Annette John-Hall: Philadelphia pastor lives with HIV - and preaches about it

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The Rev. Andrena Ingram in front of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Germantown, where she is pastor. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)

I see where the Philadelphia black clergy have started a very visible public-awareness campaign about the importance of getting tested for HIV, in hope of getting more people to talk about the dreaded A-word - inside and outside their places of worship.

Well, it's about time. After all, HIV has historically been the huge elephant in the sanctuary. Don't ask, don't tell, and whatever you do, don't preach.

But as the disease has soared to epidemic proportions, it simply can't be ignored anymore. African Americans account for more than two-thirds of the people living with HIV in Philadelphia, and of those nearly 30 percent are women, the vast majority over age 40.

We're talking members of the choir, masjid board members, Sunday school teachers, missionaries, even senior-citizen mothers of the church.

A built-in demographic of women who are no doubt shamed and stigmatized, who could benefit from some real talk from the pulpit, which is what the clergy plan to do.

It's one thing to unite on a billboard and declare: We Have Been Tested for HIV. Have You? when you know your status is negative.

Quite another when you've been tested and your status is positive, like the Rev. Andrena Ingram of St. Michael's Lutheran Church ELCA in Germantown.

 

Living with HIV

Ingram, 55, has been talking publicly about living with HIV for more than 20 years - for about as long as she's had it.

Unfortunately, she's not part of the black-clergy campaign, probably because she is pastor of a predominantly white church.

That doesn't stop her from preaching about HIV whenever the spirit moves her. "I'm sure a few of my [congregants] say, 'Oh, Lord, here she goes again,' " Ingram says with a grin.

But it frustrates her that her empowering message of acceptance and resilience isn't reaching African Americans who need to hear it.

"I know for a lot of black churches [HIV] is not talked about for a multitude of reasons," says Ingram, who was raised Baptist. "We don't have that. We welcome all sexual orientations."

"I've been in meetings with the black clergy where I've raised my hand and said, 'Excuse me. I'm a religious leader living with the virus. I'm here. Use me!' " Ingram says.

They haven't yet. But God sure has.

How else could you explain a black girl from the toughest part of the South Bronx, who was sexually abused by her alcoholic father, ignored by her fearful mother; who was beaten by her first husband before she fled to the Army; who eventually escaped to a world of drugs and promiscuity to ease her pain - only to wind up studying at Lutheran Theological Seminary, just down the street from where she pastors now?

"I know it was God," she says. "I knew it was God when I was in the crack house and made it home safely, so how can I keep my mouth shut about the bad decisions I've made?"

 

Death and life

Ingram says she contracted the virus from having unprotected sex - before she met her husband while in rehab.

But as fate would have it, her husband was infected, too.

"He told me in March he was positive, and in September he died," she says. "Not even his mother knew. Nobody knew except me."

His quick demise convinced Ingram she was next.

"I went to bed to die," she says.

Months later, she received a visit from the Rev. Heidi Neumark of Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx, where Ingram had enrolled her son for vacation Bible school. Neumark coaxed her out of her depression and persuaded her to come to church.

Her HIV status didn't matter.

The pastor, who religiously takes her four-medication cocktail every day, says she knows she's not the only member of the clergy living with HIV.

"To tell is a personal decision, but what a gift that would be to a congregation, for people in the pews who are struggling."

More than a picture on a billboard, she says, "the truth will set you free."

 


Contact me at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com. Read my work: http://go.philly.com/annette. Follow me on Twitter @Annettejh.