When pastor Andrena Ingram throws open the doors of St. Michael's Lutheran Church in Mount Airy, she almost seems to jar the spacious 283-year-old edifice from a long slumber. Like a little girl showing off her new dollhouse, she glides proudly through the center of the softly lit sanctuary, throwing her thin arms up and around dramatically to draw attention to the lofty ceiling and back down to the sanctuary-flanking stained glass windows. She's been head pastor here for only four years, but it's obvious whose castle this is — besides God's, of course.
"This is my favorite part," she says, flipping on an oblong gilded lamp hanging above the pulpit where she delivers her sermons. "It's my princess light."
Even as she stands beneath its unflattering beam, it's hard to tell she's 56 years old. The overbearing shadows accentuate her perky cheekbones. Her black skin is firm and unlined, and her hair's in a bun that's tightly braided on top of her head. She is petite, slightly bashful, and her voice emanates in whispers — a seductive coo that could turn a man's knees wobbly.
When she sermonizes from this spot on Sundays, she's decked out in ceremonial liturgical vestments — a long white robe and, on special occasions, a cross-adorned chasuble that comes in a variety of colors — but today the mother of three is dressed comfortably in a pair of fitted jeans and an oversize red T-shirt.
Ingram is the first black woman to hold the head pastor position at St. Michael's. But it's that red T-shirt — emblazoned with the words "HIV Positive" — that says the most about her mission. She has been infected for at least 23 years and has made a name for herself locally working as an advocate for those with the disease — even prodding some to refer to her as the Minister of HIV. "I talk about it a lot," she says with a laugh.
Stepping down from the pulpit, she scans the room one more time. "Isn't this something for an old crackhead like me?"
Ingram's history gives her sermons an edge unseen in most sanctuaries. Intertwining biblical narrative with real-life experience, she addresses her congregation about life on the streets, drug addiction and, above all, coming face to face with the repercussions of our decisions.
The bumpy road in her rearview has opened her eyes to the importance of openly sharing her HIV status, every time chipping away at the stigma that continues to give the disease power. She sets an impressive example in her community as an activist, an organizer of meals and free HIV testing, and she's working to raise $2,500 for the Philadelphia AIDS Walk in October. But despite her efforts to create HIV support groups in the city's northwestern neighborhoods, little has come of it — proof of how hard it is, even 30 years after the first reported incidence, for people to talk about and deal with the virus.
"I grew up in Jamaica, Queens," she starts, with an alcoholic father who sexually abused her and beat up on her mother. She describes her younger self as being "quiet and unassuming," but by the time she graduated high school she learned to cope with the dysfunction at home by drinking alcohol and snorting her drug of choice, heroin.
At 20 she married a neighborhood boy who was also cruel and physically abusive, but by this time she learned to punch back. When he was discharged from his military post in the mid-'70s, she joined the Army "to show him how it was really done." During five years in Germany, she worked as a drill sergeant and gave birth to a daughter — and yet still regularly drank to excess. "Everyone else was drinking, too, so it got out of hand," she says.
In 1981 she was honorably discharged on the basis of parenthood dependency issues and hardship. She got a divorce and moved in with her parents, but the pressure of living with her father again pushed her out of control. "I was a loose cannon," she says. "I couldn't keep a job. I was staying out all night, coming in drunk, smelling like a brewery" — all while being pregnant with her second daughter. Eventually her parents kicked her out onto the streets.
Despite having a room in a Staten Island shelter, she spent most of her time in an abandoned building where she smoked crack and had random sexual encounters with homeless addicts. "If you didn't have any money and you were with [a user] who just got their welfare check — you were gonna have sex." The dependence on drugs became so extreme that when her water broke, she "stuck a towel [between my legs] and just kept on smoking."
This drug run, however, would prove to be her last. In 1988 she entered a New York rehab facility called Phoenix House. Through therapy she was able to confront the issues that drove her to drugs, helping her to finally forge a pathway to sobriety. But even with the promise of bad days behind her, a consequence of her past was about to throw her for a loop she never imagined.
While in rehab she fell in love with Warren, a recovering intravenous user whom she describes as a "black Mister Rogers." They moved in together, regained custody of her children (including a newborn son) and kept steady employment. Now in her late 30s, things finally seemed on the up and up. "But suddenly [Warren's] friends from Brooklyn, the ones he ran the street with, started dying of AIDS," she says. She didn't begin to worry until the death of Warren's closest "road dog" — someone with whom he'd frequently shared needles.
