Steven’s Essay: He Redeemeth My Soul
Living with HIV/AIDS in Faith and Brotherhood
“The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate.” ~ Psalms 34:22
The youngest of three boys, I’ve always been more emotionally sensitive and expressive than my brothers. You could say I’ve always liked the softer side of life. While my brothers liked to work on their bicycles and cars, I had no interest in those activities. I preferred to be in the kitchen with my mother or great-grandmother, baking her homemade bread and cinnamon rolls.
Except for a few difficult those episodes in my life, I would say I had an okay childhood. But those difficult episodes left their mark. First, for most of my life my father was an alcoholic. He was a generally a pretty quiet drunk, but every once in a while he would become belligerent and demeaning, and the emotional abuse and teasing I experienced during those times, especially given my already sensitive temperament, left me feeling pretty wounded. On top of that, at an early point in my childhood, I was sexually abused by a man in a Boys Club of America. This and other situations of molestation heavily skewed my outlook on my sexuality, even though I tried to block most of it out of my mind.
During my teen years, I was aware of burgeoning homosexual attractions, but other than an isolated sexual experience with another boy when I was sixteen, I didn’t get involved sexually with other men (consensually) until I started attending a local community college. As I started seeing others like myself yearning for some type of same-sex attention, I started becoming sexually active—and being a Spring Board Diver and swimmer with an athletic build, there didn’t seem to be any shortage of attention. During all that time, I only had one long-term relationship (eight months, if that counts as long-term) with a young man I who attended the same high school.
Meeting a Partner
In my early twenties, I started going out to gay bars in San Francisco with friends. One particular night back in 1992, I was at a popular young college gay bar with a friend, Bob, who I’d known since elementary school. While there, we met up with a mutual friend named Sam who had come with his friend Kenneth. As Bob and Sam started talking, before I knew what was happening Kenneth came over, took my beer out of my hand, and walked me out to the dance floor. We hit it off immediately, but even in the midst of the mutual sexual attraction we felt, there was a familiar spiritual bond that was hard to explain. He felt like a distant brother who I hadn’t seen in years. There was a general feeling of goodness coming from him; I felt his spirit and it was a wonderful feeling to me, very pure in essence.
After dancing for a while, Kenneth and I went out to his car to talk. In the course of our conversation he told me he was Mormon and about some golden plates that some guy named Joseph something-or-other had found in upstate New York. He also mentioned that he had spent two years in Puerto Rico on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Until that point in my life, I had never heard of golden plates or Joseph Smith or known what a Mormon was.
We were frank and honest with each other. Despite the extreme attraction I was feeling, I told him that I wasn’t looking for a relationship as I had just got out of one, and he told me that he knew he would one day return to the Church. I told him I was intrigued by the golden plates and the angel Moroni. The next day he showed me a Book of Mormon and the pages relating the testimonies of the three and eight witnesses. I was intrigued. At that point in my life, I had no idea what a prophet was, let alone that there are prophets today. While I was amazed by the story of angels, golden plates, and the Book of Mormon, I kept my spiritual curiosity at bay for a time. Kenneth also pushed his spiritual beliefs to the side and, despite my initial resistance to getting in another serious relationship, Kenneth and I starting dating. Although the nature of our relationship has since changed, we’ve been inseparable ever since.
About two years later, toward the end of February 1994, we awoke together one day and as I looked in the bathroom mirror, I noticed a swollen lymph gland in my neck. I sensed immediately that I had the AIDS virus. As I noticed other swollen glands, I knew my life had changed forever. I immediately made an appointment for an HIV/AIDS test. On March 4, 1994, at around 2:15 p.m., I got the results—it’s something you never forget. I tested positive. Kenneth was also tested and two weeks later, he got the same life-changing diagnosis.
My doctor pretty much gave me a death sentence as he told me he was sorry, and wrote a prescription for Valium to help me cope through the next few months. He also stated that at that time they didn’t know how many strains of the virus existed, or how strong they were. If I lived longer than eighteen months, he said, I would be considered a long-term survivor of the disease.
