Hugh was in trouble. He was HIV positive, estranged from his family, barely surviving in terrible accommodation, and had stopped taking his medication.
One day, the district nurse suggested he join the Monday lunch of Melbourne’s Catholic HIV/AIDS ministry. And there he met Marg Hayes and the team behind the weekly meal and social gathering. He found in Marg’s non judgemental and supportive attitude a safe space to talk about his medication decisions and the big questions surrounding death. Before long, Hugh became the BBQ man of his growing group of Monday lunch friends and helpers. He joined the Ministry’s annual retreat, and enjoyed the few days away to reflect, share and celebrate together. With the group’s encouragement, he was even able to cheer at a rugby game and visit the mountains that he so loved. In all this time, Marg accompanied him, and Hugh made her his next of kin.
12 months after having connected with the HIV/AIDS ministry, Hugh passed away through death to life in God’s care. Marg had the privilege of presiding as his funeral celebrant; she was able to commemorate his life and speak of the man she had grown to know well. He was one of her ‘angels in disguise’ as she likes to call them.
Marg was working as chaplain in a privately run prison in 2001 (having previously worked for Catholic Prison Ministry), when she was approached by Fr Ernie Smith about taking up the Catholic HIV/AIDS ministry position at CatholicCare. At the time, it felt right for her to step back from the prisons and into a new field. From earlier employment as a social worker and a pastoral associate, Marg had the right combination of skills, faith and empathy to take this on. In the beginning it was difficult, as she was working by herself, but before long she was able to job-share and create a bit of a team.
The ministry is anchored by the weekly ‘Monday lunch’ where everyone is welcome, good food is served and negative talk just isn’t acceptable. The men and women are referred to the explicitly Catholic program through hospitals, the Positive Living Centre and the Victorian AIDS Council. Marg also does outreach to different services and agencies where she establishes relationships. Sometimes people get referred because they have a religious bent, but there is no requirement to be Catholic or religious at all – it is much more about addressing social isolation.
However, Marg also offers opportunities for people to connect with God and their spirituality. There is the annual retreat and also an annual Mass for World AIDS Day (the 1st of December). One year, Marg started a tradition of coffee and hot cross buns on Good Friday, which concluded with a time of prayer for those who wanted to join. In a surprising way, COVID has also opened up more possibilities for connecting in this way.
When the annual retreat did not fit with COVID restrictions, Marg offered a series of shorter retreat nights. They included prayer and dinner together, which was quite eucharistic. She has also started Friday night Taize Zoom prayer times – a half hour of reflective connection. This has been so successful that they would like to continue beyond the lockdown. In these gatherings, Marg has sometimes been surprised by the people that have wanted to join in – some who have church backgrounds and others who don’t.
It is clearly evident how much those involved with the Catholic HIV/AIDS ministry appreciate Marg’s presence. In a book of stories they created together, Marg is described as “so supportive, non judgemental and open to all.” She always has a “shoulder to cry on” and “sets the tone” of the ministry. What keeps Marg going is knowing that God is part of the work. What drives her is looking for good in the darkest places, and there finding God herself. She feels very lucky to do what she does and to share in the special stories. One of the guys said to her once, “You’re our angel”, but to Marg, they are the real angels.
Commemorate World AIDS Day this December 1 and find out more at: http://www.worldaidsday.org.au