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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

Tell Me: What's in YOUR Closet?

By Rev. Andrena Ingram

July 18, 2014

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He died (as far as I am concerned) not from HIV ... not from an AIDS Related Complication ... but from shame, secrecy and stigma. Stigma he internalized from society during those God awful years -- I know you've heard the stories. ... Stigma and shame he internalized from me ... his "wife"; the one who "promised" to love and care for him til death do us part.

Unfortunately, it was my ignorance which drove me into that closet. Ignorance and fear for that which I did not understand.

What a difference it would've made had I given him a touch, a kiss and a warm embrace. ... Instead I probably proved his fear of rejection ... and he shut down.

There was no going back.


Here is the ironic thing: As I cowered in that closet (unknowingly, I was living with the virus, myself, I just had not been diagnosed yet. ... and no, I wasn't given the disease by my husband, but by my life on the streets, before meeting him) ... as I cowered in the closet in fear of the

ramifications of his proclamation (I would later have my own diagnosis to deal with, my own fear of rejection ... my own issues ... my own shame. And sure enough, as he lay dying, I received my diagnosis at the nudging of the doctors.) ... I was baptized, so to speak, into life with HIV. ...

And I say that ... I say that ... because aside from our denominational differences, aside from our theological ideations ... one thing, I believe we can agree about baptism is that it represents death of the old creature,

into a new creature in Christ -- a new way of life.

When some of us receive our diagnosis, it begins for us, a new way of living.

A new way of dealing.

A new way of loving.

A new way of understanding.

A new way of caring.

A new way of touching.

A new way of relating to others.

A new way of encouraging.

A new way of trusting.

A new way of life ... through the Christ in my HIV. Through the Christ in me.

It has been a long journey. When I received my diagnosis, I had two choices: to live or to die.

I could've just as well went back to my old way of life ... hitting the pipe ... on my knees ... and giving up hope.

But in my mind ... there was always Warren sitting on the couch. Waiting ...

And so, I decided to fight. I had to learn as much as I could about this disease, and determined that I was not going to go quietly into the night.

And thus an activist was born.

I began speaking out against stigma ... beginning with the self stigmatization some of us go through ... especially if we are living quietly, secretly, in shame and or denial.

I began giving a voice to what HIV looks like, because honestly, back in the early days,vall we knew was the wasting syndrome, and the Kaposi sarcomas ... that haunting look around the eyes. ...

I determined to do what I could to put a face to HIV.

Going to seminary was the farthest thing in my mind 26 years ago. This (pointing to collar) is the result of lots of nudging from my pastor in the Bronx ... at the church I belonged to as a layperson. Transfiguration Lutheran Church ... someone mentioned these words to me yesterday: "Transfiguration and then Transformation" ... I understand both.

But let me say some more about stigma ... and the promise. I kinda got off track. I told you about how I broke the promise to my husband ... and please, I don't want you to think that I am beating myself up about it. ... I have just recently become acutely aware of my activism and where and why it really began. It began through my rejection of my husband ... it began with me thinking it would never happen to me ... But it did. ...

So here we are ... at this faith based symposium talking about stigma,

embracing with compassion and getting tested ... And I have to tell you, that in my walk with those living with HIV in Philadelphia ... that the faith community still has a way to go ... there are some in the faith community who can still learn a few lessons on how to live out their faith ... can still learn lessons on how to be compassionate, and loving.

There are some in the faith community who should know what it is like for someone to be ostracized and shamed, and stigmatized and hung on the cross ... that is, if they know the story of Jesus Christ.

The virus has been figuratively hanging on the cross for 30 years. Amen?

There are women in Philly who have shared with me awful stories of not being touched in their congregations, of receiving communion with gloves,

of being touched last.

There are some women who have shared with me about how they believed they were in good standing with their pastor, and when they finally felt comfortable enough to disclose, the same pastor began giving them the cold shoulder.

When I entered seminary, and disclosed my status nationally,

I would later find out there was an intentional discussion about mealtime, and what utensils I would be using ... and what precaution they would be

taking to ensure "their safety" ... I really had no place in their heart....

That is the question we heard in our song this morning: "Will you hold a place for your heart?"

You see, that is the bottom line.

Warren wanted to know if I would hold a place for him in my heart ... and I ran in the closet.

Are some of you in the closet?

You see ... to tell the truth and shame the devil ... some of us can be very fickle when it comes to certain beliefs. ...

Do you love your neighbor as yourself? Or are you more concerned with what your neighbor is doing in their bedroom?

Someone pointed out yesterday, that some pastors are afraid to talk about sex.

I always make it a point to let folks know where I stand. It's really none of my business what folks do in their bedroom. ...that is, as long as the relationship is not one built on abuse, endangerment, child neglect or anything that can land you in jail.

I am more concerned that you protect yourself. I am more concerned that you protect yourself before you wreck yourself. Of course, abstinence is the safest sex ... and there is ALWAYS room for risky behavior workshops (HIV101). But protect yourself just in case.

There is still much work to do as far as eradicating stigma. It begins with each one of you. As you leave this place and go back to your own communities, nip stigma in the bud. Stop it before it starts with us, "holding a space in our heart for each other and for the other."

There is something we can all do as a faith community, which begins with you.

Actually, it should begin with your pastors getting tested ... because we should be leading by example, followed by the the leadership of your congregations... ideally on a Sunday or whenever you worship. The way I have done it is to to develop a relationship with organizations who do testing,

have them come out 15 minutes before worship begins, have your pastor get swabbed, as well as the leadership. We received and disclosed our results sometime during the service (with the full understanding that results do not have to be publicized).

It should be understood that faith leaders should disclose their status; I am quite certain that I am not the ONLY faith leader living with the virus.

Those who are not disclosing their status are doing their congregations and their communities a great disservice. ... Again, we lead by example ... and if I am living a life with this virus -- honestly and positively, and abundantly! -- it paves the way for someone else to feel comfortable to at least take the test. ...

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See Also
10 Things You Can Do to Enhance Your Emotional Well-Being
More on Getting Support From Religion / Spirituality

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Is the Ribbon Enough?

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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