AIDS activist Mary Fisher finds solace, purpose in Jewish faith

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"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…"

As Mary Fisher battles AIDS, those biblical words are a balm for her soul.

"I love the 23rd Psalm," she says. "I have loved it all my life."

But beyond the liturgy of Judaism, it is faith itself that has provided the well-known AIDS activist with sustenance throughout her journey with the illness.

"I consider myself a spiritual person," she says, "and I have gotten through mainly because of my deep-seated belief in God and belief that there must be a reason" for the challenges life presents.

A single mother with AIDS now recognized as a leading voice for people with the disease, Fisher first attracted national attention with a powerful speech at the 1992 Republican convention.

A former aide to President Gerald Ford and daughter of Detroit multimillionaire and prominent GOP fund-raiser Max Fisher, Mary Fisher was, at that time, a small woman with a big message for the party faithful: "AIDS is not a political creature," she told them, but an ever-present threat to be battled with courage, sound policy and, most of all, compassion.

It's a message she's spreading more fervently than ever these days — in schools, churches, synagogues and political circles. In 1992 she founded the Family AIDS Network, a nonprofit organization that fights to heighten HIV/AIDS awareness.

In addition to two books recounting the text of her speeches, she recently published a third, an autobiography titled "My Name is Mary: A Memoir."

Sunday, Fisher appeared at the San Francisco Giants' third annual "Until There's a Cure Day," a benefit for AIDS education and treatment that has raised more than $250,000 and inspired the San Francisco 49ers and the Golden State Warriors to host similar benefits.

Sunday's event came just as the AIDS community celebrates news of a drug combination that can significantly prolong the lives of people with AIDS.

But such encouraging developments should not lessen the public's interest in the disease, Fisher cautions. Not only are most people with AIDS unable to afford the drugs, but also research on their long-term effects is yet to be released.

"I always have to voice a word of caution because [the drug combination] isn't a cure," she says, adding that recent media coverage gives the wrong impression, as if "we don't have to worry about [the disease] anymore."

Fisher, who is scheduled to speak at the upcoming GOP convention in San Diego, is doing her best to ensure that people do keep worrying about AIDS. One way she does this is through her art.

Visitors to 3Com Park Sunday viewed Fisher's one-woman exhibit, "Messages," an assemblage of paintings, sculptures and collages chronicling the artist's experience with AIDS.

Among her works is a piece that memorializes the friends Fisher has lost to AIDS. One sculpture represents a wooden pulpit covered with words, paintings and photos, and is fitted with a continuous tape-loop playing "To Worship in the Ashes," a sermon Fisher delivered two years ago.

Earlier this year, three senators invited Fisher to mount the exhibit in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. However, not everyone liked the exhibit's centerpiece, a coffin-shaped sculpture bearing the slogan "Let us unite in life rather than death." These objections led Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) to rescind the offer.

Ultimately, the exhibit moved to a building across the street, where it received more media attention than it likely would have had in its original location.

"Doing what we do best will help make a dent in the epidemic," says Fisher, who decries what she sees as government apathy toward HIV/AIDS.

Once a resident of Washington, D.C., Fisher now lives outside New York City with sons Max, 8, and Zachary, 6, and is feeling "good, very good." She gets tired, "but I think that's not as much a function of the disease as it is a function of my age," the 48-year-old says half-jokingly.

For now, Fisher seems to have plenty of energy to work toward her primary goal — reaching as many people as possible with the message that every single person with AIDS deserves compassion and care.

"Part of my upbringing, being raised Jewish, is that no matter what you've done, you're still a child of God," she says. "Judgments are not called for; nobody tries to get this disease."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.