Friday, December 1st, marked the 35th annual World AIDS Day 2023 celebration. In Asbury Park, that has always started with a march, followed by a service at a local church. This year’s candlelight walk was canceled because of rain, so those who came to remember friends and loved ones lost to the illness gathered into Trinity Episcopal Church, which has become the “church home” of the event.
The theme this year was “Let Communities Lead” and this Asbury Park community chose to lead by remembering those lost, and by encouraging younger community members to take care of their health. In many ways, this was pointed out by Asbury Park native, Wanda Smith, in her poem – to let communities lead through education, information about treatment, and prevention.
Asbury Park resident, Michael Roland, read the Statement of Purpose and then reminded everyone of President Barack Obama’s words: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
Aurora Van Wales, who was named ‘Ms. Gay New Jersey 2022’ and ‘Ms. Gay Asbury Park’ is now proclaimed the ‘Mother of Asbury Park’ and wanted to bring home the same message with a personal twist. Ms. Van Wales was diagnosed as HIV positive as a young teenager, but refused to heed the diagnosis or accept any treatment. Years later, as an inmate at Stockwood State Prison, she heard the diagnosis again. It was 2003. This time she reached out. “I asked the Social Worker what I should do, and she said I should take the meds, and I have been taking them every day since.” Now, at 51, The Mother spreads the same message she got over 20 years ago to attendees: “TAKE YOUR MEDS DAILY!!!! Taking care of ourselves is the ability to take care of our community.”
MiMi Sashimi aka Ms. PrEP Jersey Shore, left the group with the message that life is “so precious.” ‘PrEP’ stands for Pre-exposure Prophylaxis, a medication used to prevent contracting HIV. So, Ms. Sashimi helps to spread the word in the community. And the organizers of the event ask attendees to “Help us end the AIDS epidemic through removing stigma around HIV, testing, and prevention with PrEP.”
This year, 75 panels of the AIDS Quilt were displayed on the back rows of the church. As in years past, those in attendance wrote names of deceased loved ones on index cards to be read aloud during the service by members of the Monmouth County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Sorority, Inc.
Andrew DePrisco and Christine Terranova sang, as did the NJ Gay Men’s Chorus.
And finally, the words of Ms. Smith’s poem ruled the day:
Love is the answer no matter What the question may be. It is right for you, it is right for me. Let communities lead with love. Let love lead the communities.