Ecumenical News International

Woman pastor who is HIV 'survivor' gives hope to others like her

December 2, 2008

Maurice Malanes

Manila (ENI). She responded to an annual drive by her employer in 1990 to donate blood, a charitable act she had done before. This time, however, she received a letter from the American Red Cross office in Atlanta, Georgia, saying, "We need to talk to you in person."

When she reported to the Red Cross, she was told: "Your blood results indicate you are HIV-positive."

Said Vanessa D. Sharp, "My initial reaction was disbelief followed by tears. But I took it to the Lord in prayer and hoped that I could still live long enough to see my youngest child [then seven] turn 18 and finish high school."

Now a theologian and executive board member of the Presbyterian Health Education and Welfare Association, representing the Presbyterian AIDS Network in Atlanta, and in South Africa, Sharp related her story to Ecumenical News International while travelling to Indonesia earlier in the year.

Sharp traced her HIV infection to her second husband after her first marriage had ended in divorce in 1985. Despite the infection, she responded to what she considered "God's call" for her to become a minister in 1995, a decision which prompted her second husband to walk away from their marriage, leaving her to raise four children.

Through grants and student loans, and some other help through involvement in the church choir, Sharp was able to finish Bible college while raising all her children, "even if we had to live in a cramped campus apartment".

She had submitted herself to all the health care available for her sickness. To her and her doctors' surprise, laboratory results in 1997 showed that her immune system had improved from 1 to 700, a level considered normal.

"If I were to take a blood test the virus could not be detected in my blood stream. The medicine has worked for me," she said.

Before she preached her trial sermon on 1 June 1997, Sharp informed her family about her HIV infection, which she had kept under wraps for years. A week before that sermon, she told her children about the disease and 30 minutes before she told her father about it. She also disclosed her status to close friends. "The support was overwhelming," she said.

"I am now an instrument and a servant God uses to open the eyes of those who are infected and affected by this life-threatening disease," said Sharp, who at 55, looks healthy enough to continue her ministry in the years ahead.

Citing herself as a witness, Sharp said people with HIV/AIDS should not lose hope, because medical, financial and spiritual assistance can be available for them. She now preaches about how to reach out to, care for and show concern for others with HIV so they can also one day say, "I'm a survivor."



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