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Reverend Andrena Ingram is #14 of Our 75 Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016

andrena ingram

She beat additiction and became a minister: now she wants to make sure long-term survivors like her aren't 'the forgotten ones.'

Reverend Andrena Ingram is a fighter. She’s faced down abuse, addiction, and HIV with resilience and tenacity. Even today, the long-term survivor is glib about the latest: her recent heart surgeries, from which she’s still recovering. That won’t stop her, of course; little does. That’s because, Ingram says, she overcomes it all with a little help from God.

Ingram’s relationship with religion has been a complicated one. Raised Baptist in Jamaica, Queens, Ingram struggled as a child to understand a God who didn’t seem to hear her prayers. She grew up in a house headed by an abusive, alcoholic father and says now, “Growing up, I never got Jesus or God. I was so mad at the both of them. I was raised in the Baptist tradition, and can clearly recall to this day, the picture of the blonde, blue-eyed Jesus, looking down on me from the wall in Sunday school, with myself asking him in my head, ‘Why were these things happening to me? What was wrong with our family? Why did Daddy act like that? What did I do?’”

Going to church just didn’t resonate. 

“Jesus offered no comfort for me, and why in heaven’s name was he holding that sheep? I wished he held me as protectively!”

Ingram continued to struggle with these feelings through high school and she quickly fled home after graduation. She joined the Army, where she says she tried to hide from the past, but wasn’t able to. Instead, she ended up surrounded by drugs and alcohol. She married, got divorced, and experienced bouts of homelessness. Ingram married again, lost her second husband to complications from AIDS, and was back on the streets when she learned she was also HIV-positive. 

Everything changed in a South Bronx church where Ingram says she finally found a spiritual home. She recalls hearing the passage from Luke 13:11: “And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself.” 

“I immediately recognized that woman as myself,” Ingram explains. “And I turned myself over to God.” Soon, Ingram kicked addiction, studied theology, and become a minister. With a Masters of Divinity degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary, Ingram has been pastor of Philadelphia’s St. Michael’s Lutheran Church for the past four years. She’s also an active blogger, and frequently speaks at public engagements to raise awareness of HIV. She recently addressed a crowd of 33,000 youth in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

“Living with HIV for over 28 years has had its ups and downs,” she admits. “But I thank God that I have been able to tolerate medications as they came. I participated in trials [and] took whatever I could back then. I have been undetectable for more years than I can remember. I have a great doctor and organization that cares for me.”

Reverend Ingram’s congregation has known about her HIV status from day one and they’ve stood by her. “My congregation embraces me, and everyone else, for who they are, and not what they are living with.”

Ingram uses her pulpit to increase HIV awareness and prevention. “We partner with an organization and do testing for the community,” she explains. “And provide resources for the community to protect themselves.”

As an older woman who has been living with HIV for nearly three decades, Ingram says she is acutely aware of the issues that face long-term survivors, including invisibility. 

“There are a lot of us long-term survivors out here, who are feeling pushed aside, and not cared for,” she acknowledges. “We seem to be the forgotten ones.”

Adding that those who’ve been living with HIV for a long time face different health issues, Ingram says. “We have no idea what medications are doing to our organs.” 

Through her ministry, Ingram is happy to be able to help other long-term survivors, who “need people to walk with them…. we find each other and support one another.”

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