Stephanie Williams: Her death became call to action

October 12, 2008 

Cars lined the road near the little country church nestled into the Bamberg County countryside in October 2007.

Inside, mourners packed the pews; others lined the walls of Gethsemane Baptist Church.

The Rev. Isaac Holt addressed those who had come to say goodbye to Stephanie Williams, who died at 45 after a long struggle with HIV/AIDS.

Until Williams’ brother Herbert Beard, a minister at Holt’s church in Charleston, asked him to speak at the funeral, Holt hadn’t known much about HIV/AIDS. So he did a little research and prayed for God’s guidance.

At the funeral, Holt used biblical references to lepers as a metaphor for how people with HIV/AIDS are shunned by the public.

“I found it interesting that Jesus was a great healer of the lepers,” Holt said. “I believe that God sent Stephanie in the midst of this stigmatized community.”

Years before, Williams had fled Bamberg for Orangeburg to escape stigma.

For too long, some religious people have been unsympathetic to those with HIV/AIDS and have ignored the epidemic, seeing the illness as God’s punishment for homosexuality and sin, Holt said.

“The whole church has a lot of repenting to do,” he said.

“You can ignore things for only so long.”

“Amen!” rang the voices of the congregation.

Black women make up a growing proportion of South Carolina’s new HIV infections. They have long overtaken white men both in terms of proportion of new diagnoses and of those living with HIV.

In 2006, black women made up 25 percent of new diagnoses; white men made up 16 percent. Black women also made up 26 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS, compared with 20 percent of white men.

Stephanie Williams learned in the early 1990s that she had gotten HIV from an infected partner. The diagnosis shocked her.

But she didn’t shrink from the revelation.

“She embraced it and made a difference with it,” said her brother Herbert. Williams became an outspoken advocate who urged others to speak out, too.

Karen Bates, a friend and fellow activist, said that Williams told other women with HIV that if they hid, “people would forget about us and pretend we didn’t exist.”

For a long time, Williams was the only black woman in her small Bamberg community to speak openly and often about HIV. She began by telling anyone who would listen how to avoid the mistakes she had made.

“She would sit there and tell you her business and be open about it: This is my book. Read me, what happened to me,” her brother remembered.

“You’ve got to love her for it.”

After receiving her diagnosis, Williams read all she could on HIV/AIDS: the clinical aspects, the statistics, the social issues. She won a fellowship to the Black AIDS Institute’s African American HIV University in Los Angeles.

“She was not shy about demanding that people explain things to her so she could understand,” said the Rev. Charles King, whose New York-based organization, Housing Works, honored Williams for her activism.

With Bates, she founded two organizations, the short-lived S.C. Association of People With AIDS and the S.C. Campaign to End AIDS.

Until she became too sick, Williams worked with a task force that fought to provide life-saving medicines for people with HIV/AIDS who had been put on a waiting list.

“Thank you. Thank you, Lord,” she whispered from her death bed, on hearing that legislators approved the assistance.

As her illness progressed, Williams lay quivering in pain, in bed at her mother’s home in Bamberg.

At times, she cried out: “Glory! Have mercy, Lord.”

Eventually, she found it difficult to eat or to take her medicine.

At the end, she lay surrounded by more than a dozen family members.

Her aunt, Virginia Bannister, laid a hand on Williams’ chest, telling her gently: It’s all right.

“We’ll understand if you leave us.”

And Stephanie Williams left peacefully.

Her work was done.

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