Rhaynetta's Cause

Even through her own struggle with the disease, Rhaynetta Cheatham has worked tirelessly to bring AIDS awareness where it's most needed: Miami's black community

The sunlight this February afternoon is piercing and yellow, and a gusty wind shoves around the crumpled litter on NW Seventeenth Avenue, outside Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church. Cars fill the church's back parking lot and line the rutted streets to the north and south. Men in dark suits and women in dark dresses have come here to Liberty City to say goodbye to Joe McDonald, who has died suddenly at the age of 36. Though he'd been afflicted with AIDS-related pancreatitis for some time, he hadn't been hospitalized until three days before his death.

Flanked by wreaths and flower arrangements, McDonald's open casket is in view at the front of Mount Tabor's modest, unadorned sanctuary. Light filters in through the high windows onto the heads of the hundred or so mourners who wait on the cushioned wooden pews. The members of the men's chorus sit like a somber jury facing the congregation, while the organist plays old hymns of comfort:

What a friend we have in Jesus
All our sins and griefs to share
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer

McDonald's widow, Rhaynetta Cheatham McDonald, moves slowly up the aisle. Supported by the arms of her aunt and friends and eldest daughter, she is gaunt, slightly stooped, swathed in black lace, her gold eyes staring like lanterns out of her iron-black face. Six days earlier, when her husband died, she was in the hospital; she has been discharged only to attend the funeral.

Many of the mourners are here to grieve for Rhaynetta Cheatham as much as for Joe McDonald, because they know what a blow his unexpected death is to her, even with her considerable spirit and resourcefulness. She has lost her closest friend and constant support at a time when her own health is deteriorating. At the age of 40, Cheatham herself is suffering from the advanced stages of AIDS. During the past four years, she has become well-known in the local community of AIDS activists for her work in AIDS education, particularly as it pertains to young blacks.

Your grace and mercy
Brought me through
I'm living this moment
Because of you

Rev. George E. McRae, a compact, balding man with high cheekbones and a close-cropped salt-and-pepper moustache, steps to the podium next to the casket. "This one," the pastor says, shaking his head, "this one was really hard for me. I visited with Joe for a long time that Saturday [the day before he died], and it never crossed my mind that it was his last day." McRae closes his deep-set, glittering black eyes for a second. Mount Tabor, with a membership of about 1000, is a haven, a family for hundreds of men and women like McDonald and Cheatham who are shunned elsewhere else because they have lost their pasts to addiction and crime and their futures to AIDS. McRae has dedicated his ministry to these people, the ones classified in the state's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) statistics as black non-Hispanic, the ones who in Dade County are suffering from AIDS in numbers far out of proportion to the disease's incidence in white Anglos or Hispanics. After watching scores of AIDS patients die over the past seven years, most without friends or family at their bedside, McRae can speak calmly of death, even when deeply pained. But after this funeral, he'll disappear for a few days, go fishing. This was a hard one.

"Now the most important thing for us to do," McRae concludes on this cool Saturday afternoon, "is to love and support Rhaynetta."

Yeses echo from the congregation. As the mourners file down the center aisle out of the sanctuary, many praise Jesus with their arms and faces uplifted, weaving and dancing and singing to the upbeat gospel tune the organist pounds out. Cheatham, smiling faintly at friends who reach for her hand as she leaves, seems not to hear the music.

About a week after the funeral, in early March, Cheatham is back in the Veterans Administration Medical Center with a collapsed lung. -- year earlier, the other lung had collapsed, a dreadful effect of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), a lethal infection that attacks many AIDS patients. This time, without McDonald, the normally long recovery process is even more protracted, and Rhaynetta has substantially curtailed her activities. It has been more than a year now since she worked steadily as part of an HIV-prevention street outreach team. She has also cut back on her volunteer mentoring of so-called at-risk preteen and early teen girls -- some of whom already have sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. "I'm recuperating," she says somewhat defensively. Because Rhaynetta Cheatham, in the minds of many, is a little bit superhuman. "For so long she had a lot of her peers thinking she was this macho woman," George McRae says. "They are HIV-positive, too, and they look to her as a source of strength. She never told anyone she was like that; she never told anyone she didn't hurt, but that's how they thought of her."

Says Jef Morris, a friend of Cheatham and chairman of the board of the HIV/AIDS Planning and Management Organization (better known by its acronym, HAPMO): "We have a lot of remarkable people in this community, and those who have the most courage unfortunately die too soon. It's been this community's blessing that Rhaynetta is still alive, and that she was even stronger when her husband was alive. She hasn't given up her life, she hasn't given up loving, or caring, or crying. That's what makes her remarkable."

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