Rhonda Lewis sank into a deep depression after learning about her HIV-positive status, but today she hopes to start a support group that will help increase HIV awareness and bring encouragement to those living with the virus.
May 23, 2013—When Rhonda Lewis found out that she was HIV positive in 2008, it felt like someone was playing a cruel joke on her. “But it wasn’t a joke,” she says, “and it wasn’t funny.” She’d been to the hospital for minor surgery and, as an afterthought, had agreed to get tested, so the news came completely out of the blue. “I was in total shock,” she says. “But then, shock wore off and reality set in.”
She was reeling as she learned about the disease and began treatment. But when she reached out to her friends for support, she got more negative reactions than sympathy. HIV/AIDS carries a powerful stigma. “I found out who my friends really were, and it was hard,” she says. So she stopped telling people about her HIV-positive status.
As she shouldered this burden alone, she sank into depression. The fight to survive was so difficult that she wondered if it was worth the trouble. She even thought of hurting herself.
There was only one thing left that gave her a sense of purpose: her faith. Since 2002, she’d been a member of Asbury United Methodist Church in her hometown of Atlantic City, New Jersey. At first, she came sporadically, at her sister’s invitation. Over time, she began to attend more regularly.
One of the things that drew her to the congregation was its Touch Ministry, which provides hot meals to anyone who needs them every Saturday afternoon. “We feed about two hundred people every week,” Lewis explains. It had been the first program that she got involved with when she came to the church.
As Lewis adjusted to life with HIV and struggled with depression, she continued to volunteer with the Touch Ministry. “My faith was what kept me going,” she says. Asbury UMC became her home and her refuge.
One day, Lewis was having a conversation with her former pastor, Rev. Green. All of a sudden, she found herself telling him that she was HIV positive. “It just came out!” she says. “I didn’t know how he was going to react… so we talked, and it was like I was talking to an everyday friend.”
Lewis was so empowered by Rev. Green’s empathetic, affirming reaction that she began to share her status with other people in the congregation. Soon, it was public knowledge. And the church embraced her. Being able to share openly with her faith community helped lift Lewis’ depression.
When the church’s new pastor, Rev. William Williams, came to town last year, she says that she “sat him down and talked to him” about it right away. Rev. Williams remembers this conversation well. It helped the two of them build a cooperative, trusting relationship.
“What I see here is that Rhonda is considered a church leader,” Rev. Williams says. “Our Touch Ministry does not happen officially without Rhonda.” It’s her responsibility to get all two-hundred-odd guests seated and make sure everyone gets food. She’s been doing it for ten years. “She’s like a floor general… and she does it in a way that not only commands respect, but shows compassion.”
Lewis is not letting HIV slow her down. “I take my meds every day,” she says. “I keep my head up. I keep my faith in God.” Last time she went to the doctor, her HIV was undetected, which means that the medicine has been effective. She’s just glad that she’s healthy enough to continue her work with the Touch Ministry.
Rev. Williams hopes to include Lewis as a speaker or worship leader in next December’s World AIDS Day service. “We want to make sure that the community is aware of stigma and breaking down those barriers,” Rev. Williams says.
Lewis is both nervous and excited to share her story from the pulpit. She wants to help people by being honest about the way HIV has impacted her life. “Being young and hard-headed, unprotected sex is how I contracted HIV,” she says. She hopes that children and youth can learn from her mistake.
She also hopes that her local community will be inspired to provide more resources for people living with HIV and AIDS. She’d like to start a support group to build awareness. She wants everyone to know that people who test positive can “still live a long life, and be able to love and be loved.”
To support ministries that empower people like Rhonda Lewis, donate to the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, Advance #982345.
*Julia Kayser is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.