As I confronted death, my world rapidly fell apart. I had no structure of faith or religion in my life to ground me. I had never really been taught how to pray. The only religion we were exposed to as a family was a brief stint at a Southern Baptist congregation in our Alameda, California community. My parents wanted us boys to have some exposure to religion, but neither he nor my mother attended with us. Being a young boy, I didn’t connect with it. It seemed foreign to me and didn’t feel right.
After my diagnosis, I went through a terribly self-destructive phase. I basically tried to kill myself with any street drug I could my hands on. I tried just about everything. Between the drugs and other effects of the virus, I was quickly wasting away, becoming little more than skin and bones. My doctor gave me some HIV/AIDS medications that were available but which I quickly stopped taking because of the dangerous side effects. I’d had numerous friends die of early AIDS drugs due to their high level of toxicity. By spring of 1996, both Kenneth and I had each lost over 50 lbs of our body weight. I was extremely weak and ill: I was 5’10” and weighed only 128 lbs.
Discovering the Gospel of Jesus Christ
We both continued to engage in self-destructive behaviors, and my life and health continued to spiral downhill fast. After a time, however, Kenneth started to turn to the faith that had provided him meaning and comfort earlier in his life. He had been keeping in touch with a good friend who also happened to be the stake president over our area. President Pimentel knew of Kenneth’s difficulties and issues with the Church and was fellowshipping him the best way he how.
By this time Kenneth had moved in with me and as I watched him, I felt I wanted to get my own spiritual life in order. Following his example, I began to quietly investigate the Church and eventually started reading, pondering, and praying over the scriptures. I read some from the Book of Mormon, but was particularly amazed to read all the modern revelations and gospel messages in the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine and Covenants. As I did so, I began to have a desire to turn my life over to Jesus Christ. While it was Kenneth who led the way, he was also a little slower about deciding what changes he was ready to make in his life.
By this time I had stopped using hard street drugs and alcohol, but I was addicted to prescription pain medication. I started working through an LDS-themed 12-step addiction- recovery program that was centered on the Atonement and teachings of Christ to help in overcoming my addictive behaviors. Also, as I continued reading the scriptures, I started to have feelings—feelings that I later came to recognize as the whisperings of the Holy Spirit— that I should ask for a priesthood blessing. I knew that Kenneth had been ordained to the priesthood and I had a vague understanding that people could receive priesthood blessings, but I didn’t fully understand the meaning of the priesthood. Around the same time, in April of 1998, Kenneth’s mother, Sue, invited us to a Seminary Program in their ward. I was deeply moved by the Spirit that was present at the event. I turned to Sue and a close friend of hers who was also there and told them I wanted to be baptized. They both excitedly said that they could make that happen for me and it wasn’t long before I was taking the missionary lessons.
By this time, my health had deteriorated to the point that I was literally at death’s door. Although new medications had become available back in 1996, my body didn’t respond to them, including trial medications. My mind and body began to fail. I finally requested a priesthood blessing from Kenneth, but because he wasn’t worthy at the time he suggested I ask President Pimentel if he would offer the blessing, to which President Pimentel agreed. We met up at the stake center near our home and President Pimentel taught me for a few minutes about the meaning, power, and blessings of the priesthood. He said that sometimes the recipient of a blessing will sense or feel or hear the words through the Spirit as the blessing is given. After his instructions, he anointed my head with oil and proceeded to pronounce a blessing of comfort, faith, and health.
In that blessing, one of the first things President Pimentel stated was that my illnesses would become manageable. Kenneth and I were both in shock. At that time, AIDS wasn’t manageable at all with then-available medications. Even in my surprise, I felt a warmth and love from the blessing that I had never before felt. As President Pimentel continued to speak, I heard and felt many of his words in my mind and heart by the power of the Spirit even before he would say them. I knew what he was saying was from God. It was a beautiful and sacred experience. It was the first time I had ever felt the power of the Holy Ghost and recognized it as such. I cherish the experience as one of the most important spiritual lessons of my life. Just months after that blessing was given, more advanced HIV/AIDS medication became available that was much less toxic and my health started to improve and the disease indeed became more manageable.
