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Celebration of Life Womens Support Groups vs the Church Ugh!

By Rev. Andrena Ingram

March 28, 2012

I had the "pleasure" of speaking tonight to a group of women, who are living with HIV. I met the Director of the organization which leads this group, after my November Citywide article came out. She finally emailed me, and came to meet me during one of our Community Meals. She asked me to come and speak to the women.

Because of the demands of ministry at St. Michael's, I have been trying to find ways (as well as the time) to go outside my community to speak. The last thing I want to do, is get burned out from requests. But tonight ... made me painfully aware, just how much work is needed in the church as far as HIV is concerned.

Seven women, from North Philly area ... with the exception of one, who drove from Delaware to meet and hear my story all had stories of their own, of the pain they have endured in the church. Because the group is confidential, I am not going to reveal names of churches (none Lutheran, thank God) or the pastors. None of the women are less than 10 years positive. Two of them have been at death's door ...

After sharing my story ... they began to share theirs:

  • "A", after attending this church for many years, decided to disclose to her pastor (a woman). "A" is beginning to share her story with others, and often distributes condoms on the street. She felt it was time to disclose to her pastor. She did ... and she has been feeling "strange" ever since. No longer does her pastor hug her upon greeting her, no handshake ... just ice. AND this pastor even suggested to her, that she NOT disclose to anyone else. The table which she was initially allowed to put HIV information on, has been moved from the location to location, until it is finally in the back corner of the fellowship room. "A" is conflicted and needed help from the group on how to deal with that.
  • "B", after disclosing to her pastor, sits in the pew and listens to him throw scripture at the congregation about HIV and homosexuality, and how wrong it is ... what a sin it is. When she receives communion, one of the deacons puts on plastic gloves and hands her a wafer and a plastic cup. Whenever there is anointing going on, she is always last. Even if she is kneeling in the middle of the group. She is passed over until everyone else has been "touched", and she is "touched" last. When she was in the hospital, her pastor did not go to visit her, but sent one of his deacons.
  • "C", from Delaware ... loves her church, enjoys going. But doesn't feel the need to disclose to her pastor. Doesn't want to risk the rejection.
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An interesting question was posed to me: "what do you think about things the bible says and how the church is responding to HIV?" I don't know scripture, by heart. I do know that there are some denominations, some pastors, some christians who use the bible as a lethal weapon against LGBTQ and people living with HIV. I know they do not know the context, or the original language the bible was written in, and things get lost in the translation. Some folks use the bible to tear you down. But I know for sure that Jesus tells us to love one another, as I have loved you. And how did Jesus love the disciples? How did Jesus love the ostracized and the marginalized? He loved them, he touched them. He healed them, he ate with them. He taught them. That is what I think. That is what I believe. I said, I was sure that Jesus would want us to make sure our communities were safe and as healthy as possible.

The other women made small comments, suggestions on how to help. I did also, but for the most part, allowed the group process to work itself. "The circle takes on a life of it's own" ... and take on a life it did.

Group was only supposed to last an hour. We began at 5:30 ... and had to finish up at 7. We went around the table to "check in" with one another about how we/they felt. They felt "empowered", "blessed", "on fire", on and on ... until we got to "B", who said: I feel lost ... .and just started crying and rambling about all the chaos going on in her life. So sad she doesn't have a pastor she can go to ...

The circle takes on a life of its own ... and it was time for prayer. We all stood and held hands, and I prayed over "B". Tears ... hugs ... and more tears ... .and the women jumped in and the circle did what it does ... closes in ... wraps itself around ... and gathered "B" up and exchanged #'s with one another.

They said they felt empowered ... I felt blessed, to be a part of the evening ... but Oh, so angry at the church. We have GOT to do better.

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Rev. Andrena Ingram

Rev. Andrena Ingram

Reverend Andrena Ingram (also known as "Pastor Andrena" or "Pastor Ingram") has become a strong advocate for those living in the margins, as she once was. She is an activist in the HIV/AIDS arena, herself living openly and unabashedly with the HIV virus for over 22+ years.

Raised in South Jamaica, New York, Reverend Ingram served seven years of active duty in the U.S. Army. She would later move to the South Bronx, where she attended Transfiguration Lutheran Church with Pastor Heidi Neumark as her pastor and mentor -- empowering her to rise up out of herself and her life challenges, which seemed to her, at the time, insurmountable.

Reverend Ingram is a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with a Master of Divinity. She has been the pastor of St. Michael's Lutheran Church on Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, Pa., for the past four years.

Reverend Ingram can frequently be found speaking about HIV/AIDS, encouraging everyone "to know your status, get tested, and be informed." Silence = Death.

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