A Feast of Ideas

When different-minded people gather at Marnita’s Table, meaningful conversation is always the main dish

| November / December 2007

The dining room windows are foggy with conversation. Every seat, nearly every piece of floor space in Marnita Schroedl’s modest three-bedroom house in Minneapolis is occupied. Patio furniture has been pressed into February service. Guests perch on radiators and test the limits of the pet-weary sofa, juggling paper plates, plastic wine glasses, and animated discussions.

Although space is tight, the more than 50 people who have crunched through fresh snow to get here tonight don’t seem to care. They’ve come to meet six international doctors who specialize in HIV/AIDS and to meet each other. All of them have some connection to the disease. Over the next four hours, they swap stories about how it has changed their lives and their communities and grope for new strategies and answers.

Some of them have met before, but many are strangers. A teenager who was born HIV-positive chats with a sales representative for an AIDS drug manufacturer. A big donor to an HIV/AIDS organization pitches in on kitchen duty alongside someone from a needle exchange program. Occasionally, a melodic hooting rises above the hubbub, signaling that members of a support group for older HIV-positive women have heard something they agree with.

As the evening winds down, a ritual that is familiar to anyone who has attended Marnita’s Table, as Schroedl’s dinners are known, begins: Each person takes the floor to share something about the evening’s topic and how it intersects with his or her life.

One after another, three young people rise to speak, and the hush in the room solidifies into rapt silence as they describe what it’s been like to grow up HIV-positive: the stigma, the fear of being found out, the relentless regimen of medications, and the endless appointments with often brusque and impersonal doctors. It is the first time two of them have spoken publicly about HIV.

“It was such a moving experience, because these teens were talking from their heart about their experience being HIV-positive,” recalls Lisa Rudquist, who sells AIDS drugs for Abbott Laboratories. “Before hearing them talk, I’d heard of the stigma and the judgment and those types of things, but you don’t really understand the gravity of that until you hear from these teens what it’s actually been like.”