August 12, 2011
The intensity and clarity of Pastor Andrena Ingram's eyes stand out above all else: brown, luminous and tender. Nothing in them reflects the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of her youth or the chronic illnesses she's battled for more than two decades. HIV, diabetes and hypertension require her to consume more than a dozen pills each day.
The eldest of five children, Ingram grew up in a rough part of Jamaica, Queens, New York. Her father sexually molested her at age 12 and to soothe her suffering she eventually began snorting heroin and smoking crack cocaine.
"Addiction can lead to all kinds of toxic behaviors," she says. "Back in the 80's I hustled to survive: shop-lifting, prostitution -- whatever it took to keep me high."
Ingram spent years living on welfare and barely getting by. But pain doesn't last always. Today Andrena Ingram is a Lutheran minister in Philadelphia, leading a 282-year-old historic church whose diverse congregants include people as vulnerable as she once was.
"We take everyone: Blacks, Whites, straight and gay people, as well as healthy, wealthy or poor," she says of her 50 members. "They all come here knowing that they'll receive no judgment from humans for the lifestyle or pain they may have chosen." A far cry from where Rev. Ingram began her painful life, but exactly what Jesus would want.
Andrena Ingram has been living with HIV/AIDS for at least 17 years. In 1993, her husband and father of her three children died from AIDS complications, prompting her to get tested. That's when Ingram learned that she, too, had AIDS. Her doctors believed that she'd been carrying HIV for years -- since long before she meet her husband. After he died and she was left her to raise her children alone, she fell into a deep depression, hiding underneath the covers for three months and wallowing in self-pity.
According to Ingram she hit rock bottom while giving birth to her son, her youngest. She says she put a towel in between her legs to catch him as she reached to take a hit from a crack pipe. "That was the last straw for DHS, which stepped in and placed my children in foster care with my mother. I thought I would go insane," she says of the department of human services' decision to remove her children from her care.
Rev. Ingram credits her recovery from addiction to "Divine intervention" and the mentors who helped save her from drugs and possibly death. Among the most influential? Pastor Heidi Neumark, who recognized that Ingram needed counseling and encouraged her to attend bible study classes and to perform readings in them for other parishioners.
As Ingram's spirit became renewed, Pastor Neumark encouraged her to attend a Conference of Bishops meeting in Indiana, convened by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There, her own talents for ministering ignited. Realizing that ministry was her calling, in 1999 Ingram enrolled in Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and relocated there with her children to become a full-time college student. She graduated with her Master's in Divinity in 2006, and one year later, accepted the pastorship of St. Michael's Evangelical Lutheran Church, located in Philadelphia's racially and socio-economically diverse Germantown neighborhood.
"People know that they can bring their burdens here and I when I counsel them, it's with honesty," she says of her leadership at St. Michael's. "I speak frequently about drugs, AIDS and other problems which are associated with sexual promiscuity."
Her message resonates far and wide. In 2011 she was the keynote speaker at the Lutheran AIDS Network Biennial Conference, where she thanked God "for anointing her life, as broken as it was," she recalls.
Although her depression still lingers, Rev. Ingram says she refuses to wallow in self pity, and her mother and now-grown children provide her with emotional support. In between ministering to others she's even writing her memoir.
"We don't see the fullness of what God is working out," says Rev. Ingram. "We never know exactly what plans he has for us, or how His Divine purpose will unfold."
Fatimah Ali is a broadcast and print journalist and host of The Real Deal with Fatimah Ali, heard weekdays from 10 a.m. - 12 noon on WURD 900am, in Philadelphia.