Brenda Flowers has lived with HIV for 10 years now. For most of that time, she kept the diagnosis to herself. She says she wanted to avoid that “certain look,” and she dreaded having her life defined solely by the fact she had the virus that causes AIDS. She was ashamed. And she was certain that she would be shunned by everyone who knew about her diagnosis.
Flowers decided to change her attitude — and her life — while she was sitting in Boone County
Jail on a drug charge. She made a commitment to God to speak publicly about her disease in order to prevent people from making the same mistakes she did. True to her vow, Flowers became an HIV educator for the American Red Cross in 2003. She has shared her story at many places in Columbia, with a strength she says comes from her faith.
“As long as I speak about it, the shame diminishes,” she says. “People need to know they don’t have to be ashamed.”
Flowers isn’t sure exactly when she was infected. After her second divorce, she fell into a deep depression. She started using drugs and eventually lost her four children. The crack cocaine, alcohol and unprotected sex went on for six years, Flowers says. She knew she was at risk for AIDS but couldn’t bring herself to face reality.
“People feel protected by not knowing,” she says. “Ignorance is the worst thing.”
Flowers manages her HIV with a combination of four medications. As a veteran of the U.S. Army, Flowers gets some financial help from the Veterans Administration for the cost of the drugs, although that assistance is set to run out. She works as a housekeeper and as a resident’s advocate at a women’s shelter, yet she finds herself between the cracks of the social service system. She makes too much money to receive government assistance but said she doesn’t have enough money for food or to maintain her trailer home.
“I’m between the catch,” Flowers said. “I’m someone who is not used to being responsible. It’s a new game to me.”
Even though she attributes her turnaround to religion, Flowers wonders whether religious leaders have the reach to make a difference in the fight against AIDS. She says there’s a segment of black America that pastors can’t touch.
“They need to go into that culture and hold hands with them and show them,” she says.
Once there, Flowers says, the pastors will find the highest-risk black men — those who are not honest about their sexual practices; men who, in her experience, have several relationships going on at once. Flowers calls it a “cultural thing that has been going on a long time.”
Another group Flowers thinks is overlooked includes people like her — those already living with HIV. She fears the best that many churches have to offer in these situations is pity. The ministers are too focused on the behavior, while their congregations are too sheltered, as if AIDS is something that will never affect them, she says.
“A lot of people think HIV is based on a lifestyle,” she says. “They think they have security from HIV because of their lifestyles. But lifestyles don’t protect you.”