Finding Community In Caring

Have you followed our AIDS/LifeCycle coverage over the years and thought, “Damn, I really want to give that a try, but I’m not sure it’s for me”? Well, we’re here to tell you that YOU BELONG HERE! But don’t just take our word for it. Meet ALC vet Keith Stryker and find out how the life he saved on the ride ended up being his own.   

BY •  KEITH STRYKER

There was a time in my life when the word “community” had deep and significant meaning, an importance on social and spiritual levels with profound impact on the role of purpose and intentionality within the “how” and “why” I lived my life.

As a young adult, my zealous involvement in an evangelical Christian church brought me to Chicago to attend Moody Bible Institute. The year was 1991, and the conservative evangelicals were in full attack mode over homosexuality. As a young Christian struggling with his sexuality, I suffered in silent fear of being judged, hating myself, often feeling suicidal. I tried to “pray the gay away.” I fasted for 40 days for God to cure me. I even tried having the demon of homosexuality cast out of me, multiple times—all to no avail. Yet it was in this context that I began to learn what it meant to not just live in a community, but to live in community with others.

In this new environment, I was learning to cultivate lasting relationships in the soil of honesty, openness and love, something all idealistic teenagers and young adults long for—that place of total acceptance for who we are, faults and failures included. So I decided to be very open about my homosexual desires with my fellow students. This led to me starting a support group on campus, and eventually an internationally known “ex-gay” ministry took notice and came to our aid, meeting with us weekly until I graduated.

I spent the next four years after Moody as a leader in a prominent church in Chicago, working with homeless youth and college-age adults, eventually starting a church on Chicago’s North Side. The success of this ministry, called The River, led to multiple radio interviews, magazine features and requests to speak at other churches. Pastor Keith was living his dream, and all was right in my life—except that persistent attraction to men.

It was in early 2000 that I finally had a crisis of faith. I’d spent 12 years praying, fasting and seeking God’s healing for my sexual “brokenness,” and at the age of 27, I was no less attracted to men than I had been at 15. I thought, for the first time ever, “Perhaps I was born to be gay and this is how I am supposed to be.” So I came out later that year, and I was disfellowshipped, scorned by the people I loved and considered my family. I was alone. A suicidal depression set in, and I called a friend from the church to ask why no one was reaching out to me. She replied, “Keith, we were told you were living in sin and that we were not allowed to have any fellowship with you. I’m sorry.”

At 28 years old, I was newly out, lonely and depressed. It seemed all sense of purpose had been stripped from me and I had nothing to live for. Within a year, I was filling that emptiness with something that made me feel not so empty and alone: crystal meth. At the age of 31, I had contracted HIV. A year later, in 2004, I was arrested for possession of a controlled substance. After spending more than two years fighting my case, addicted to meth, homeless, depressed and suicidal, I was convicted and sentenced. My family and close friends rallied behind me as I spent most of 2007 in prison.

“How the hell did this happen to me?” was all I could think. Never in a million years would I have guessed my life would go in this direction. From helping homeless drug addicts to becoming one. From pastor to prison. This was rock bottom.

Upon release, and after using meth one last time in October 2007, I began attending Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings, determined to rebuild my life. By 2010, I was working two jobs and enrolled in the massage therapy program at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine.

At that moment in my life, I needed something to become a definer of who I was, of my goals and outcomes. I needed community again.

In the summer of 2012, after previously completing the 200-mile Ride For AIDS Chicago (RFAC), I registered for AIDS/LifeCycle with one of my best friends. AIDS/LifeCycle is a 545-mile, seven-day trek down the gorgeous coast of California. This ride was nothing short of a magical experience for me—a gathering of 2,200 riders and 800 roadies that in total created what is known as the “love bubble.” People from around the world gathered for a common cause, leveling the playing field without regard to age, race, religion, income, gender or sexuality. In the love bubble, all are one.

The nightly rallies brought laughter at the silly antics of the Pit Stop 4 crew and tears at hearing personal stories of people living with HIV and loved ones who had passed from AIDS. I found solidarity in the men and women of Pos Peds; hearing their story was hearing mine. Cycling along the coast, spotting dolphins and eagles, smelling the ubiquitous aroma of eucalyptus trees and seawater, in cold weather and hot, in sunshine and rain, we rode together. Day 5, Red Dress Day, seeing the amazing red ribbon of riders in red dresses, wigs, red costumes and even red high heels was seeing community in action. It was on this ride that I finally gained the courage to tell my father (who rode his motorcycle from Phoenix to meet me at our campsite in Ventura) that I was HIV positive.

Since that first ride in summer of 2011, I have done RFAC three times and ALC twice and am registered for both rides in 2014. I was on the executive committee for RFAC, serving Test Positive Aware Network in Chicago for two years. I celebrated my sixth year clean from crystal meth. I met Jaime Arroyo and Jorge Partida, who have since become two of my best friends and riding partners. The three of us started Team CÜR (Chicago Urban Riders), and in two years the team has raised $150,000 to fight HIV/AIDS.

So why do I ride? I ride because it’s restored a sense of purpose to my life to bring an end to HIV/AIDS and overcome the stigma of the disease. I have definition that fulfills me, contributing to the betterment of my community and myself. I am a part of something bigger than myself. Riding has become my religion, the riders my spiritual community. I ride because I have found community, a family and lifelong friendship. I ride because it’s the right thing to do.

Want to join Keith and some 3,000 new friends on the road this June?! There’s still time to get cycling! Register to take part in the world’s largest event to fight AIDS by visiting aidslifecycle.org/register today! Plus, use discount code “INSTINCT” and take $20 off the reg fee. We’ll see you on the road June 1!