An HIV-positive pastor, once homeless, is now an inspirational role model

Local Life March 23, 2012 0 Comments

by Lou Mancinelli

The journey is long and lined with struggle. The climb out of the hole is a war in itself. It is hard to imagine the struggles that the first African American female pastor in the 283-year history of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, 6671 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, has been able to overcome.

Pastor Andrena Ingram grew up in a home filled with violence and was molested by her alcoholic father as a child. She flirted with heroin in high-school and was later swept away by alcohol and cocaine addiction. Continuing the destructive cycle, Andrena was physically abused by her first husband as well. When the crack epidemic raged, she was a user in Staten Island. She was a homeless mother of two and was HIV-positive, though at the time she did not know it.

(left) A celebration of the 5th Anniversary of Pastor Andrena Ingram’s Ordination and Ministry as Pastor of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church took place on Sunday, March 11. Pastor Ingram is openly HIV positive and ministers to people in and out of the church who have the virus. More information: 215-848-0199 or stmichaelsgermantown@verizon.net.

And now she has been clean for 23 years. After she served a two-year temporary pastor’s role, the congregation at St. Michael’s voted to hire her full-time. A woman who was hungry in the streets, who timed her homeless days around various “church kitchen” services, now runs a “Community Meal” at the church (aided by St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Lafayette Hill) for anyone in need every Saturday, and Andrena counsels and befriends all who walk through the doors.

The story of Pastor Andrena Ingram, 57, is the odyssey of an abused youth with low self-esteem who has sailed the ship of herself through a series of storms and managed to survive. Now a strong captain on the ship of life, her life serves as an archetype for personal triumph and rebirth.

Ingram is candid about her HIV status, sometimes dons an “HIV-Positive” shirt that is as red as a tomato and works and volunteers in various ministerial capacities to help others who suffer silently from their own HIV-positive diagnoses. The congregation recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of her ordination as pastor of St. Michael’s.

Ingram was raised in Jamaica, Queens. In 1973, her senior year in high school, she experimented for a short while snorting heroin. In 1974, she married a young man from the neighborhood. She spent one semester at LaGuardia Community College and worked at various jobs for a few years.

At 21, in 1976 she enlisted in the Army after her husband, who had gone to Fort Hood in 1974, was honorably discharged. She enlisted at Fort Hood, Texas and finished her service in Germany in 1983, where she had risen to the ranks of a Drill Instructor. All the while, she was drinking heavily. Her first daughter was born in 1981 in Heidelberg, Germany.

In 1983 Ingram was honorably discharged from the Army and came home to Queens. When the couple returned stateside, the warehouse which held their household goods from Germany burned down. They lived with Ingram’s parents-in-law. But with the money from the government because of the fire, she had the income to spend on cocaine.

She worked full-time at Sony Pictures while bowing to a cocaine addiction. It was something she rationalized by saying it was what the in-crowd was doing at the time. After a few years she was fired for using cocaine. And during this era she was also a victim of domestic violence.

“I was not being strong enough,” said Ingram during a recent interview. “I escaped into drugs. It made me feel like I was down with what the ‘in-crowd’ was doing, in all actuality; I was simply medicating my feelings.” Eventually the marriage dissolved. The last time her husband beat her was in front of their daughter. “Something just clicked in my head, and I said I can’t let the cycle continue.”

But if the cycle of violence inflicted upon her by others did not continue, her cycle of self-abusiveness did. She moved back home with her parents, where the presence of her father and emotions from the past still contributed to tense living conditions. Her drinking escalated. She was kicked out of the home by her father in 1985, entered the welfare system and lived in a welfare hotel on Staten Island.

At the time, Ingram was pregnant again and smoking crack in a welfare hotel when her water broke. She simply put a towel under herself and continued to smoke while her friend got the manager, who called an ambulance. At the birth of her daughter, she wanted to return home instead of raising her daughter in a welfare hotel.

