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Living with Aids

Rae Lewis-Thornton looked like everything but a woman dying of AIDS as she moved with energy, spoke with passion and carried herself with supreme confidence.

She admitted her life should have ended quite some time ago, but it was on full display for students at Concordia College’s Jenkins Center on Tuesday.

Lewis-Thornton spoke frankly and encouraged open dialogue about sex, diseases, education and coping with life after becoming HIV positive.

She recalled the story of a teenage girl who had heard Lewis-Thornton speak while she was a freshman in high school. Five years later, Lewis-Thornton ran into the girl, who was pregnant and tearful in a Chicago AIDS clinic.

The girl told Lewis-Thornton how much she admired her.

“I don’t care whether you like me or dislike me or not,” Lewis-Thornton said. “I didn’t come here with the hope I was going to save you. I came here with a hope and a prayer that you would do something with your own life. In the end, the only person that can save you is you.”

Concordia College CEO Portia Shields preached the importance of attentiveness to the issue in her opening remarks, especially because the school’s student population is majority black. Half of the 1 million people living with AIDS in the U.S. are black, Shields said, and 38 percent of AIDS-related deaths in the country are among black people. Two thirds of women with AIDS are also black.

Lewis-Thornton, 46, found out she had the disease 23 years ago and until recently did not know who gave it to her. She acknowledged and then dismissed the initial response from crowd members that people who sleep around are more likely to catch HIV.

“I didn’t have one-night stands. I didn’t have sex on the first date,” Lewis-Thornton said. “I only had sex with men I thought I loved.”

After explaining that that her partners were often well educated or gainfully employed, she also knocked down perceptions about the spread of the disease among certain social classes in society.

Since being diagnosed, Lewis-Thornton has been featured in magazines, newspapers and news TV shows, produced an Emmy-winning series on first-person accounts of living with AIDS and become an ordained Baptist minister.

“You become infected today, but you don’t start to die until you’re ready for life,” she said.