Redefining our Relationship
As I actively explored the gospel during those spring and summer months of 1998, the nature of Kenneth’s and my relationship began to slowly evolve. Even though Kenneth had greater connection to the Church and had maintained a testimony, I was the first to feel strong resolve to fully give my life over to Jesus Christ. I also realized that would require a major change in the parameters of our relationship. I started to get my life in order so I could be baptized. I wanted my baptism to be a special new beginning in my life, and I wanted Kenneth to baptize me.
As Kenneth and I tried to form important boundaries and redefine the nature of our relationship, we continued to feel a deep love for one another, and we wanted to express that love, but we also wanted that love to be transformed into something more eternal and to learn how to appropriately express that love within the teachings of the gospel. As we continued to grow in the gospel and surrender more of our hearts to Jesus Christ, we realized that our redefined relationship would take us to a new level of love and understanding for one another.
We knew all sexual relations had to stop, but it was difficult to not fall back into old forms of sexual intimacy with one another, and we messed up more than once, but I’m so grateful for a remarkable bishop and stake president who saw my true potential and continued to lovingly help us through those times. These wise men continued to maintain an eternal perspective even when we struggled to do so. We both slowly grew in our capacity to live in accordance with the laws and commandments of God regarding sexual chastity. We both got our lives in order and on July 12, 1998, I was baptized for the remission of sins. Two weeks later, I was confirmed a member of Christ’s church. For going on thirteen years now we’ve strictly lived the Lord’s law of chastity, and we feel tremendously blessed by that accomplishment.
With my growing testimony of the gospel, the Spirit has also confirmed to me the truthfulness and importance of the doctrine of eternal marriage. I would like to be married in the temple, but given my AIDS diagnosis I’m not sure that will happen in this lifetime. As I started trying to date women, one woman noted that she didn’t want to marry someone with a death-sentence. Because both Kenneth and I have AIDS, we understand what the other is going through and have felt that at least for now, until the Lord sees fit to bless us otherwise, our calling is to take care of one another.
Strength in the Enabling Grace of Christ
Some have wondered how Kenneth and I, especially given the sexual history of our relationship, can maintain appropriate boundaries and stay close to the Spirit in our home. Again, it wasn’t easy in the beginning and we did make some mistakes, but we’ve continue to grow and take additional steps to stay close to the Spirit and experience greater change in the nature of our attractions. We had to change our lifestyle completely.
Making our home a temple. In order to increase the power of the Savior in our lives and to better access the enabling power of His Atonement, Kenneth and I purged all negative influences from our home and life that might serve as reminders of our former lifestyle. We had to “straighten up” our home, so to speak, removing all pornographic or other inappropriate material that might offend the Spirit of the Lord. For going on seven years now, we haven’t even had television in our home, and we listen primarily to gospel-centered music. Kenneth plays the piano which also invites the Spirit into our home.
As we have eliminated influences that tend to trigger feelings of sexual attraction, and have relied on the enabling grace of the Atonement, the Lord has lightened my burden and helped me to better understand and control my same-sex attractions. I know Satan knows my weakness but so does Jesus Christ, and as I have turned to Him, He has helped my weaknesses to become strong. Things have changed to such a degree for me that I’m often repulsed by even the thought of returning to my former way of living. I feel as Jacob did: “Behold, my soul abhorreth sin, and my heart delighteth in righteousness; and I will praise the holy name of my God” (2 Nephi 9:49).
Family and social support. Another blessing of my conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ has been the love and support of Kenneth’s parents. They are truly remarkable Latter-day Saints. Devoted to the gospel, they truly understand the power of the Atonement to transform lives and have loved me as one of their own even though they already have five children. When I got baptized, Kenneth’s grandfather stood up and officially welcomed me into the Hoover family. While they were extremely happy that Kenneth returned to the fold, they were even more excited that he brought a brother along with him. We’ve also developed several new friendships with individuals who maintain gospel standards and serve as healthy influences.
