Rhaynetta's Cause

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."

While she is in the hospital, Cheatham learns that she is to be one of four women honored by a New York-based AIDS advocacy group called Mothers' Voices, which is starting a new chapter in Miami. She will share an Extraordinary Voices award with a nun, a prominent pediatrician, and the administrator of the AIDS pediatric clinic at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

What usually attracts people to Cheatham first is her speaking -- or just plain communicating -- ability. It's why she has been asked to speak at World AIDS Day ceremonies at Bayfront Park, why she told her story on the Ricki Lake Show in 1993, and why she makes high school kids cry when she talks about being rejected because she has AIDS. But Cheatham's verbal prowess has been diminished in recent days by an unreliable memory and short-circuited mental processes, symptoms of the AIDS-induced infection toxoplasmosis.

Oscar Loynaz recalls a presentation Cheatham made several years ago to a group of student leaders at Miami Northwestern High in Liberty City. "It was one of the most moving experiences I've ever had because of how everyone reacted," says Loynaz, who served as coordinator of outreach programs to adolescents at Health Crisis Network at the time and who had arranged Cheatham's visit. (He now develops HIV-prevention programs at HRS.) "Rhaynetta was very proper-looking, well dressed. She didn't introduce herself as someone who had HIV. At one point, she did an exercise where she wrote out signs that said "church," "family," "boyfriend," and she was asking the kids, 'If you found out you were HIV-positive, what would you do; where would you go?' She was grabbing kids and putting them in front of one or another of the signs, and suddenly she turned around and said, 'Some people don't get accepted by any of these -- because that's what happened to me.' After that the kids gradually started to get it. A lot of them were shocked to find out [she was HIV-positive]. They just really started bonding. It became like this moving religious experience."

Back when she was feeling better, Cheatham did a lot of outreach work: for the AIDS ministry at Mount Tabor, for the Liberty City Health Services Center, and as a volunteer at the Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center and at county public schools. She went to crack houses and shooting galleries to show addicts ways to protect themselves. She tried to reach the young boys in the projects who make spectacular money selling dope until they're caught or killed. She found the young girls they've impregnated or infected, and the older girls (and boys) who were selling sex to buy drugs.

Her normally sardonic, light demeanor turns flatly serious when she discusses the epidemic among young blacks. "I get kids with STDs and they're not even in their teens. They're going to have a baby and they have to wait on an HIV test and it comes back positive. If their parents found out they'd kill them." She has had parents curse at her for not telling them about positive HIV tests, abortions, or other problems related to their child's sex life, she says. "You're eighteen. Who do you tell? Your boyfriend? 'I'm gonna wear this dress to the prom, and by the way, I'm HIV-positive.' They don't have anywhere to turn. You have your whole life ahead of you. It happens too damn much for me."

More than anger has driven Cheatham to work so hard with the kids, though. She has done it, too, to keep herself from going crazy.

In Miami, which has the fourth-highest number of AIDS cases of any metropolitan area in the nation (only New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco rank higher), the disease affects black men, women, and children at much higher rates than either white Anglos or Hispanics. While the Miami metro area is 21 percent black, black men account for 39 percent of all AIDS cases. The statistics for black women are more sobering: 77 percent of all adult women with AIDS are black. Among children the numbers are absolutely devastating: 97 percent of all children born with AIDS in Dade County are black. And while the incidence is declining among whites and remaining steady among Hispanics, it's still climbing for blacks.

Yet the crisis hasn't received the kind of popular attention that results in the marshaling of great financial and human resources. Despite the disproportionate effect of AIDS on Miami's black community, that population generally doesn't shape public perception of the problem; local activists and leaders of organizations serving people with AIDS are overwhelmingly white Anglos or Hispanics. So the sense of isolation and hopelessness deepens in already marginalized communities like Liberty City, home to one-fourth of all Dade's blacks who live with AIDS. Here, needless to say, in addition to the disease's usual insidious complications, AIDS is made worse by the heaping-on of poverty, crime, and racism. Here the failure of social programs to improve life forces the community to seek help among its own, as it has historically done. That is one reason Mount Tabor's tithe-supported AIDS ministry became so overwhelmed that church members started a separate nonprofit organization, MOVERS Inc., to seek public funding. "We took care of everything -- meals, transportation, rent," George McRae says. "Our church almost went under [serving AIDS patients]."

