It is a weekly celebration for people with AIDS, their friends, lovers, relatives and anyone else interested in attending. And though it may be hard to imagine a place packed with AIDS patients being even remotely cheerful, participants insist it is the most joyful place in town on any Wednesday night.
They call it a "Hayride," after its ringleader, Louise Hay, a metaphysical counselor who began the meetings in her Santa Monica living room with six AIDS patients in January of 1985. Three years later, the meetings have become something of a phenomenon, drawing 600 to 700 participants every week to the auditorium at West Hollywood Park.
In fact, Hay's drawing power is such that other AIDS-related groups and organizations schedule around her.
Book Sales of 400,000
"When I began my organization last year, everybody said to me, 'Don't schedule anything on Wednesdays. Nobody will come,' " confirms John Hutson, founder and president of AIDS ISSUES--What You Can Do!, an organization devoted to the politics of AIDS.
As Hay's reputation has grown--her book "Heal Your Body" has sold about 400,000 copies and been translated into 10 languages--AIDS patients from across the country and the world have shown up at the Wednesday meetings to hear her optimistic and controversial message that AIDS is not necessarily a death sentence, that it is the physical manifestation of a lack of love in one's life.
"It's almost magic," says Bill Misenheimer, the former executive director of AIDS Project L.A., who's now in charge of special projects for the American Foundation for AIDS Research .
"Every time I've ever been there, I've thought 'This is unbelievable.' " This evening, as usual, the hundreds packed into the auditorium are mostly gay men though there are a few female AIDS patients present and several parents. They sit attentively on tan folding chairs facing Hay, who is dressed in flowing silk the colors of the sunset. She sits atop a pillow on a table on one side of the room.
Two men wielding microphones are poised to roam the audience a la Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue, on whose shows Hay is scheduled to appear in upcoming weeks.
Most of those in the audience don't look sick; a few have lesions on their skin, patches of hair missing as a result of chemotherapy or tubes taped to their nostrils. Occasionally, participants arrive in wheelchairs or are carried in on stretchers.
The free public meeting starts promptly at 6:45 p.m. with announcements.
One man is looking for a roommate. Another issues an invitation to a new syphilis support group. Yet another plugs an upcoming AIDS bike-a-thon.
There is a reminder to deposit food in the barrels at the back of the room for Aids Project L.A.'s Necessities of Life campaign. But when the promoter suggests the audience check their cupboards for donations, Hay interrupts. "Come on now, go shopping!" she urges. "We're talking about people who literally don't have money for food or toilet paper."
A radiant, energetic woman who looks far younger than her 61 years, Hay permits no tape recorders or cameras at the meetings and she reassures her audience--one-third of whom she estimates to be AIDS or ARC (AIDS-related complex) carriers--that though a reporter is present no one will be personally identified. (Many are still in the closet, she explains later, and it's an act of courage for them just to show up.)
Hay says she never knows what will unfold when the microphones are opened to the audience and people are invited to say anything they want.
A man who is crying takes the mike and tells the group that his lover, whom many of them know, is dying: "He cannot talk or see anymore. The doctors have said, 'All you can do now is make him comfortable.' But I knew he could hear me and so I said to him, 'I'm going to Louise Hay's tonight and I'm going to ask them to send all their love to you.' When I said that he squeezed my hand."
Power of Love and Forgiveness
A tear trickles down Hay's face as she hears the news and she asks the crowd to visualize the dying man: " . . . see him comfortable, peaceful and surrounded by love, making his transition in the perfect time/space, see him smiling, joyously happy and totally free. . . .
"Yes, it's true that many people are leaving (dying)," Hay says, noticing that some in the audience are also crying, "but some are getting well. . . . Love is the most powerful stimulant to the immune system. What we're doing here is practicing love, unconditional love."
An ordained minister of the Church of Religious Science, Hay claims that 10 years ago she healed herself of vaginal cancer by releasing the resentment she carried into adulthood after having been sexually abused as a child. Her message, that AIDS, too, can be healed with love and forgiveness, is partially an outgrowth of her own experiences, she says.