Don’t Miss the AIDS Memorial Quilt Exhibit at Grace Cathedral

By bathing 15 panels of the quilt in light, the stained glass windows sanctify the 20,000 San Franciscans who died in the modern plague.

Lying on his back while doing yoga on the floor of his church, the Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young began to cry. During savasana, or corpse pose, the tears fell so profusely that they hit his ears. Perhaps an unorthodox yoga practitioner, Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of California, and he was staring at the panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt that hang from its vaulted ceiling. The lives they honor were something he knew well: Young’s first ministry, in the early 1990s, had been at St. John the Evangelist in Boston, where there were typically 30 to 40 AIDS-related funerals every week.

“These incredibly beautiful, talented, and kind people all seemed a little bit older than me,” he recalls. “I didn’t know the difference between 30, 40, and 50. They were just older than me.”

Speaking of the panels themselves, Young adds, “I was surprised how much of an impact they had on me. And I knew they were going to be there — I’m part of the reason they’re there.”

The 15 sections of quilt that bathe in light from the cathedral’s stained-glass windows are indeed very moving — much more so than they would be if they hung against a white wall in a museum as part of some retrospective on political art in the 1980s. Birth years and death years reveal how young most of these people were, and how acutely the people they left behind missed them. The purpose of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt — the full name of LGBT activist Cleve Jones’ memorial to the thousands of lives cut short — was to commemorate each individual person while conveying the breadth of the public-health crisis. To look at them now, 30 years later and in a sacred place built in the Gothic Revival style, is to appreciate just how sublimely sorrowful it all is.

One panel even includes a nod to Canon Barcus, who established Grace’s homeless outreach program in 1983. Along with the rest, it’ll be up through Dec. 1, when a ceremony with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus acknowledges World AIDS Day.

Noting that LGBT priests have served in the Episcopal church for decades, Young speaks of his style of pastoral care as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and not something at odds with the bellicose and more rigidly doctrinaire Protestantism that prevails in most of the rest of the country.

His approach gets some pushback, he admits. But mostly it’s from visitors to San Francisco who may be taken aback by the church’s ecumenical outreach. Yoga on the labyrinth in the floor of the cathedral’s nave is just the beginning. There’s also an AIDS interfaith chapel, currently undergoing renovation, that contains an altarpiece that was one of Keith Haring’s last works. A triptych depicting hands outstretched to the viewer with angels at each side and a baby at the center, its central position is all the more remarkable in light of American society’s turning away from organized religion. Still, how do you reconsecrate a section of a church?

“Jesus was not someone who was about building boundaries between people,” Young says. “Whether he was healing the centurions or a slave or servant, or meeting the woman at the well, he was always engaged in reaching out. It’s an important part of this cathedral’s mission to be a place for everyone, and you have to have symbols from different faiths to make it welcoming to everyone. It’s about hospitality, really.”

There are two other concurrent exhibits. On the north side of the cathedral is Jacob’s Dream: A Luminous Path, a light installation made by former Artists in Residence Benjamin Bergery and Jim Campbell. (The latter recently won the commission to create the LED work that will crown the Salesforce Tower.) And one floor down is an exhibit of Palestinian photography. But the AIDS Memorial Quilt muscles them to the periphery via its scale, its beauty, and the sense of urgency it channels after three decades. Putting “these saintly, holy people in the same spot” as the sunlight penetrates the stained glass feels almost like the raison d’etre for his 25-year chaplaincy.

“Twenty thousand San Franciscans died of HIV-AIDS,” Young says. “Future generations of people aren’t going to know what it was like.”

NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt
Through Dec. 1, at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St., 415-749-6300 or

Check out more stories in our feature on Nob Hill here:

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