McRae's 1993 doctoral thesis for Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta outlined a church program to counter what he calls the "triangle of death in the African-American Community": AIDS, prison, and substance abuse. The church will always play an essential role in caring for and advocating on behalf of AIDS victims, McRae asserts, but he criticizes other pillars of the black community -- political, cultural, and business leaders -- for not recognizing the depth of the problem or wanting to tackle the shame and controversy associated with it. "Nobody wants to be identified with this issue," he says. "There's no reason why at least our politicians shouldn't have this as their main subject, but it's not a popular subject. In our congregation, most of the HIV-positive members know the problems with the system, and all expect very little from the system."

The Mount Tabor members who started MOVERS Inc. six years ago were at least partly motivated by that lack of confidence. The group (whose name, which Cheatham coined, is an acronym for Minorities Overcoming the Virus through Education, Responsibility, and Spirituality) provides counseling, case management, and companionship to HIV-positive people -- virtually every necessary service, in fact, except direct medical care -- out of its storefront offices on NW Seventh Avenue and 56th Street. MOVERS also sponsors a street outreach team. The director, Patricia Kelly, a registered nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, is on call 24 hours a day but receives no salary. Last year marked the first time MOVERS received any public money -- $30,000 from Dade County Commissioner James Burke's discretionary fund after a cover story by John Dorschner about Mount Tabor ran in the Miami Herald's Tropic magazine. This year MOVERS has been awarded $95,000 by HRS as part of the agency's Initiatives project, which targets low-income minority neighborhoods. (MOVERS was also awarded a $257,000 federal grant but has lost some of the money because it was unable to get some programs up and running quickly enough to meet the feds' funding requirements.)

In mid-April, Cheatham attends a celebration of the opening of MOVERS's new (albeit unair-conditioned) offices. The festivities include testimonials from several women staffers and volunteers, former crack addicts who wound up at Mount Tabor's Saturday-morning substance-abuse support groups.

"I'm concerned because we're dying," says one, a thin, voluble woman whose street-wariness is hardly concealed by a neat wedge haircut and a linen suit. "We're dying at a fast rate. I do street outreach and I tell everybody on the street corner, 'Yeah, I got AIDS,' and that's a big step for me. Two years ago I wouldn't have told you. I tried to commit suicide after finding out I was positive and my daughter was infected. Today I am a different person." At this the audience members, clustered under the clouds of red and white balloons, stop fanning themselves to applaud.

Another speaker, her handsome, sad-eyed face hinting at a hard past, tells of growing up in a good family, getting a good education, and feeling "something was missing. Eventually I met the rock monster." Her mother bailed her out of jail time after time, she continues, until she had succeeded in alienating her and everyone else who had ever helped her. A judge finally put her into a residential drug-treatment program, and she started going to Mount Tabor. Lifting her eyebrows in a look of self-surprised elation, she concludes, "Today I see my name on this program and not on a jail roster."

After the testimonials, Patricia Kelly steps up holding a plaque bearing Cheatham's name, destined for the door to MOVERS's outreach office down the hall. "This lady is Miss Outreach," Kelly declares as Cheatham uncrosses her legs and gets up slowly from her chair. "She does it better than anybody I've ever seen in my life. She knows how to make them feel welcome." Cheatham accepts the plaque and walks back to her seat, again to applause, without making a speech.

Later, after stepping outside for a few unapologetic (considering the condition of her lungs) puffs from a cigarette, Cheatham finds herself in the outreach room that will soon bear her name, discussing new and old AIDS medications with several MOVERS workers. "It's supposed to be the latest miracle," she says of a popular drug. "But they haven't followed people up. You'd be surprised how many jump on the bandwagon when they say they got a new pill that's gonna give you a sixteen-year-old butt and make you look like Cindy Crawford. But five years down the road, you're worse off than when you started. I ain't that desperate. Not any more. I got a God who keeps me from getting desperate." She leans her elbows on her knees and looks straight ahead, expressionless.

