Black or African American

How I Came Out To My Church As HIV-Positive

by Rev . Shawn Torres

Wrap yourself in the comforter and you will sweat that fever out.

I can hear these exact words echoing in my ears as an adult whenever I get sick. As a child, my mother and grandmother would offer me these words of advice to combat whatever sickness had crept up on me.

They would give me medicine, have chicken noodle soup and a cup of ginger ale prepared, and I would be snuggling up with the comforter on their beds sweating; but sweating out my fever.

Essentially, they were nursing me back to health.

As a Black man, I answer questions all the time; from family members, to fellow-congregants, to classmates, to my FB friends, to the youth in the youth ministry in which I lead, to professors, to police officers arresting me for being a black protestor, to people asking me how do I look so good in my selfies.

My life revolves around answering questions. Lately, I have found myself being asked a specific question more frequently, “How is it being a minister who is also HIV positive?” This question always seems so heavy for me to answer but I always hear the voice of my 60-year-old grandmother, Annette Dyer, speaking to me saying “Grandson, remember to wrap yourself in the Comforter.”

This was guidance that I’ve learned as a child that until this day still proves to have implications in my spiritual walk with God.

When I first moved to New York City to attend seminary, my first task was to find a church home that would help me to grow spiritually, a church home that would honor the type of work I am pursuing in my graduate studies, a church that would give me access to a community of people that values the work of righteousness (justice), and a church home that provides an arsenal of resources to combat racism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, HIV criminalization, ableism, and ageism. In other words, a church space that resists white supremacy and all of its many ways of manifestation.

I thought I had found that place. I thought the first church I’ve joined and was active in was that safe haven for me and others. At our minister’s retreat, the pastor of the church was giving assignments to the particular areas we were to work in the church. I was delegated to be the Minister of Youth and Education.

In order to be able to move in that area of work, I felt it necessary to disclose my HIV status with this pastor.

I did, and I thought he appreciated my honesty. However, a few weeks later, another minister was being installed into the very position I was given. The hurt, the pain, the added level of trauma and the shame that I experienced in this church had me not wanting to be part of any church.

Then to add insult to injury, another minister called to inform me of that pastor’s theology against homosexuality. And again, I could hear my grandmother say, “Baby, wrap yourself in the Comforter.” I did just that, for the sake of my spiritual and mental stability, I had to find myself another place of worship.

I found myself wandering and was invited to St Luke AME Church in Harlem (Sugar Hill).

Almost immediately, I knew this was the place for me; however, I had to test it out. My first time preaching, I revealed my HIV status to the church. Conversely, this was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do; to stand behind a sacred desk in the Black church and reveal my HIV status.

At this point I have already revealed my status to my classmates at Union Theological Seminary, and my HIV status was already public knowledge through my Facebook platform, but the act of disclosing to the Black church as an institution was nerve-racking.

In this moment, fear was streaming through my body as I had to fearlessly confront an institution that does well at destroying the body, mind, soul and spirit of some of its parishioners.

I was standing to confront the institution that helps to disconnect Black folk from their calling because of homophobic doctrines and ideologies. I was standing to confront an institution that told me that my HIV was a result of Gods punishment for me because of my sexuality.

I was standing to confront the institution that has caused and covered up years of trauma that I have experienced because of it.

I was standing to confront the institution that was quiet when I was being molested in the upstairs bathroom of my home church in Philadelphia by an HIV-positive predator. I was confronting the institution that asked me “what did I do” to warrant that type of sexual violence at the age of 12. I was confronting the institution that offered me no rehabilitation after the abuse was over. I was literally scared as hell.

At this moment, every question I was ever asked that questioned my humanity began to flood my mind. Also, a conversation I had when I was 13 about HIV being God’s punishment for my sexuality (as a way to scare me out of being gay) colored how I read the congregation’s faces as well as my need to carve out what they were thinking in that moment.

However, when I stepped out of the pulpit after worship, I was flooded with love. Kisses, hugs, selfie requests, “Thank you,” “I’m praying for you,” “We welcome you,” “We appreciate you,” and other folk telling me of their experiences with HIV as a sign of trust.

This church began the process of nursing me back to health after years of rejection, exclusion, and trauma.

They allowed me to experience the Comforter, as they embodied the radical love of God, and they allowed me to know that I was worthy of receiving the love of the Comforter. This church affirmed my identities and complexities and particularity in very real ways—not just in the church, but in public as well.

This church allows me to practice a theology that I’m crafting to affirm and imagine everybody to be free(d) and welcomed. This church has given me a platform to speak about my experience with harmful environments, and this church has presented love to me in a way that was healing and restorative. This church is doing the work of loving people back to a place of wholeness.

Photo via flickr user Andrew Seaman