Written by Barb Powell
The proclamation that "I am the body of Christ" was fleshed out in very personal ways at NYE’s Wednesday evening worship which focused on imagining a healthy world.
From a Call to Worship performed in Tai-Chi to a moving video featuring young people giving brief monologues on everything from mental health discrimination to clean water, that body was celebrated in song, dance and word. Vy Higginsen and her electrifying Gospel for Teens program from Harlem set the Elliott Music Hall on the Purdue University campus buzzing — and then Lolisa Gibson delivered the word.
HIV-positive from birth, the 25-year-old from Claymont, Del., was just 17 when she learned of her diagnosis. Despite having lost an aunt to HIV, she still didn’t know what the initials stood for. She hadn't cared before but now she decided to find out.
"It means the human immunodeficiency virus. Over 1 million people in the world are HIV-positive, and those who are 13-24 years old are the largest group to be infected," she told the 2,500 delegates gathered in front of her. "That’s you, isn’t it? And that was me."
Now Gibson travels the world as an HIV educator and activist and has written a book, The Way I See It, about how she faced her fear (and her mother’s fear) of ostracism about her diagnosis. It was that story she told Wednesday evening.
"I got the call from the doctor at 8 at night. What doctor calls at 8 at night?" She had just taken the HIV test after a series of severe illnesses because it was something she, at age 17, could do without her mother’s permission.
"I wanted the doctor to hurry up because I was watching a TV show, and we didn’t have DVR in 2004," she said. "If I missed it, I missed it."
When she heard the words that she was HIV-positive, "I didn't hear anything else he said. I knew I was going to die, and Bow-Wow was never going to marry me."
Within days, she was on three medications that she would take "forever" and learning what "viral loads" and T-cell counts would mean for her personal health.
"No one was talking about this," she said. "My mom told me not to tell anyone. We'd found that she was also HIV-positive and I, most likely, got it from her breast milk. We also learned that my little brothers didn't get it so that was a relief."
If she couldn't tell anyone she had it, she could at least make sure her brothers, cousins and friends knew about it. "I started handing out brochures about HIV and telling them, 'This is a condom; this is how you use it.' Then I got a volunteer job at a local HIV services center, and I was there morning to night."
But it wasn't until she was invited to speak on World AIDS Day Dec. 1 at her own high school that she made the decision, against her mother's wishes, to disclose that she, too, was HIV-positive.
"For the first time, I stood up there and told people who I didn’t know that I had HIV," Gibson said. "They listened and then they hugged me."
Gibson had discovered the power of her story but her mother threw her out of her house. So she got a full-time job as an HIV tester and counselor and found her voice. Now she is the mother of a 2-year-old who is HIV-negative and lives with her fiancé who also is free of the disease.
"HIV is not the worst thing in the world," she said. "God gave me the strength to change other people’s lives. So it's a blessing. It really is."