As Cheatham is leaving, a woman takes her plaque out of its plastic wrapper and holds it up against the Rhaynetta Cheatham McDonald Outreach Room's door. "You have to be half-dead to get one of those," Cheatham remarks as everyone admires the bank-office look of the door. All fall silent.

Cheatham was the elder of two children growing up in a strict, religious, middle-class home in Plant City, an agricultural town of about 23,000 just northeast of Tampa. Her father, who served in Italy during World War II, worked hard at a variety of labor jobs, and her mother cleaned the houses of Plant City's more privileged white population. But her mother and her aunt and other female relatives also sat on church, school, and civic committees; at a time when racial segregation and vast inequalities were the order of the day, the women in Cheatham's family were doing what they could within the black community to improve social conditions and instill pride. "They put bows in little girls' hair, and they bought shoes for children whose families were too poor to buy them," Cheatham recalls. "And I resented them paying all that attention to other kids when I needed it. Ironically, now I'm just like them." Her little brother, she says, was as docile and obedient as she was rebellious.

She didn't like going to church ("God was somebody you got in touch with when you were old and got arthritis and couldn't run in the streets or hit the bars any more") and she was offended more than anything else when she was chosen to be one of the "icebreakers" in her junior high school; a girl and a boy from each grade were enrolled in the all-white school as a precursor to mandatory integration the following year. Resistance from the white students was so fierce, she recalls, that her mother marched her into the school the first day accompanied by a police contingent. "Oh, Jesus, that made me even more uncomfortable. I didn't need to prove anything to those rednecks. Spitting, screaming, sign toting, 'Go back to Africa.' That teaches you to walk past white people and make yourself invisible, a certain look, the way you carry yourself says, I didn't hear it, it didn't hurt."

By her senior year, Cheatham recounts, she was headed for Jacksonville University, a white private institution. She almost lost her chance when her fellow black high school classmates took part in what she describes as a full-scale riot sparked by the principal's refusal to let a picture of a black Jesus remain as part of a black-history exhibit. "A guidance counselor, a black woman, locked me in the office because she knew how hard it was to get accepted to an all-white private college," Cheatham remembers. "So I didn't get to see my friends with their heads busted open, cops kicking a girl in the ribs, beating a boy with polio. I felt like an Uncle Tom." It was an unsettling, solitary position to be in, not on either side, a position Cheatham says she has grown accustomed to. "I've always been alone," she says.

She stayed at Jacksonville for two years, from 1973 to 1975, then enlisted in the army. "The only reason I went to college is I was expected to go. I didn't want to be there, it was too close to home." The army sent her to Landsthl, Germany, for three years, during which time her mother died. When she came back to Fort Stewart, Georgia, in 1979, she was pregnant with her first child. She says she didn't want to marry the father, a fellow serviceman who remained in Germany.

She had also returned stateside with a taste for cocaine. And when she was discharged in 1983, she was newly married, pregnant, and using heavily.

Cheatham went back to Plant City after her grandmother died and left her a house. When her second child was three months old, she kicked her husband out. She was working in a pharmacy, which at first provided enough money to buy drugs and pay the bills. But the habit grew, and when a man offered drugs for sex, she wasn't about to refuse. She gave birth to a third child. In less than two years, she'd lost the job and the house, and her aunt and the baby sitter took the children. She sold her car for drugs. She learned how to clip a john when his pants were down; she learned how to shave down a Brazil nut and coat it with hemorrhoid cream to make it look like a crack rock. All this in full view of her family -- her little brother now a Church of God preacher -- and whatever former schoolmates still remained in Plant City. "Everybody in town watches 'em take everything out your house, everybody in town has watched you lose weight, turn into a skeleton. What's the secret?" she says. "Then if you get high, you forget."

By 1985 Cheatham was pregnant again, and in jail in Tampa on drug charges. When she went into premature labor, she was taken to Tampa General and handcuffed to a bed. It was there that in the space of less than five minutes a nurse informed her she'd tested positive for HIV and her brother called with the news of the death of their father. Her fourth child, born a few weeks later, was healthy and was put up for adoption. Though her family knew she had the AIDS virus, she says, they wouldn't talk about it.

