You, Me & Sunnie Rose Berger
Life Group LA is Magical, Practical and Essential for Living
by Corey Saucier
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he room is approximately 400 square feet. It’s a basic white-walled room that you can rent from the city at a public park for a nominal fee. There are folded tables and chairs and a simple collection of fruit, water, and doughnuts in the front, near the glass-door entrance. It’s late in the evening and the moon has just begun whispering her eternal secrets to the stars in the sky; and they are twinkling and giggling at all the lovely things she says…. The room is packed with people: fifty to 100 folks of all races, sizes, genders, sexualities, and eye colors; and some of us are really sick… The room is glowing. If you were standing across the street the shimmering glass windows would be luminous: glowing from the inside out like some giant lantern in the night leading the lost back home. And from inside the room, it is like everything is covered in this invisible sticky-sweet joyful phosphorescence—as if fairy magic, or angel mist, or soul dust was sprinkled generously all around. There is a buzz like the warm murmur of a dryer on its last cycle, and everyone is sitting in a circle. The circle is huge. The circle is kindergarten style: Everyone sitting on the white tiled floor, feet facing in, like some ancient tribal sharing circle. People are scrunched in together trying to make room; some people are holding hands gently, shyly—hands cradling each other with tender care. Some people are leaning their heads on the next person’s shoulder like you would your brother or your sister just before a good movie starts: Cozy, comfy, and content. And some people are quietly waiting for their turn…
There is an orange being passed around—rolled around. A ripe, bright navel orange about the size of a plush Valentine’s heart you would give to your dear darling beloved. And someone has rolled it in my direction. It moves quickly with purpose and then slowly gingerly giving me time to collect my thoughts. And then the room with all its bubbling energy slowly focuses on me. The moon quiets down to listen to what I have to say, and the stars look on tentatively. I pick up the orange. Pass it from hand to hand, hold it in my lap and fiddle with it nervously. I take a deep breath to speak, but almost immediately I begin to cry. I am overwhelmed with joy and gratitude—and the light and love in the room has seeped into my deep dark skin—and I can feel my T-cell numbers rise—and the words are falling from my lips faster than I can form them.
“Thank you for this, Sunnie,” I say finally. “I have done this three times before, and every time I come back, I am affected the same way. There must be something fundamental that I am missing that you, this space, and this circle provides.” By now the tears are pouring from my face and I’ve started to snot; my words are barely intelligible. I’ve gone into full fledged ugly cry. I’m 5’10, 200 pounds with a big burly beard, and I am crying like a baby in front of fifty other people. “I have been HIV-positive for fifteen years,” I push on, “And have been a client with most of the billion dollar agencies that pass out red ribbons once a year, but I have never felt from an HIV organization something as beautiful and as healing as this weekend. It is invaluable.” And the others in the circle are nodding in agreement. “Thank you for this Sunnie,” I say again, wiping my face with the orange in my left hand.
And somewhat off to the side—not in the center of the circle, but not out of the circle either—she is standing next to a little cluster of rainbow glitter volunteers. And she is tiny and brown-haired and humbly unassuming with a smile that is warm and open like a really good hug. And she shrugs her shoulders and blushes; and takes it in, because I am holding the orange, and it is not her turn to talk. And I hope she hears me because the world needs more of this…. This big mean scary world needs more of what’s in this room. And more people like her.
She is the real thing.
Sunnie Rose Berger is the co-founder and executive director of The Life Group LA (www.thelifegroupla.org), a nonprofit organization started in 2007 specifically to fill the gap in care for newly infected, long-term survivors, their families, and loved ones. Sunnie Rose Berger is the real deal: After mortgaging her ranch for initial funding, she has been a one-woman grass-roots machine that is creating immeasurable affirming change in a community that thirty years later still needs undivided attention. The Life Group LA has created a program born out of the “Shanti Model” of compassionate presence called, “The Poz Life Weekend”: It is a two-day immersive support, education, and community building event for people infected or affected by HIV that will change your life. You know how they are always telling us about “the old days”—about how HIV and AIDS education was personal, and honest; and how people-connected in a way that is usually reserved for family or something more than family? You know the stories about healthcare being an act of sisterhood—and about basic humanity—and about collective personal integrity? You remember when having HIV meant that you were dealing with something profound and meaningful on a spiritual, physical, and mental level? You remember when being a part of the HIV community meant that a collection of strangers and lovers and friends had our own best interest and the interest of our brothers at heart… Do you remember that?
I’m from a generation that does not remember that. I do not remember that. And sometimes I think that leaves me out of the conversation—leaves my generation lacking some of the provenance that would deepen our current connection with the HIV community—because we are missing those things…. But Sunnie Rose Berger has created a space to see those things again. She and her army of beautiful, bubbly, hug-ready volunteers evoke that historic bit of magic that they make all of the AIDS movies about. We are not passed it. HIV and AIDS are still a thing! The doctors have figured out a way to mostly fix our bodies. And that’s great—somersaults for that! But it turns out a lot of people are still hurting in other ways… I am still hurting in other ways.
The Poz Life Weekend starts early Saturday morning and by late Sunday evening I’d had a refresher course on meds and how they fight the virus; up-to-date information on treatment and healthcare choices; sessions on meditation, yoga, self-help, how to navigate government financial programs, nutrition, sex and dating, addiction and harm reduction, and art. In two days a lot of practical resources are thrown at us, but what’s most important in these two full days, is the community of connection that is fostered. And one of the ways they do this is by breaking us up into these little “action groups” of six or seven strangers—paired with two facilitators. And in these groups, we process what has come up for us throughout the two days and—I’m just going to say it—most people are complete emotional messes! Life is hard and not everyone copes well. (And that’s putting it mildly.) But because of the stigma of “HIV” and “Gayness” and “Drug Use” or “Risky Sexual Practices” or whatever bit of story that has brought us to our HIV diagnosis, most people have to hide that brokenness… and so that brokenness never gets fixed. And it is compounded by the fear, shame, and very real danger (and loss) that can come with living with HIV. But what is magical about the Poz Life Weekend, is that built within its structure, Sunnie Rose Berger, and her motley army of volunteers, have offered a space for those bits of brokenness to be processed, witnessed, and healed. Little by little by little…. This is the thing that the prominent multimillion dollar systems of treatment are missing—that holding of sacred space, that offering of safety and friendship from other sero-similar equals who can share in your journey. Only we can do this for ourselves….
When I say “ourselves,” I mean you and me. I mean those of us who are sick and those of us who are well (and those of us who love one or the other). I mean those who get tested regularly, those who take their PrEP, and PEP, and HAART (And those who know that eventually they will become HIV-positive somehow anyway…because sometimes condoms just break). I mean you and me and the stars and the moon and the sun and those magical winged creatures who care so deeply about all the hurt and madness and love going on in this crazy little world of ours…. When I say “us,” I mean you and me and people like Sunnie Rose Berger who see a need, get off of their asses, and commit their lives to filling that need! I mean you and me and people who are willing to do something to help; because AIDS is not over. We need you. And when I say “you,” I mean YOU.
I mean you.
I mean you.
I mean you.
Corey Saucier writes A&U’s Brave New World column.