CHICAGO (ELCA) — Preparing for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is filled with uncertainties — uncertainties about seminary classes, God's direction, church structures, congregational acceptance and more. A 40-something, African American, single mother of three can expect to encounter even more uncertainties in a 4.85 million- member church that is about 97 percent white and that has ordained women for 36 years.
Andrena Ingram faces those uncertainties plus all the uncertainties related to her being tested HIV positive. Yet, she matches those uncertainties with an overwhelming faith in Jesus Christ, who healed a "bent over" woman with whom she relates.
"Andrena Ingram is a wonderful example of the depth of talent and giftedness available to the church, when it takes seriously its apostolate to build the church in communities of poverty and among those who understand in their soul the power of transformed lives," said the Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, bishop of the ELCA Metropolitan New York Synod.
"Andrena is a leader, a gifted theologian and Scripture scholar, and she is going to be a powerful pastor. I am proud of her," he said.
"We have been honored and delighted to have Andrena as a student with us at LTSP," said the Rev. Philip D.W. Krey, president, Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (LTSP). "She has participated in every aspect of our academic, spiritual and communal life," he said.
"We have grown and learned together," Krey said. "We are proud to claim her as one of our alums."
AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is a result of HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) infection.
"A lot of people in my community were dying from the virus and, I mean, I was nervous about it, but I went ahead and I got tested," Ingram said. "When I received my diagnosis, I was devastated. I felt dirty and nasty. I was ashamed, and I felt ugly. I felt like damaged goods.
"I believed people would shun me. I thought I was being punished for something. I remembered Cheryl, a woman in the neighborhood who was rumored to have AIDS, and I looked down on her. I looked down on her and made all kinds of judgments about her character," Ingram said. "And now, that woman was me."
"Because I saw so many people in my community getting sick and wasting away, I believed that would happen to me also. I was depressed, and it was only because of my children that I made an appointment at a clinic — out of my neighborhood, of course – – and began to get treated. My doctor also recommended that I see a therapist for my depression," she said.
"I died a thousand deaths waiting for 'The Death' to happen," Ingram said. "I stopped working and fell into a dark hole that I didn't think I would be able to come out of," she said. "I was doing a very good job of beating myself up all by myself. I really didn't need anybody else's help."
"I didn't want my son to see me in such a depressed state, and so I heard about this church that was down the block from me that had a summer program." Ingram said she thought, "I can put him in the summer program and be miserable during the day without him watching me in that condition."
At the end of the summer program at Transfiguration Lutheran Church , South Bronx, N.Y., parents were asked to enroll their children in the after-school program, seek baptism for their children or become a member of the congregation. "I signed up to have my son baptized and forgot about it," Ingram said.
A few days later, the Rev. Heidi B. Neumark and pastoral intern Andrea L. Walker were standing at Ingram's door. "That completely blew my mind," Ingram said. "I just remember that the pastor took time out of her day to visit me."
Ingram talked with them about all that she was going through. "I didn't think that God loved me, because I had been away from God for so long," she said. The women invited her to bring her son to Sunday school.
"I was afraid of going to church, because I feared being judged by God. I feared being looked at by others and being judged by them also. But I went, I took my son to Sunday school and started attending church," Ingram said.
"None of the stuff happened that I thought would happen. No one looked at me funny. No one moved over in the pew. Everyone hugged me. And I heard that Jesus loved me," she said.
Ingram heard a biblical story from the Gospel of St. Luke: "And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, 'Woman, you are set free from your ailment.' When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God."
"That was a story about me," Ingram said.
Neumark invited Ingram to read Bible lessons in church. When Ingram said she couldn't, Neumark convinced her she could. Neumark asked Ingram to teach Sunday school. Whenever Ingram said she couldn't do something, Neumark convinced her she could. Ingram said she began to understand: "When people tell me 'No, you can't,' God tells me 'Yes, you can,' and I do."
"Just as Jesus told that woman who was bent over, 'You are set free from your ailment,' he said that to me. I was set free from my ailment, and it wasn't the physical ailment that had me bent over, but the emotional ailment, the spiritual ailment," she said.
"Slowly, I began to look at myself and having the virus differently, because I realized that Jesus loved me just the way I am — with all of my imperfections, with all of my sinfulness. Because of my imperfections and sinfulness, Jesus loves me. What a liberating feeling," Ingram said.
"And so, I began to embrace my HIV status. It is a part of who I am. It is not the total me, but a part of who I am," she said. "I came to understand that it didn't matter what others thought. I had to love myself first," Ingram said. "I had to get rid of my own stigmas first, before I could deal with the stigma of others."
"Why don't you think about going to seminary?" Neumark asked Ingram. "I said, 'Well, I don't know,'" Ingram said. "She said, 'Yes, you can do that.'"
The process to become an ordained minister of the ELCA Ingram applied to become a candidate for ordained ministry through the ELCA Metropolitan New York Synod. She met the synod's candidacy committee, and the entrance interview included a review of her psychological evaluation. It ended abruptly with a question: "What if we sent you to seminary and you developed AIDS dementia?"
"I was kind of shocked when I heard those words," Ingram said. She didn't have a response other than "Thank you for your time," she said.
With the support of more pastors, Ingram returned the following year and applied again. The same question came up at the entrance interview.