After more arrests for bad checks and drugs and a six-month stint in prison in 1990, she moved to Miami, where she had a few relatives and where "there were lots of people with AIDS." She was thinking she'd start a new, drug-free life, but she wasn't clean for long. She met a man at the Salvation Army and later moved in with him. He beat her, but she stayed with him for about a year. She got a job cleaning a South Beach hotel, and that evolved into a sort of customized drug-delivery business in which she was able to take a nice cut of the marijuana and coke she'd provide to rich white Beach boys. "My business was very discreet," says Cheatham. "All my street mentality went back to work. Drug addicts are masters of manipulation; they have to be able to convince you of whatever they're saying -- it's like phone sales or a sex line." By the time she gave birth to her fifth child (who was also put up for adoption) in August 1991, she felt at her lowest. In October of that year she entered a six-month residential drug-rehab program. "Having the baby was one catalyst," she admits. "The others were I was old and tired -- shit." She puts a little spin on the last word, to make it clear she was at the end of her rope.

Then came the process of learning to make a living legally, no small task when you've been using sex to pay the bills (if you've paid the bills), and when the only hours you've managed to keep were when you needed a fix. Cheatham says it was all she could do to stay at her first job after treatment, at a fast food restaurant where she could see prostitutes on the street outside making $100 an hour.

She discovered the substance-abuse support groups at Mount Tabor, but at first she had "no use for Christians or religion. I still wasn't convinced this God stuff would work. All He'd done was sit back and watch me make a total mess of my life A and on top of that I got AIDS." Eventually, Cheatham says, she came to see God not as something that assumed responsibility for her life -- "a permanent condom in my vagina," as she puts it -- but as a power to enable her to live fully with her present circumstances. "I didn't want to die miserable; just not getting high wasn't enough for me," she says. "God is something I could put in place of all those feelings and fears that come to the surface."

It was at Mount Tabor that she found acceptance for the first time. "They let me have AIDS and be okay."

Her family, Cheatham adds, has not entirely come to terms with her illness or her past. She didn't want them contacted for this story.

Seated on a small sofa in the living room of her apartment on Miami's Upper Eastside, Cheatham is working a word game in the Herald and talking about her relationship with her late husband. On a desk by the door, next to a basket of condoms that she sets out as an offering and reminder to all who enter, rests a copy of Josephine: The Hungry Heart, a biography of Josephine Baker; and an anthology of short stories and poems by black women. Pork ribs are marinating in the fridge (her father's sauce recipe) and she's waiting for a friend to come over and do her hair in braids, an eight-hour process that will leave it looking good for the upcoming Mothers' Voices award ceremony.

Beginning with the first months of drug rehab, Cheatham worked at several different jobs -- among them debris cleanup after Hurricane Andrew, homeless-outreach work for the City of Miami, and selling customized children's books with a close friend. She grew to be a critical voice in the local AIDS community after attending meetings of organizations that channel federal and state money to AIDS programs and services. "I became very disenchanted," she says. "They spent a lot of time arguing about who got to sit on what committee and who was going to be the chair, and fighting over which community [of AIDS victims] should get money. I've given up working within the system."

Still, organizers of local World AIDS Day events were impressed enough with her to invite her to make appearances the past three years. Her presentations have been unscripted dramatic monologues; in one, which she called "My Virus," she had an impromptu conversation with the AIDS virus in its various manifestations within her body. "Rhaynetta has a style," says Lori Jordahl, program manager for HIV counseling and testing for HRS and chairwoman of the South Florida World AIDS Day Coalition. "She can make people laugh, she can make people cry, she can spin their heads around and make them think." In 1993 she called the Ricki Lake Show in response to an inquiry seeking "reformed" prostitutes, and the program's producers flew her up to New York for the taping.

