His Garment, Her Faith: One Woman's Journey to Healing

By Connie Johnson

Connie Johnson traveled to Kenya to work with women at Living Positive Kenya.

My mother died of AIDS when I was 18.

There are no real words that can describe seeing the strongest person you know at their weakest point. It was absolutely devastating.

My parents were divorced by the time I was five years old. I grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina. My mother was a single mother. But she was an awesome mother. She worked hard to make sure that everything we needed was provided.

After I finished my first semester of college, I came home and my mother was really sick. I almost didn’t recognize her. I dropped everything to take care of my mother. I washed her and fed her. I took care of the bills. I was the sole caregiver.

She passed away January 26, 1995, just two days shy of her 45th birthday.

No one knew my mother was sick. She asked me and my sister not to tell anyone. The only person who knew that she was sick was my father’s sister who took us in when my mother died.

I went back to college. But school became an outlet to party, drink and smoke to dull the pain that I couldn’t deal with at the time. I studied electrical engineering and I went to three schools before I earned my bachelor’s degree.

At the age of 25, I moved to Columbia, S.C. By then I was in a space where the smoking, drinking and partying was getting old. Time was not stopping just because I wasn’t dealing with my pain. I decided to buck up and try to be the woman that my mother raised me to be.

I enrolled as a sociology student at Allen University. I was doing great. I was on the dean’s list. I had a job that I loved and I volunteered at an after-school care program.

In 2002, on World AIDS day on campus they had a testing van. I walked over to the table and I saw socks that they were giving away and I wanted them.

“I don’t want to get tested,” I told them. “I’m sure I’m fine.”

“If you want them you have to get tested,” they informed me.

At this time there was a three-week waiting period to find out the results of an HIV test.

“If you don’t hear from us in three weeks, you’re fine,” they said. Three weeks passed and I didn’t get a call. I thought everything was fine.

But that following Monday, I got a call saying that I needed to come to the Department of Public Health immediately.

I prepared myself for the worst and hoped for the best. I went to the health department and they sat me down in an office about the size of someone’s bathroom. A man came in and just started talking, saying, “You’re going to be fine.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Nobody told you?” he asked. “You have it.”

 Immediately I collapsed in his office, sobbing. I had not felt anything like that since I lost my mother. It was almost an out of body emotional experience. I was like this cannot be happening. All of a sudden a nurse showed up and says to me, “Baby, if you do what these people tell you, you are going to be fine.”

I tried to believe her. That was the day I found out I was HIV positive.

A New Creature

Once you find out you’re positive, the questioning begins immediately. You had to tell all your business—all of your sex history. As I collected myself to answer the barrage of personal questions, I asked the man if he knew how long I'd been infected. He said about ten years. Although I couldn't be 100 percent sure, everything in me screamed that I had been infected by a 22-year-old man who raped me at a party when I was 15 years old.

I felt like I had to tell somebody. I was not going to deal with it in shame like my mom did. I told my best friend. I called my aunt, dad and sister. I started saying it. The more I said it. The more I was able to deal with it. I was still addicted to alcohol and marijuana. So I drank and I smoked to help me deal with it.

I went in for an interview for a volunteer position at an after-school program. I sat down with a lady at the after-school program to see what they needed and she invited me to church.

 I grew up in a Baptist church in South Carolina. Although I went to church, I didn’t know God. I had not been to church in probably seven years and I was really cynical. I was really sarcastic and told the woman, “If I go, you’re going to have to come and get me.”

She picked me up to go to church.

From the moment I sat down in the pew to the moment I walked to the altar that day God was speaking to me through every song, through every prayer, even the Sunday School lesson. From 9 a.m. God spoke to me. Before the pastor even opened altar call I was in front of the church.

I surrendered my life. My way wasn’t working. I was tired. I was so tired. Tired of just being tired. I was baptized on the same day in Jesus name. The weight stayed in the water. I was so light. I was so alive.

Four days later they put me in a room with an old lady and I tarried for the Holy Ghost. I called on Jesus and He answered my heart and my soul and took over.

Since that day I have not smoked. I have not drank anything stronger than a glass of wine. I was healed immediately. I became a new creature.

Since then it’s been a bunch of decisions that I had to make. I had to decide whether I want my way or His way. His way has led to my earning my master’s degree at Loyola University in Chicago.

All By Faith

I am a graduate student at Loyola studying social justice and community development. I am one class away from graduation. This summer I will be going to Kenya for my internship, working with women who are HIV positive.

I have been awesomely blessed to come to Chicago and receive a top-notch education. It’s mind boggling how blessed I’ve been when I think about where I come from to where I am now. It’s no coincidence. It’s no question that I am where I am because God has placed me here.

In South Carolina, I was a program manager for a federally funded after-school program and the funding ran out. I was left with the decision of what to do next. In the after-school program, I saw the connection between poor housing, poor health care and poor education. I wanted to pursue a career where I could make a difference in that area. I made a decision to start applying for social justice graduate programs. There were only two in the country—one in Chicago and one in Arizona. The idea of moving to Chicago was crazy to me. I actually backed out of applying to Loyola several times but the idea would not leave me alone. I finally said, “I’m going to fill out the application so they can deny me.” The exact day my position ended, June 30, 2011, I received an acceptance letter from Loyola. By September 4th, I had arrived in Chicago. This May I will receive my master’s degree. 

On May 20th I will be leaving for Ngong, Kenya, an area on the outskirts of Nairobi,  for an eight-week internship with an organization called Living Positive Kenya. I will be doing case studies as well as learning about programming and developing for women living with HIV and AIDS that promote autonomy and independence.

 It’s all by faith. I haven’t bought a ticket but it’s coming. He hasn’t brought me this far to not provide.

I went to Kenya last summer with a group. Before we could get out of the cars, these women came pouring out of concrete buildings—singing, laughing, giving us huge hugs.

 They minister to me. This is an experience about me learning from them. They live under conditions that are unimaginable but they still sing. They still dance. They still smile. In between the tears there is a joy that I have never seen. If these women with all of the poverty and what they have to go through just to get water, can have that kind of joy,  I’ll never complain again.

So I’m going to get some more of that from them.

 HIV is just one of the things that people may need to be healed from. Be honest with yourself about why you do what you do. If we gave ourselves permission to be honest about what we’re going through some of the decisions that we make, we wouldn’t.

There was a point in time where I refused to take the HIV medication. I saw how sick they could make you. I wouldn’t go to the doctor. I ended up back and forth in the emergency room. The doctors said, “There’s nothing we can do for you.” I had AIDS and I was on my way out.

I sat in the hospital bed, waiting to die. My sister came to see me. My aunt and uncle came and looked down at me and cried. I felt like I was my mother all over again.

When my family left the room, I cried out to God.

“Lord, I don’t want to go out like that. Whatever you want from me. You’ve got it.”

 In that moment, my real healing began.

Surrender is a process. I decided this isn’t my life. I couldn’t do things my way. My way was going to end with my life in the ground.

Physical healing is good. We need strong bodies. But through that surrender, I was emotionally healed.

To read this story and others in the Spring 2013 issue, order a digital download of the magazine for only $.99.

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