeMense, who helped us finance this dream and are great partners with non-profit organizations across the city.  Our key foundation partners for this project including the Philip L. Graham Fund, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the William S. Abel Foundation, the Van Metre Companies Foundation, St. Alban’s Parish, and hundreds of individual donors, many of whom are here today.

Our ANC Commissioner Wilson Reynolds. I so wish that Wilson could be here today but he has another commitment for his day job with the DC government. Wilson was a great ally and source of encouragement throughout this process. I am convinced that he knows someone in every DC government office and whenever we hit a roadblock, he connected me with someone who could help us find a solution. Our Councilmember Brianne Nadeau wholeheartedly offered the support of her office and she and her team were a tremendous help at pivotal points in the process.

The HIV/AIDS office the Department of Health has supported our work throughout our existence. Our doors would not be open today without their support and the support of the Council of the District of Columbia under the leadership of Chairman Phil Mendelson, and we are deeply grateful for these partnerships.

Many people dreamed of this garden, and it was D & A Dunlevy that built it. Blake Dunlevy and his team stuck with us through the long approval process and were committed to building a garden that met our expectations. They were industrious, flexible, and creative in finding solutions to challenges that arose. We would like thank everyone at Dunlevy, including all the work crews, Tracy Meekins and Josh Byrne, the incredible carpenter who crafted all of the wood work you see, including the beautiful benches.

Our neighbor Jeff Catts of Washington Parks and People developed a planting plan to create a woodland garden that takes advantage of our site and then did the plantings with his crew, often stopping by on his way to and from work, to make adjustments, move things around, and keep pace of the progress.

Our community member Phil Brooks is in the garden every morning keeping the plants watered and the garden clean and tidy. Phil’s hard work and the love he shows for the garden reflect his belief in the work we do here and its importance in his life. It is the type of love that has sustained us all these years.

The type of love and welcome this neighborhood has offered for the past 27 years. In 1990, when Joseph’s House opened, there was a lot of meanness towards people with HIV. There were neighborhoods that said “not in our backyard.” That was never the case here. This neighborhood has always been welcoming, friendly, and hospitable and that is a tribute to its history and its people.

While much of this garden’s history was written right here, other parts were written far away, including in my parents’ home in Atlanta. It was in caring for my mother as she died that put me on a path that brought me to Joseph’s House. She was a great lover of gardens and she planted that seed in me; a seed that flourishes here today. This garden would not exist had my mother not lived and died as she did. One never knows the legacy of one’s life and my mother would never have imagined this as a part of hers. I trust that she is watching us today. I am grateful that my father and stepmother are here with us today along. They are great friends and supporters of Joseph’s House and of this garden, and were sources of encouragement during the construction process.

Finally, the garden is a testament to my friend and colleague Patty Wudel who has loved and nurtured this home for most of its life. Patty believes in beauty. She fights for beauty. She knows the ability of beauty to heal all of us. Her belief in the importance of this garden never wavered and it would not have moved from vision to reality without her consistent support, encouragement, and enthusiasm.

we are living in mean times and we need places for healing. This garden is a reflection of our deeply held values of welcome, serenity, and beauty. We believe that neighborliness, generosity, and open hearts do make a difference and we must be intentional about nurturing them.

While this garden is tribute to what has come before, it is rooted in the present and looks to the future. It was built to be a place for living. A space for contemplation, conversation, and celebration. A space for music and poetry, a spot to strike up a conversation with an old friend or make a new one.  A place to visit with family, to play chess, or, simply to pause. As the inscription on one of the benches reads, “Come, find a place of rest in the middle of things.”

Those are the words of our friend and teacher Frank Ostaseski. Frank has taught us much of what we know about how to be present to living and to dying. Recently, he was reflecting on his experiences with the dying and what they have taught him. He said, “In Japan, cherry blossoms are in abundance each spring. In Idaho, outside the cabin where I teach, blue flax flowers live for a single day. Why do such flowers appear so much more magnificent than plastic ones? Isn’t it the fragility, the brevity, and the uncertainty of life that captivates us, invites us into beauty, wonder, and gratitude?”

My friends, whoever you are and wherever you are on your life’s journey, it is our deepest hope that this garden will invite you in to beauty, wonder, and gratitude.

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