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Tell Me: What's in YOUR Closet?

By Rev. Andrena Ingram

July 18, 2014

As told at the Faith Based Symposium on HIV in Baltimore, Maryland, June 19, 2014.

It was hard coming up with something to talk with you about. I didn't want to be up here talking just to hear myself talk, but I wanted it to be something memorable, something different, something so important that it would stay with you for at least awhile, if not until the end of your days.

There is usually just soooo much stuff floating around in my brain (my anxieties do not help) and my brain just couldn't make up its mind.

So, I thought it best that I do what the Lord told the prophet Habakkuk to do, when he found himself confronted with his complaint.

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The Lord told Habakkuk to:

"write his answer plainly on tablets so that a
runner might carry the correct message to others."

And isn't that what this conference is about, carrying the message to others when we leave here? Amen? ...

And then as the Holy Spirit often does, she nudges me ... sometimes pushes me in the direction she wants me to go. Each time I thought about you, and our time together ... my husband would begin popping into my head ... thing is, he has been dead for over 20 years. According to medical terms, he died from AIDS related complications, in 1993.

I have been thinking about him a lot this past week. He began to nudge me ... "Tell them about me," he seemed to be saying. ... And to myself, I would whisper, "Oh dear, I don't know if I want to go there."

My husband nudged me again ... "Tell them about a love story," which gave birth to the title of my message,"HIV: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told" ... What an odd message!

And then the other morning, I awoke with a song in my heart: "The Promise."... It's a love song by Tracy Chapman. Before we delve any deeper, I invite you to journey with us ... with Warren and I, with those who are seeking love and acceptance in spite of their HIV diagnosis. Journey with those who have experienced stigma and the constant fear of rejection.

Yes ... even in some of our faith communities.

Close your eyes and take 5 minutes to listen with your heart, and remember someone dealing with this virus ... a virus I have been living with for over 26 years.

Spirit invites you to take 5 minutes to remember the beginning of your journey, with or because of whatever or whomever it was that led you to this place. As someone rightly said yesterday: "You were supposed to be here in this place at this time."

Perhaps you may be thinking about your own diagnosis, your own fear of rejection, your own fear of disclosure, your own faith community ... or someone you may know of, who needs to be at your table, or sitting beside you in your pew ...

Perhaps you may be thinking of someone you have rejected or dismissed. Please, close your eyes and listen...



Now, breathe ... breathe again ... It's OK. ... It's OK. ... It brings up some powerful imagery of love, and loneliness, faithfulness ... desire and yearning. All elements of the promise ... all elements of the vows Warren and I took with each other, in the presence of God over 21 years ago. I loved Warren, he was my Mr. Rogers, even though we met in drug rehab. I for alcohol and crack, he for intravenous drug use.

Warren and I had been married for about a year when he sat me down in the living room, beside him on the couch ... and shared with me that he was HIV positive.

Without saying a word, I got up from the couch, went into our bedroom,

opened up the closet door, sat down on the floor and closed that door behind me.

Leaving him on the couch ... with that disclosure hanging in the air ... I only remained in the closet for a short while, but what a long while it must've been for Warren ... he was still on the couch when I returned ... but by then, knowing what I know now ... the damage was done.

It wouldn't have mattered if I left him sitting there for one minute, 10 minutes, or half an hour. The bottom line is that I left him.

Warren didn't take any medication, didn't tell anyone else about his status.

(Could you blame him?)

He wasn't churched ... so that was definitely out of the question.

Once he got up from the couch, he continued to live as though nothing was wrong. We didn't discuss it again.

Warren disclosed his status to me in March, and in September ... Warren was dead.

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.

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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 me...in 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....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. ...

Now mind you, not everyone can disclose: because of the stigma that still exists in the workplace, in the community, and as I confessed in my own situation, with families and friends. Sometimes disclosing can be very dangerous. I'm sure you've read or heard stories ... (sigh)

I still hold a space for Warren in my heart ... and in that space, I fill it with folks who come to me after business hours to disclose their status, my Facebook group of HIV folks -- especially the newly diagnosed. I have even encouraged a few people from Africa to get tested ... walked with them via email.

Social media is not always a bad thing. I have a blog called "After The Ribbon" (I named it that, because we are good for wearing our ribbon on certain holidays ... and then take it off the rest of the year. ... What happens after the ribbon is taken off?) ...

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Life goes on ... HIV goes on ... Amen?

Being propelled off that couch and into the closet left Warren hanging ... and left a space in my heart. One I fill with all the Warrens and Lisa's as I can safely handle, in addition to my own congregation. I long and yearn for peace within our being, and holistic healing which begins with confessing in our heart, ways in which we have knowingly and unknowingly hurt someone, by our words or actions. I long and yearn for the fulfillment of the promise ... the promise of a love so deep, the love only God through Jesus Christ shares with us ... The promise of eternal life if we believe in Christ.

So you see the promise goes beyond ourselves. It goes beyond HIV. It goes beyond stigma. It goes beyond ...

Because actually if we treated one another the way God desires for us to treat and love another ... stigma has no place in the equation. Amen?

God's promise will complete us ... and heal us, from whatever infirmity we have ... indeed, it has already been done!

We hear in Isaiah 53:4: "Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him and afflicted."

There are some who may think we are being punished by God for whatever ... but this is not the case.

Jesus took it all on the cross, willingly ... and died. And on the third day he came back. ... we've been here two days, and on the third day ... you will be sent back into your communities ... hopefully, your mind is resurrected and

ready to get busy completing this assignment of dealing with this HIV issue.

God will complete us after our journey on earth is done. And just as we may long and yearn to be with someone we love, someone who is no longer with us, someone the virus has taken from us ... God's yearning for us goes so much deeper ...

God's yearning and desire for us is revealed through Christ ... on the cross ...

and through the Christ in us, here in this room.

I dream of a world without HIV, a world without stigma, I dream of faith communities who are not afraid of that touch, that holy kiss, and that warm embrace ...

God is still in charge. ... God is still sovereign. ... And God desires to be with us wherever we are. Indeed, whether we like it or not ... God IS with us wherever we are.

God waits for us to walk alongside those silent ones, those afraid ones,

the ones left sitting on the couch or in the pews.

God waits for us to find our way alongside the rejected, those who feel untouchable.

God waits for us to sit alongside those trembling in fear of a diagnosis, if only to be present. You don't have to say a word ... just be present.

This IS the greatest love story ever told: God waiting on us ... and loving us and forgiving us, and being merciful to us ... and extending unmerited grace upon us ...

It's a love story about HIV and AIDS. It's a story about the promise. Yes, the Promise we make to one another, but mostly it is a story of God's saving action through Christ Jesus through this epidemic. ...

It's a story about the "no matter whatness of God": God loves us no matter what, no matter who, no matter why, and no matter where ...

As Warren waited for me to come out of that closet ...

We wait for you ... to come out of the closets of your minds.

Embrace compassion for EVERYONE.

God waits for us to come out of whatever closet we find ourselves in ... to reach out and touch somebody. Reach out and be a help to somebody.

"Write the vision and make it plain." Get tested, know your status, and use protection ... and get educated. Knowledge is power!

Can we do that? (point to audience) Yes, we can!Can we eradicate stigma? Yes, we can!

Can we encourage testing? Yes, we can ... and can we embrace with compassion? ... Yes, we can! ... not by our own power ... but by the power of God, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit!

Amen and amen.




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