Donnie Robinson begins to speak. Fifty or so people are seated in the pews in front of him. More sit quietly in the back. Some of the kids have curled up to sleep in the pews beside their parents, reminding Robinson how he, too, dozed in pews when he was a teenager. Back then, though, he came to church only one or two months out of the year to hear the gospel music. He sat alone in the back. If he was lucky, he'd fall asleep at the end of his favorite hymn, the words I'm working on a building, it's a true foundation in his ears, and wake up just as the preacher was finishing his sermon. He didn't understand what the pastor was talking about anyway.
Now, at the church pulpit, he looks good, well-dressed, his dreadlocks pulled back. His angular face is handsome, save for the yellowing eyes. He's unnervingly lean, though, because his medications are eating away his fat cells. The drugs he takes are so toxic that doctors tell him he has the insides of a 60-year-old, though he's only 47.
"I was diagnosed with HIV 17 years ago," Robinson tells the congregation. "Today, with God's love, I am undetected" — meaning the number of viral particles in his bloodstream is so low that doctors don't see them in his tests.
Behind him are three preachers — two bald, another stocky with tightly cut black hair. The bald ones are Eric Williams and Richard Prim. The other is Wallace Hartsfield Jr. (son of the well-known Kansas City minister who retired earlier this year), who will deliver the main sermon. Tonight, the night before Valentine's Day, is the first event of the Taking It to the Pews Revival — a month of sermons at metro churches leading up to the first week in March and this year's Good Samaritan Project Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. Tonight's gathering is being held at the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church on East Linwood.
"When I told people I had HIV, a lot of people turned their backs on me," Robinson continues. "But that didn't matter, because with my Father's love I carried on, because He's always there. But I have my questions. I wonder which way I'm supposed to go next. And I wonder: Can I ever have a child? Someday, I believe I will. And I'm worried now, because in the last few days I haven't been feeling well."
Robinson will give this speech again before the month is out. His testimonial is always anonymous, billed on the church bulletin as simply "From a Brother With Love." He speaks much the same as the pastors do — eyes to the crowd, dramatic pauses, moments where he's overcome with the emotion of his own story. When he does pause to consider his direction, listeners shout, "Amen!" and "Tell your story, brother!"
Here are the points that remain unchanged in each of his talks: Robinson was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. He kept that information from everyone but his pastor for more than seven years because he was scared that friends and family would abandon him. When he finally did reveal it, some of those friends did leave him.
Behind the lectern, Prim is one of the people shouting "Amen." Not that long ago, he would have abandoned a man like Robinson.
Today, the 54-year-old Prim is senior pastor of the Kansas City Community Church, ministering to a membership of almost 600 people in a low, long building at 59th Street and Leavenworth Road in Kansas City, Kansas. When the church bought the property, under Prim's direction in 1998, it was a deserted bowling alley. Services are loud and joyful, though, with Prim serving in the boisterous tradition of Baptist ministers and pews full of people shouting responses to his calls.