In March 1993, Warren was diagnosed with HIV. By September he was dead.
A self-proclaimed "spacey Aquarius," Ingram decided to get tested only at the prodding of her husband's doctor. Her results came back positive, with a white blood cell count of 250 — just a hair from what's considered full-blown. She insists, though, that she didn't contract the virus from Warren. "I acquired it while I was in the streets ... through the various sex partners I had."
In fact, she credits Warren for providing the tell-all philosophy that she believes keeps her alive and well today. "I decided I was going to live by doing everything my husband didn't do, and one of the things he didn't do was talk about it," she says. "So that's going be my thing until I die — talking about it."
Her path to seminary began at a neighborhood Lutheran church, where she was nudged by pastor Heidi Neumark to take on leadership roles. Tasks like reading the weekly prayer developed into teaching Sunday school and, through testimony, she eventually began speaking to the congregation about her HIV status. "She was able to connect her reality with the stories in the Bible," Neumark says. "She was gifted in being able to engage others."
Encouraged by this opportunity to share with a broader audience, Ingram enrolled in a one-year "emerging ministries" program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy. With this certificate, she could return to her church to focus on a specific ministry. But within the first few months, she realized she was pulling the same grades as those in the more official four-year program. She used that as ammunition to convince the "higher-ups" that she could handle a master of divinity course load. They agreed. She was ordained a bona fide Lutheran pastor in 2007.
Soon after graduation, she was appointed to fill a temporary pastor role at St. Michael's that lasted two years. When that was complete, the congregation voted to hire her permanently.
When she finishes telling her story, Ingram appears noticeably weary. On this day, she's also hosting a community meal and free HIV testing with local AIDS service organization Philadelphia Fight — but few people attended, she later reports. "Do you know one in five people who are positive in Philadelphia don't know it?" she asks, visibly frustrated that she can't generate more support. "I can't be the only one [in Mount Airy]."
She's right. Amy Nunn, assistant professor of medicine at Brown University Medical School, recently published a study highlighting HIV infection rates in Philadelphia neighborhoods, finding that the Northwest — especially neighboring Germantown — "has some of the highest incidence rates in the city and the fewest testing services." She attributes this largely to the social stigma that's rampant in Philly's low-income African-American communities. And Nunn believes people like Ingram can have the biggest impact in breaking it down.
"If you take a long view about what has worked, [successfully fighting stigma] has been attributed to social movements — people coming together to help fight the disease," Nunn says. "And part of it is to get the faith leaders involved."
Nunn is currently working to organize a citywide HIV-awareness campaign with area black ministers, and hopes to get Ingram on board. "I believe we all can learn much from Pastor Ingram's leadership on this issue, particularly how other members of the faith community can contribute to HIV prevention and minister to those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS."
But when it comes to visibility, Ingram's already several steps ahead of the game. As a member of the Ryan White Planning Council, she reviews local statistical data and helps allocate funds for the cause. She is chaplain of the Lutheran Youth Organization, where she teaches area youngsters about the importance of making responsible sexual decisions. And she's frequently asked to share her story in different congregations throughout the region — an experience that she admits usually leaves her feeling "exhausted" and "vulnerable."
"When [the speaking engagements] are over, when I'm walking to my car ... it's just a lonely feeling," she says. "I know I've done a good thing, but I always ask myself, 'Why me?' 'How come I can't get a break?'"
So what's her answer? "Because I made the wrong choices."
On some accounts, though, it seems like she has gotten a break. Thanks to medication, her HIV test results have come back undetected for the past nine years. She has an upstanding career and three healthy, well-adjusted children. But this kind of thinking, she says, is one of the biggest misconceptions in an age when new life-saving HIV meds make it seem like you can pop a pill and be OK.
"It's still a big deal," she says, pointing out the draining regimen of medication she takes every day — currently a four-pill HIV cocktail and numerous others to offset serious side effects like diabetes II and high blood pressure.
"I may seem fine now, but it's a constant concern," she says. "I don't live with regret, though, because I'm here. I know that everything I've gone through is to get me here — to be helpful for somebody else."
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