Through it all Joe McDonald was there, the reserved man with the shy smile whom Cheatham came home to, went to church with, turned to for help and comfort when she got sick. They met in late 1991 in treatment. Both had burned their bridges and alienated their families. "But we were like night and day," she says. "Here's an educated woman, traveled, articulate, and this was a man who stopped school in the ninth grade and was drinking at fourteen. There wasn't a snowball's chance in hell. Our therapist didn't think so. But I had to have him."

Besides the chemistry, Cheatham says, it was McDonald's genuineness, a lack of pretense and jealousy, that captivated her. "What you saw was what you got. He wasn't threatened by me. And he was so damn supportive it scared me." Married in September 1995, they got by on their disability checks and Joe's maintenance and delivery jobs -- and her job when she was healthy enough to work -- but their insurance wasn't enough to cover his funeral. Mount Tabor and friends' donations took care of that. Their small one-bedroom apartment is still full of reminders of their four years together, the history they were reclaiming -- lots of snapshots, stuffed bears he gave her, a tattered striped robe he wore that still bears his familiar smell.

Lately she has been feeling stronger physically, but she still lives with a plastic tube surgically threaded through to her heart so that antibiotics, blood, or other fluids may be administered. Though she has gained ten pounds since her March hospitalization, her figure has lost its old curves, and the cushion of fat under the skin of her face is gone, leaving hollows to accentuate her prominent cheekbones and Sphinx-like eyes. "I want my booty back," she complains, knowing the best she can do is have patience with her weakened body and its tiny, besieged band of T cells. But she struggles, frustrated, against her new memory problems and the unaccustomed difficulty in ordering her thoughts. At one point, when she can't remember how to summon the friend who has been driving her to the hospital in emergencies, an ambulance has to take her.

Those closest to her worry that she'll give up. She talks as though she won't, but she doesn't hide her desolation about the loss of her husband. "You get one love like that in your lifetime," Cheatham affirms, nodding, lifting onto her lap a glass-covered framed photo of the two of them standing on a porch, him reaching his arms around her waist from behind. "I ain't gonna train another one. You have to break 'em in, you know. I got lucky with that one." She stares straight ahead, forearms resting on her once-ample thighs, fingers laced.

Later in the day Cheatham has to drive her rusting, temperamental Buick to the beauty-supply store to pick up the hair extensions her friend will braid into her real hair to make long strands. She chooses eight packs at a dollar apiece. Paying the clerk, Cheatham accidentally gives him an extra ten-dollar bill. Her coordination is off, and the clerk is frowning uncomfortably. "Hey, my name ain't Imelda," she jokes, rolling her eyes and bringing a smile to the cashier's face.

Outside, pausing at a stoplight on Biscayne Boulevard, Cheatham spots a tall, down-and-out man with a caved-in chest and a toothless grin panhandling the captive cars. Before he gets to her, she leans out the window and yells, "Go to Camillus House!" He looks toward her with a look of pure innocent indignation, strands of greasy hair stuck to his forehead and jaw. But his tormentor is no mere commuter. "Go to Camillus House!" she calls again, waving him away.

She knows this man from her time doing homeless outreach, Cheatham explains. "We bought him two sets of teeth," she recounts with a mix of distaste and amusement. "He sold 'em both for crack."

Three days later, Cheatham will take her place at a round table under a tent on the shores of Biscayne Bay. She'll hear Ruth Shack, president of the Dade Community Foundation, introduce her to the assembled guests at the Mothers' Voices awards luncheon. "I can tell you this is one extraordinary woman," Shack will declare. "She has the spirit of a warrior and the pragmatism of a mother's strong voice. Rhaynetta Cheatham is often controversial and always honest."

With the help of the woman sitting next to her, Cheatham will rise and step to the podium. "I don't feel like an extraordinary woman," she'll say a bit hesitantly, casting about for the old dynamic style that has fallen prey to the infection in her brain. A few times she'll grasp for words or phrases that won't come. "Y'all are embarrassing me. I'm not used to this," she'll protest unconvincingly. Then she'll conclude softly: "This award is for every person with HIV who didn't have one person in their family they could go to."

"I didn't want to die miserable. God is something I could put in place of all those feelings and fears that come to the surface.


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