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First Person: Joyce McDonald

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Saved! How HIV Gave Joyce McDonald a New Life

By Myles Helfand

Joyce McDonald

About Joyce
Age: 57
Home: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Diagnosed: 1995

Joyce is an artist in many senses of the word. She is, of course, a literal artist: A talented painter and sculptor, Joyce's works often capture in stark relief the gamut of emotions she's experienced throughout her life. Joyce is also a weaver of words: Not just as a poet or a songwriter (she is both), but also as coordinator and speaker for her church's AIDS ministry and assistant director of its children?s choir. In addition to being a minister in training at her church, she is also dedicated to street ministry, and runs a group at her local women?s shelter. She also practices the art of motherhood in her relationship with her two daughters, two sons-in-law and eight grandchildren.

Yet, more than anything, Joyce's life has become its own work of art, in a way. Her story of prostitution, drug abuse, motherhood and redemption -- as well as her battle with HIV and hepatitis, which she very nearly lost a decade ago -- is as much a piece of art as anything she's created with paint or clay. She has had the opportunity to tell this story on television, radio and print media, as well as on The Body.

Updated May 2008

JOYCE MCDONALD IS NOT your average amazing woman.

If you heard Joyce's story second-hand, you might have a hard time believing it. How could a woman recovering from a 25-year bout with drug addiction -- and living with AIDS and hepatitis C -- become a prolific artist and AIDS activist?

But to meet Joyce McDonald is to believe in not only who she was, but in who she has become. She is an extraordinarily multitalented woman -- 55 years old, she sculpts, paints, speaks and writes about her life and HIV, whenever she's not busy coordinating her church's AIDS ministry. She's also a loving mother and grandmother. Her sculptures -- moments of stirring, tortured emotion captured in clay -- have been exhibited throughout the world, from her church in Brooklyn to East Africa, where slides of her work were displayed to HIV-positive artists in Uganda.

Joyce's open acceptance of her status has, in many ways, helped set her free. It has not only allowed her to confront the demons of her past; it's given her a whole new sense of purpose. She is -- by God's choosing, she says -- one of few people in her Brooklyn housing project ever to publicly discuss her HIV status. In the early 1990s, she said, many people there "believe[d] that if you find out you're HIV positive you've gotta hide." Joyce feels it is her responsibility to give something back; to help others who weren't lucky enough to get the kind of family support she had when she was diagnosed. "I know a lot of stories where people were feeding their [HIV-positive] family members with cups outside their door," she says, "or telling them, 'You can't live here.' Young people I've been working with are sometimes just reduced to crying." Thanks to people like Joyce -- and her pastor at The Church of the Open Door, Rev. Dr. Mark V. C. Taylor, himself an advocate in the fight against AIDS -- those attitudes have significantly shifted over the last decade.

Over the past ten years, Joyce has become a public advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness all over New York City. She holds art shows throughout the year and regularly spends time with hospitalized HIV-positive patients (who she calls her "sisters and brothers") through her church's AIDS Ministry, of which she has recently become the coordinator. She has written a book about her life, entitled Between the Pages, and is considering whether to take the next step and publish it.

Joyce shares her life story, in both prose and verse form, at churches and gatherings throughout New York City. She has a video of herself in which she stands in front of a large church congregation, her eyes closed, swaying slowly as if pushed by a gentle breeze. In the background, a hymn-like melody can be heard, a tune that lingers long after it ends. Joyce's deep, powerful voice echoes through the church as she sings.

My family loved me
But there was nothing they could do
Because Satan was holding me around my ankles
He said, "Joyce McDonald, I got you!"

He tried to make me wanna die
I cut my wrists many times
But I know my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
He came right on time

Joyce slides from verse to verse, tracing her life from childhood through the present. When she finishes -- with a fervent, rapid-fire repetition of "Hallelujah!" and "Thank you, Jesus!" -- the congregation erupts in cheers and applause. Joyce stops swaying, opens her eyes, and breaks into a huge, exhausted smile.

Moments like these make Joyce the magnetic and inspiring person she is. She insists, however, that all the credit go elsewhere: to Jesus Christ, her family, her pastor and the people she's met since her diagnosis. The sheer courage of some of the hospital patients she's visited with her AIDS ministry, she says, inspires her even more to continue her work. "I go there to give people comfort, but they don't know: They comfort me."

Prayer of Hope

"The sheer courage of some of the hospital patients she's visited with her AIDS ministry, she says, inspires her even more to continue her work. 'I go there to give people comfort, but they don't know: They comfort me.'"
Though she has had several medical setbacks since her AIDS diagnosis in 1996 -- including hepatitis C and a life-threatening battle with thyroid cancer in 2001 -- Joyce has never been on antiretroviral regimens, taking only vitamins and Bactrim to stave off pneumonia. Even without meds, her CD4 count remains high and her viral load low. "My doctor just shakes his head in amazement," Joyce says.

Despite 23 years pock-marked with rapes, abusive relationships, prostitution, two daughters born addicted to drugs, and her own long descent into addiction following her father's untimely death, Joyce displays a surprising inner calm. Joyce is well-dressed, her black hair broken only by a single streak of silver running down the left side of her head. To hear her tell her story -- or sing it -- is to begin to understand how a woman could have turned such a seemingly hopeless life into a source of such hope for others.

Some might credit her inner strength; some might credit luck. If you ask Joyce, though, Jesus is the key -- and it's that feeling more than anything that has shaped her return to the world and the remarkable work she now does.

As Joyce sees it, her pivotal moment came slightly more than 13 years ago.

"It was Sunday, November 1993," Joyce begins, squinting a little as though trying to focus on something far away. "I was waiting for the drug dealer on York Street in the [Brooklyn housing] project where I live at. My mother had gone to church, and I was waiting for the drug dealer to come out with the heroin, when I heard a voice in my spirit."

The voice told her to go to church -- something Joyce hadn't done in more than 30 years. She laughed to herself; she had heard voices in her head before. This one, though, was different. "Now I know this voice was God," Joyce says. "And I remember laughing and saying, 'Go to church?' And I went back upstairs and shot up the heroin."

She doesn't remember much of what happened after injecting the heroin: doesn't remember changing her clothes, doesn't remember walking to the church she had attended every Sunday with her family when she was a child. All she remembers is being inside that church, then upstairs in its sanctuary, then Reverend Taylor's call to the altar: "Anyone who wants to change your life, come up and ask Jesus Christ to come into your heart." Before she even realized what had happened -- and to the shock of her mother, who was at the service -- Joyce had walked up to the altar, recited the prayer of confession, and received salvation.

Beginning the Fall

One of seven siblings growing up in the 1960s with her parents in Brooklyn's Farragut housing project, life wasn't easy, but Joyce was happy. Her mother, who spent her days at home, is a religious, emotional woman who used her love as a blanket with which to protect her children. Her father -- a self-taught tailor, cobbler and philosopher who spent 30 loyal years working for the U.S. Postal Service and who Joyce idolizes -- did all he could to lay open to his four sons and three daughters the possibilities outside their housing project's borders.

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