Developing Christ-like love. As our relationship has changed, I feel a greater love for Kenneth—a love in the purest sense of the word “Christ-like”—than I ever felt when we were in a sexual relationship together. I’ve learned that no kind of love in this world can compare to the pure love of Jesus Christ, the love that is a gift bestowed by God upon those “who are true followers of his son” (Moroni 7:48). We truly love each other truly like I imagine Jesus Christ loved His disciples. I know that the Lord is blessing us and will continue to bless us as we continue to live in accordance with His gospel. There is no greater joy than when we join in prayer throughout our day. Also, being worthy to maintain temple recommends makes our hearts sing. We truly feel blessed in our love and brotherhood since I converted (and Kenneth re-converted) to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There were many painful, tearful nights as I tried to slowly transform my life away from our sexual/romantic relationship, but now having tasted of the joy I feel today in Jesus Christ’s gospel, I’m grateful I went through the pain of that transition. Kenneth gave me the greatest gift any man can give someone and that was the way to eternal life with our Eternal Father. I just forgot my way back to Him and I needed to be reminded of His teachings and ways. As I have turned my life over to the Lord, the rest has fallen into place. Though I’m still far from perfect, I continue to grow daily. The Holy Ghost confirms that I am on the right path.
Fulfilling My Mission
The Lord has blessed us in so many ways. I’m currently blessed serve in our ward Elders Quorum presidency, and Kenneth serves as our ward organist. In addition to service in our ward, we are both blessed to serve as temple workers. As a convert to the Church and being the only member of the Church in my family, I received a witness from the Spirit that my life has been preserved for a purpose. I should have died on at least three separate occasions, but the Spirit has impressed upon me that I have a lot of temple work to perform on my family’s behalf. To that end, my renewed health is nothing short of a miracle. I have a deep testimony that the work we do in the temple is true. I’ve had several sacred experiences in the Oakland temple and in my home which have taught me that several of my ancestors are waiting for me to perform the ordinances of the gospel on their behalf.
One such experience occurred one evening back in May 2002. I was talking with my father on the phone, and I asked him about his mother’s religious beliefs. He replied that he felt she was more spiritually-oriented than his father. She had recently passed away and circumstances at the time prevented me from going back to Texas for her funeral services. After talking with my father, later that night I knelt down in prayer to ask if Grandmother Polly knew anything about the gospel of Jesus Christ. After I had first joined the Church, I wanted to tell her about my conversion to the restored gospel, but she was too sick. After my prayer that night, I had a wonderful dream.
I saw my grandmother sitting up in her hospital bed, her hair made up just so. She always had to have her makeup on and her hair done. She was an Estee Lauder Woman 100%. Everything had to be Estee Lauder Pink—no other color would suffice. Her clothes, lipstick, and nail polish all had to have some shade of pink to them. One of the last pictures I have of her was one year when I was a child and she came out for Christmas. She had woken up before all of us kids to get ready—made up to the nines all in pink, of course.
In my dream, however, she had on a regular hospital gown. She was sitting up in bed as I walked into her room, dressed in one of my Sunday suits and carrying my scriptures. As she saw my scriptures, she asked, “What are those?” “I am an Elder, an office of priesthood in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” I replied. “These are my scriptures, the holy words of the Lord to prophets past and present.” I told her all about the temple and the sacred ordinances that are performed there, including on others’ behalf; I told her about the blessings of the priesthood that enabled me to act on behalf of the Lord; and, finally, I told her that I was happy to be able to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with her. Her smile and the light in her eyes were so radiant as I spoke to her about temple work for our ancestors. She asked me to come over to her, taking my hands and placing it in hers. As she clasped both hands around mine, rubbing her face with my hands and kissing them, she said, simply, “Thank you, Jesus.”
As I awoke from that dream, the Spirit bore witness to me that she was ready to receive the covenants associated with the temple—that she was grateful for those hands of mine that would perform that service for her on behalf of the Lord. I’ve had similar sacred experiences regarding other family members.
I know that temple work is a vital part of both my mortal mission and my salvation. I’ve recently completed my family history work as far back as twenty generations on my father’s paternal line and fourteen generations on my mother’s paternal line. I know my life has been preserved so that my progenitors can receive the covenants of the Lord as they receive and obey the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know my family will be linked by virtue of the priesthood throughout the eternities.
The Lord has been so good to me. He has redeemed my soul and given me new life when I was on the brink of death. I feel from the deepest parts of my heart to witness of His name: “But if ye will turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart, and put trust in him and serve Him with all diligence of mind, if ye do this, He will according to His own will and pleasure, deliver you out of bondage” (Mosiah 7:33). May His peace and love be with us all as we come unto Him.