After all, Andrena had been raised in a middle-class Baptist family. However, when she called home, she found out her father had died a month earlier. No one had been able to find her. That set her off back on the streets for a three-day drug run, which when over, left her contemplating death. With the help of an organization called “Project Hospitality” on Staten Island, a bed was secured for her at Phoenix House, an 18- month residential treatment facility in New York City.

“If I had to have an excuse,” Ingram said about her drug abuse, “it would be the dysfunction in the family, the sexual abuse, low self-esteem, wanting to be understood, peer pressure, witnessing life in the four walls of the house…”

At the Phoenix House she met Warren, whom she married in 1991. They had a son in 1992 while Ingram worked at a halfway house. Warren died from complications due to AIDS in 1993. He had contracted the virus during his days as an intravenous drug user. It was during her husband’s final hospitalization that medical personnel suggested Ingram be tested for HIV. She quickly discovered she was HIV-positive, and medical personnel concluded that her HIV infection was the result of her lifestyle before entering drug rehab and before she met her husband.

Initially, when Warren died, Andrena figured she had three options: drugs, suicide or continued sobriety. She chose the last one, and unlike Warren, who she says shut down and ran away from the fact he was HIV-positive, Ingram decided to be open and up front about her positive diagnosis, which is currently managed through treatment. “I saw firsthand what keeping that secret did to my husband. For me, being open freed me up,” she said. “Secrets are deadly.”

In 1998, Andrena was working two jobs when she began to suffer with bouts of depression. Life seemed to be just too much. She was trying to figure out a way to care for her son that would free up some time for her to wallow in self-pity, and she enrolled him in Vacation Bible School at the Transfiguration Lutheran Church down the street from her home in the Bronx.

It was during that time that a minister named Heidi Neumark, saw something in Ingram and asked Ingram if she could help with Sunday School because a teacher was absent that day. Ingram said no. Neumark nudged. And so Ingram began to take on more responsibilities within the church and eventually became president of the church’s council. She was then sent to conventions and training in Vancouver and at the University of Notre Dame.

In 2002, Neumark suggested Ingram go into the seminary. Again, Ingram said no. Nonetheless, the following year she enrolled in the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mt. Airy in a one-year program. Her grades were quite good, and wanting to leave no doubt that she was academically qualified for the ministry,  Andrena asked to be enrolled in the four-year program. In 2007 she earned a Master’s of Divinity and came to St. Michael’s Church in Mt. Airy.

“When I came to St. Michael’s, I put everything about myself on the table. I am blessed to be a part of a congregation which accepts the totality of who I am. I use every bit of my life,” said Ingram about the content of some of her sermons and her interactions with parishoners. “I empty myself”.

Ingram is also the chaplain of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s Lutheran Youth Organization. In July, she will speak to more than 35,000 high-school students at the ELCA National Gathering in New Orleans in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And while her travails make for a supremely compelling story, Ingram wants to be known more for how that story ends, for her work as a pastor and activist. She wants to be known as a woman who experienced awful things but is now able to share a message of strength, hope and rejuvenation.

Still, like many recovering addicts, there have been some days she might feel the urge to relapse. She adheres to the 12-step program’s motto: “One Day at a Time.” She “replays the tapes,” a technique she learned at the Phoenix House of remembering the lowest places in her life, like sleeping in abandoned buildings and collecting cans all day in order to buy a bottle of wine.

She insists, “There’s no way I am going back to that! By the grace of God and with the support of family, friends and my support network, there is no way I am giving up 23 years of sobriety and the life I have!”

On the first Saturday of every other month, Ingram hosts confidential HIV-testing at the church. She also facilitates a “Living with HIV” Facebook group. St. Michael’s next testing event is Saturday, April 7, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

For more information: 215-848-0199, www.stmichaelsgermantown.org or stmichaelsgermantown@verizon.net. Pastor Ingram and St. Michael’s can also be found on Facebook.

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