“They overcame the enemy by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” Revelation 12:11
“Three words, eight letters, three syllables I waited my entire life to hear I…Love…You. For a guy to say these words to me and mean it, that’s all I ever wanted…so when he told me I was beautiful, when he told me that he loved me. When he pulled up Drake on his iPod and put the headphones to my ear and whispered that I was The Best He Ever Had…I got lost. I got lost in his “I Love You”…because that was all it took. One I Love You to flow. One minute before my virginity broke…for him to give it. One day for me to get it. One week for me to get tested. One year before I could accept it…One second for me to process that I had it…That I laid down hoping for love and got up with HIV instead.”
This excerpt from a play written by Yorri J. Berry and performed by a 16 year old female during a performance of the Backpack Monologues at Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ (CBUCC) on this past Saturday, is a reality for many African-American girls and women including African-American church going, Bible-believing, God-fearing African-American women and girls. I know this because I sit in places where I hear the testimonies of women and girls who have looked for love, trusted their bodies and spirits to the “I Love You’s only to end up HIV positive and/or pregnant and HIV positive.
I will never forget these stories. One was of a young woman in her twenties who shared with me that she had “done everything right” that she had waited as the “church” said to get married before having sex. It was only after going to the doctor to find out why she wasn’t feeling well when she learned that she was both pregnant and HIV positive. Another story I heard at a Balm In Gilead conference in Virginia a few years ago was that of an older female either widowed or divorced who had met a nice gentleman in the church. He was active in ministry, a “faithful Christian.” The pastor had given his “ok” affirming that this brother was a good man and she married him. One day she was cleaning up their room and noticed that the Bible he carried everywhere, all the time, had fallen and something told her to pick it up and open it. Inside she found a letter from the health department dated from some time back before they were married telling him he was HIV positive. He had known this when they got married yet neglected to share that with her. She is HIV positive.
In 2009, I invited two young people who are HIV positive, Marvelyn Brown and a young man to share their stories during the National Black Church Initiative Teen Summit on Sexuality at Howard University School of Divinity, attended by more than 200 church-raised African-American teens from around the country. For almost two hours they spoke transparently, boldly and honestly about how they contracted HIV, it’s impact on their lives and life-decisions made prior to and after contracting the disease. They shared their stories not for themselves but to help some young person in that room as a result many young people decided that day to get tested.
As we come to the end of March, a month that recognized National Women’s History, the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, and Women and Girl’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the Holy Spirit would not allow me to keep silent about the importance of African-American female clergy and lay women using their opportunities to share their stories for the purpose of helping another sister overcome. Sisters, we have a powerful testimony. Many of us, if we are honest with ourselves, have similar stories as the people above. We looked for love, measured our self-worth by acts of sex, trusted our hearts and our bodies to another both inside and outside the context of marriage, and ended up scarred, hurt, abused, infected and unloved. However, through the blood of the Lamb with its healing and delivering power, we have overcome. Or, at the very least, we have come to a different place; a place that transcends enough of the scars that we can claim, the lyrics of an old familiar song, “A wonderful change has come over me.”
As we anticipate the joy of Resurrection Sunday, we must remember the agony of the cross and Good Friday. We all come to the foot of the cross with something. We come to the foot of the cross in pain and in peril but it was the purpose of that same Cross that gave us new life and hope for tomorrow. We have a responsibility to help another sister out by the sharing of our testimony. The Bible says, “we overcome by our testimony.” Telling your story can be the overcoming power for someone else. It can symbolize the “blood” that was shed so someone can experience life. Some woman or girl needs to hear your story in the midst of her pain, her situation. Your story might be the one that introduces her to the unconditional love and tender mercies of God. Your story might be the one that helps her hear another song, like, Vashawn Mitchell’s, “The Blood Still Works” and to remind her that it never loses it presence or power to heal wounds, provide purpose, administer justice, to deliver from pain and sorrow.
I can imagine many reasons why many of us do not want to tell our story: fear of what others will think, fear about the reactions from our congregations, fear of showing up on YouTube, unresolved feelings of shame and guilt, believing that we deserve blame for both the decisions made and the resulting consequences, and maybe doubt that our stories have significance. I believe those thoughts are the work of the enemy, to steal, kill and destroy our courage, and can keep us from experiencing the power of the Spirit in us, from living our best lives and possibly from advancing the kingdom of God. We must recall and recount the works of God in our lives by sharing our testimony with others. Your testimony is someone else’s deliverance!
As we look toward the Cross and see the women who were gathered at the foot of the cross that day, each had a testimony, each had a story to share about Jesus and the transformational power of the blood that was shed that day. Their stories continue to be told more than 2000 years later, their testimony helped to save your life and mine. Are you a woman of the Cross? Are you willing to help another sister overcome by the Blood of the Lamb and the power of your testimony? Leave a comment, share your testimony.
Reverend Penny Willis, M.Div. is the director of multicultural programs for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She is a ordained United Church of Christ Clergy and member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, IL. Reverend Penny is a certified sexual health educator. She is co-author of Faith and Healthy Sexuality and the recently revised Keeping It Real! faith-based youth sexuality curriculum for African-American youth. You can follow Reverend Penny on twitter @reverendpwillis.