The intensity and clarity of Pastor Andrena Ingram’s eyes stand out above all else: brown, luminous and tender. Nothing in them reflects the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of her youth or the chronic illnesses she’s battled for more than two decades. HIV, diabetes and hypertension require her to consume more than a dozen pills each day.

The eldest of five children, Ingram grew up in a rough part of Jamaica, Queens, New York. Her father sexually molested her at age 12 and to soothe her suffering she eventually began snorting heroin and smoking crack cocaine.

“Addiction can lead to all kinds of toxic behaviors,” she says. “Back in the 80’s I hustled to survive: shop-lifting, prostitution—whatever it took to keep me high.”

Ingram spent years living on welfare and barely getting by. But pain doesn’t last always. Today Andrena Ingram is a Lutheran minister in Philadelphia, leading a 282-year-old historic church whose diverse congregants include people as vulnerable as she once was.

“We take everyone: Blacks, Whites, straight and gay people, as well as healthy, wealthy or poor,” she says of her 50 members. “They all come here knowing that they’ll receive no judgment from humans for the lifestyle or pain they may have chosen.” A far cry from where Rev. Ingram began her painful life, but exactly what Jesus would want.

Andrena Ingram has been living with HIV/AIDS for at least 17 years. In 1993, her husband and father of her three children died from AIDS complications, prompting her to get tested. That’s when Ingram learned that she, too, had AIDS. Her doctors believed that she’d been carrying HIV for years—since long before she meet her husband. After he died and she was left her to raise her children alone, she fell into a deep depression, hiding underneath the covers for three months and wallowing in self-pity.

According to Ingram she hit rock bottom while giving birth to her son, her youngest. She says she put a towel in between her legs to catch him as she reached to take a hit from a crack pipe. “That was the last straw for DHS, which stepped in and placed my children in foster care with my mother. I thought I would go insane,” she says of the department of human services’ decision to remove her children from her care.

Rev. Ingram credits her recovery from addiction to “Divine intervention” and the mentors who helped save her from drugs and possibly death. Among the most influential? Pastor Heidi Neumark, who recognized that Ingram needed counseling and encouraged her to attend bible study classes and to perform readings in them for other parishioners.

As Ingram’s spirit became renewed, Pastor Neumark encouraged her to attend a Conference of Bishops meeting in…

Rev. Andrena Ingram: Ministering to Others While HIV-Positive  was originally published on

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