World AIDS Day remembrance

Remembering Uncle John on World AIDS Day

The following was written by seminary intern Claire Klein in memory of her uncle.

Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day. It has been a special day for my family as we take the day to remember my uncle, the Rev. Dr. John Klein. As some of you may know, my dad is a UCC minister, as was his dad before him. Although my dad followed in the “family business” after an attempt as a high school drama teacher, it was really my Uncle John—my dad’s triplet brother—that wanted to be a minister. As a child, Uncle John would arrange his siblings in rows in front of him and preach to them. I cannot attest to the quality of his sermons at the time, but I know that Uncle John felt certain about what he would be when he grew up.

My uncle graduated from Princeton Seminary at a time when the world was still understanding what it meant to be a gay man. He went on to earn a doctorate of ministry degree from Chicago Theological Seminary and then received a call from a small church in southern Wisconsin. He helped the United Church of Christ find their open and affirming footing.

All of these memories, however, are echoes of stories that I heard from my parents or from paging through photo albums or watching home movies. You see, my Uncle John contracted HIV, which developed into AIDS as he fought cancer. He died when I was 6 years old.

My parents tell me that when Uncle John was in the hospital, his congregation would call his hospital room from the sanctuary on Sunday morning and pass the phone around so everyone could check in with each other. I heard that my Uncle John was much more of a theater nerd than a football player. I was told that Uncle John played the French horn—like me. These memories are not my own, though. The disease of AIDS robbed me from making my own memories with Uncle John.

As I am concluding my seminary journey, I’ve often found myself trying to piece together Uncle John’s history with others around me. My ears perk up when a professor mentions a time or place that may have overlapped with him. I’m curious about how we might have bonded over Tillich or pastoral care approaches or UCC polity and history. The mustached smiling man from the home movies seems more like a missing member of my family than ever before.

On this World AIDS Day, may there be more memories made together – instead of families passing on stories in the past tense. I thank churches like Falcon Heights Church and others in the UCC who have continually supported and welcomed LGBTQIA people.