Cookie Johnson encourages first ladies to lead church in HIV/AIDS awareness

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Since her husband was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, more is known about the disease, but more African Americans are dying from it, Cookie Johnson told a gathering of first ladies from Chicagoland churches.

Since her husband was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, more is known about the disease, but more African Americans are dying from it, Cookie Johnson told a gathering of first ladies from Chicagoland churches.

“(We) kinda got quiet, complacent,” Johnson, wife of the former Laker’s baskeball team star, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, said. She addressed the first ladies at a June 17 luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton hotel downtown and urged them to do what they could to bring the issue of HIV/AIDS awareness to their respective congregations.

“You are the heartbeat of the community,” Cookie Johnson said. “We can’t be quiet, we gotta be noisy, we gotta be loud. … It’s a totally preventable disease.”

Johnson recalled the day her husband called her on the phone, on a day she was preparing to watch him play basketball on TV, and said he would, instead, be home shortly and that he had something to tell her.

Though they had been together on and off for years, at the time, the couple had only been married a few months when Magic Johnson arrived home and told his wife he was HIV-positive.

“It was devastating,” Johnson said at the luncheon, which was the first ladies annual health event as a group. Her “world came crushing down.”

She had also just learned that she was pregnant with the couple’s child.

At the time of Magic Johnson’s announcement to his wife and the world of his status, not a lot was known in the world of science and medicine about the disease. Death was common.

But Johnson pointed out at the luncheon that the disease doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Education, awareness and testing are the key to preventing or treating HIV and AIDS, she said.

Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer grim statistics for African Americans dealing with HIV. The federal agency reports that African Americans “face most severe burden of HIV in the United States.” Forty-six percent of the people

diagnosed with HIV at the end of 2007 were African American, according to the CDC.

Though among African Americans, men accounted for 65 percent of the new infections in 2006, the new infection rate among Black women at the time was 15 times higher than white women and four times higher than Hispanic women.

Johnson told the first ladies she is working with the CDC to draw attention to the disease in poor and minority communities, and help break barriers to awareness and treatment.

As a spokeswoman for her husbands Magic Johnson Foundation, Johnson takes the message of HIV/AID awareness directly to women and to the Black church.

After addressing the women at the luncheon, she spoke to the Defender.

Johnson did not contract HIV from her husband and her baby was not born with the disease either. Still, she told the Defender that she remains vigilant “because our people are dying at disproportionate rates. People are dying period, and we have to do something about it.”

That is where the first ladies come in.

“I hope they go back to their congregations and start HIV and AIDS ministries because every time something (happens) … the first place you go, you seek refuge at your church. And if the church doesn’t want you or treats you like you’re leprosy, then where do you have to go?” she reasoned.

Though Johnson admits that “tradition” often gets in the way of Black faith leaders speaking openly about the disease – once considered to be an affliction mostly affecting homosexuals– she feels the first ladies can help to break some barriers.

Johnson hopes outreach efforts touch women especially, “to empower them to say no if they’re not going to be protected … to say I need to go get tested. I need to take care of myself before I take care of everybody else. As Black women, we take care of everybody else and we always put ourselves last. And if we do that, we’re not gone be here to take care of (others).”

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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