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When Bun Bun walks, his frail legs cooperate only in spurts. Detectable only as slim creases in his cotton pants, they propel Bun Bun slowly, as if he were shuffling through gauze. It’s been slow like this ever since he left Lorton.
As he returns from the bathroom, his slippers scrape the floor. He is going for a CAT scan later on and must drink two bottles of a bitter white liquid. Terrible-tasting stuff, he says, his grimace punctuating the remark. The 33-year-old slackens as he returns to his room and folds himself into a hospice bed. His brown ankles reveal the bones within, and his ashen skin is a sharp contrast to the red bandanna tied to his head. Bun Bun’s eyes glide between me and the midday soaps, resting only when he begins talking about an old buddy who has since passed.
“He was bedridden,” Bun Bun says. “We would cry together. I confided in him. He would tell me how his family left him down there for dead. That broke my little heart.” The friend, an inmate named Charlie who had AIDS, passed away in Lorton Prison while serving a life sentence.
Bun Bun made it out of Lorton, but he didn’t exactly graduate to a world filled with prospects. He is now the sole resident of a three-bed hospice in Southeast called Damien House, an uncommon refuge for ex-cons who suffer from AIDS. Bun Bun’s haven is the legacy of Lou Tesconi, a Houston attorney who sold his law practice in 1986 to pursue a career in charity.
After bolting the legal profession, Tesconi joined a D.C. Catholic order but was asked to leave after being diagnosed with HIV. Determined not to abandon the faith that had jilted him, Tesconi in 1987 launched Damien Ministries, a miniature social service agency staffed by liberal Catholics who met secretly at a local church.
The ministry draws its name from St. Damien, a 19th-century missionary who worked among the lepers segregated on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Toward the end of his time preaching to the outcasts and nursing their wounds, he contracted leprosy.
Although St. Damien was eventually canonized, Tesconi’s mission was never a popular one with the church hierarchy. He persevered nonetheless and others followed, launching low-to-the-ground AIDS ministries in various cities around the U.S.
From the outset, Tesconi’s organization has worked in tandem with city agencies and nonprofits to assist the city’s population of isolated AIDS victims. But these days, as budget considerations quash city-funded AIDS relief, Damien House is becoming every bit as isolated as its patients.
While AIDS may have lost some of its stigma, the combination of the disease and a history of incarceration tends to keep helping hands at bay. Damien Ministries looks out for those who come out of prison without a future or a support system. The ministry does its work amid Shaw’s hollowed-out cityscape in a nondescript row house at 4th and Q Streets NW (its headquarters are located in Southeast). The small band of Catholic missionaries at the agency runs a food bank and coordinates spiritual retreats, support groups, and counseling for people with HIV/AIDS.
“We’re not your typical agency,” says Earl Fowlkes, 41, the Damien Ministries director who oversees Damien House. Fowlkes says the agency got a “divorce” from the D.C. government in 1993 and scaled back from five houses to one after the financially strapped city stopped sending funding checks on time. “At one point, Damien didn’t get money from the city for six months, so we fired Washington,” says Fowlkes, who adds that the agency has turned to private sources of funding. “We’re a strange animal,” he says.
Fowlkes and his fellow missionaries began concentrating on serving ex-offenders in 1995, after a Lorton inmate who had AIDS was found dead in his wheelchair. The incident brought public attention to the plight of infected prisoners, and the Damien missionaries rushed to help. “We’ve developed a reputation working with that population,” says Fowlkes. “It’s a big system and a lot of people don’t care.” Fowlkes says the house is a place where ex-offenders can “die with dignity.”
On the second floor of Damien House, volunteer Earl Parker goes over his checklist for the day: make grocery run, fetch laundry, fix beef stew, shuttle Bun Bun to the hospital for tests, and prepare for a 3 p.m. visit from a contracted caregiver who helps attend to Bun Bun. It’s not an unusual agenda for Parker, who sleeps in an upstairs bedroom: He lives the mission every single day.
Parker, 38, wears a neatly clipped beard under pasty cheeks. A native of Rutland, Vt., he is doing his second one-year “tour” at Damien House. His first tour started in September 1992, when Damien House had many other missionaries on staff. Now he’s alone with Bun Bun. As he sits in the house’s immaculate living room stuffing envelopes, Parker says he got involved after watching a best friend wither from AIDS.
“I was with Ray about seven weeks before he passed,” he says. “I was with him when he took his last breath, and I said the Lord’s Prayer, and I asked God to take him.”
Parker says that, for the most part, years of contact with the ravages of AIDS have left him numb, but every once in a while something breaks through and he gets a peek into the bottomless pit of his ministry. He recalls spending a great deal of time with one particular patient who was paralyzed by the symptoms of AIDS.
“I’d say, ‘How ya doing?’” Parker explains, “and he’d clasp his hands together. I’d say, ‘You wanna pray?’ Eventually he couldn’t talk, so we got him an alphabet board and he’d point it out. Two days before he died he spelled out D-I-E.”
Parker is now serving the needs of Bun Bun, who got his nickname from fellow prisoners. Bun Bun checked into Damien House earlier this year, after leaving Lorton under the compassionate release program, which grants medical parole to inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who are ill and near death. His release followed a nightmarish incarceration in which Bun Bun felt compelled to mask the symptoms of his disease.
Bun Bun remembers finding little purple spots on his foot that wouldn’t wash away. So he went for a blood test, and a Lorton nurse in 1987 casually informed him that he had HIV. There was no referral for counseling or medication. “Strangely, I didn’t go into shock or scream or cry,” Bun Bun recalls. “I said, ‘OK, thank you,’ and walked away.” Bun Bun left Lorton shortly after his diagnosis but returned in August 1995 for attempted burglary.
Between prison sentences, the self-described loner didn’t tell anyone about his condition and never sought any medical treatment. He was living in total ignorance of the disease, hiding it from family members he feared wouldn’t even eat off the same dishes if they knew the truth. During his second spell behind bars, Bun Bun continued the charade, knowing that being HIV-positive is not a thing the wise advertise in jail.
“You try to do everything as normal as possible,” he explains. He ate large portions even though his appetite had shrunk, so as not to arouse suspicion.
When Bun Bun developed a rash on his side, he panicked, blasting it with hot water in the hope that it would disappear. “I was afraid someone would look and say, ‘Damn, Bun Bun, what’s that?’” he says.
Bun Bun estimates that there were scores of convicts living with the same secret in the medium-security facility where he did his time. The HIV office, run by Lorton AIDS counselor Sylvia Matthews, was the prisoners’ only resource for condoms and AIDS guidance. But guys were ashamed to be seen near it, Bun Bun says, so most kept away.
Although he is no longer locked up, Bun Bun does not feel like a free man at Damien House. He chafes at all the restrictions that are a part of living at Damien. “I’m itching to walk the waterfront without someone hangin’ up my butt,” says Bun Bun, who adds that the house is “kind of tight” and claims that Parker is overprotective.
Parker says he tries not to police Bun Bun and finds reward in watching him live out his remaining days happily. He recalls his housemate’s excitement upon returning from a recent visit to his hospitalized mother. “They just lay in bed together,” he says. “Just to hear him sharing with me about something [like] that was very beautiful…”
Still, Bun Bun longs to return to his family, even though he knows he’ll never be as well off as he is now. “Parker’s a good friend,” Bun Bun says, “but I’m not really free here.”
Bun Bun says that his time at Damien is a fleeting thing. “You may see me stop and hang out for a moment,” he says, eyes swiveling back to his soaps. “Then I be gone.”CP