"What if you got hit by a bus when you left the building?" Ingram asked in response. "When people tell me 'No, you can't,' God tells me 'Yes, you can,' and I do."
Ingram entered the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia as part of the ELCA's Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) program. TEEM provides an alternative program of preparation for ordination in the ELCA for certain people identified for ministry in a specific context.
During her second year in the program, Ingram entered the seminary's full academic program to earn a master of divinity degree. "I felt that I needed everything the seminary had to offer, in order to deal with the stigma that is attached to my age, my gender, my culture and my illness. The stigma that I sometimes deal with goes much deeper than just the illness," Ingram said.
Ingram said she heard rumors that questions were raised about the possibility of HIV being spread through her use of the silverware in the seminary cafeteria. "It would've been a perfect opportunity to educate," she said.
"I find that I do a lot of educating on the side," she said. "I speak freely about what has gotten me this far. I speak about the human condition. That goes much deeper than the virus or AIDS. I speak to the emptiness, the self-centeredness, the judgments we make on others. I speak to the brokenness of humankind," Ingram said.
"I speak of the healing power of Jesus. I speak of the healing power of being empowered to stand up and proclaim the gospel," she said.
One seminary presentation, "The Body of Christ has AIDS," made an impression on fellow seminarian JoEllen Morrison. "Andrena explained how if one member of the body of Christ has HIV and AIDS, then the whole body has HIV and AIDS," she said. "Andrena gave me a whole new way of looking at and thinking about the body of Christ and how we each fit into it. It was a powerful experience for me, and I think about it often," she said.
"Andrena had gone to Africa on a school trip, and the trip had made quite an impression on her," Morrison said. "When she returned to the United States she wanted to continue the experience."
Ingram turned her birthday into a teaching moment, conducting "a silent auction to help raise money for women with AIDS in South Africa in order for them to build a kitchen," Morrison said. "At the very least her birthday celebration will find its way into a future sermon of mine as an example of the creative use of God's gifts to help others."
The candidacy committee endorsed Ingram for ordained ministry, and she completed a year of internship with St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church , Melrose Park , Pa. The ELCA Metropolitan New York Synod's candidacy committee, in consultation with the seminary faculty, gave final approval in June for Ingram's entry into the church's assignment process.
Ingram is taking classes on Reformation history, pastoral theology, and women of the Hebrew Scriptures, while auditing a class on the Hebrew language. When the semester ends in December, she'll seek a call from a congregation in the ELCA Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod.
Standing Up to the Uncertainties Publicly
In August Ingram participated in the International AIDS Conference in Toronto and ecumenical and interfaith pre- conferences sponsored by the Christian Host Committee ( Canada ) and the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, based in Geneva . The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop and president of the Lutheran World Federation, addressed each conference. The pre- conference theme was "Faith in Action: Keeping the Promise."
"We cannot talk about religious leaders keeping a promise until religious leaders and the faith communities they lead make a promise," Hanson said. "I believe that our public promises as religious leaders must be spoken with both clarity and humility .. humility because we need to repent publicly of our failure to abide by these commitments," he said.
Hanson called on religious leaders to confront the stigma and discrimination by taking HIV tests and publicly disclosing the results. "Religious leaders willing to be tested and make their status known is a huge first public testimony that will give courage to other religious leaders and also their communities to then follow, which begins to break the silence and the stigma too often associated in religious communities with HIV and AIDS," he said.
Ingram said she went to the conferences as part of her summer vacation, but she said the workshops, fellowship and words of her presiding bishop inspired her stand up straight, again. "As a religious leader stepping forward to put a face to HIV, I am aware of some of the risks in doing so. But there is a larger risk here," Ingram said. "It is the risk that people take every day in having unprotected sex. It is the risk of someone feeling the stigma that is associated with HIV or AIDS. It is the risk of someone feeling the discrimination of the HIV or AIDS," she said.
"When people feel stigmatized or discriminated against, they turn inward rather than outward to go for help, to go for treatment," Ingram said. People living with HIV and AIDS should be able to find "sanctuary, a shelter from the storms of life" at church, she said. "People will not go and get tested, if they feel that they are going to be rejected."
At the Toronto conference, Ingram met Canon Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest from Uganda who founded the African Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV or AIDS (ANERELA+). She has maintained contact with Byamugisha and plans to be involved in an international outgrowth of ANERELA+ that was unveiled at the International AIDS Conference.
"I have already begun preaching about stigma and discrimination," Ingram said.
"HIV and AIDS are here," she said. "We can do something about minimizing the spread of it. We can erase the stigma and discrimination. We can love one another, and we can be the community that we are called to be — the body of Christ." "I hope to be a bridge between the community (of people living with HIV and AIDS) and the church," Ingram said.
"Yes, I face a lot of uncertainties, but this is nothing new for me. I have faced many challenges in my life," Ingram said. She said she's learned that when she can "relinquish control the best I can and trust in God, everything works out."
"Worrying about how people will accept me and being nervous about the call process gives power to the feelings that would bend me over, again. I would be fooling myself if I didn't think about it periodically, but my faith will keep me standing up."
The Lutheran magazine will host an online forum Dec. 5-12 at http://www.thelutheran.org/ with Andrena Ingram and Josselyn Bennett, director for poverty ministries, ELCA Church in Society.
EDITORS: A magazine version of this story is in the December 2006 issue of The Lutheran, which is at http://www.thelutheran.org/ on the Web.