Rev. Rae C. Lewis-Thornton
Many people who come across Rae Lewis-Thornton might describe her as, educated, attractive, assertive and ambitious. Not the kind of person with HIV running through her veins. But in 1986, at the tender age of 23, Rae organized a blood drive as a way of educating people to the fact that donating blood was safe, that the needles used were new and clean. Shortly thereafter, Rae received a letter from the Red Cross. She assumed it was a thank you note. Instead, she was confronted with news that would change her life forever.
“The HIV antibody test was brand new. They had just started to test blood. I went to the Red Cross the next day. The entire meeting took five minutes. I was 23 years old. It was a cruel time to be told you’re HIV infected.”
How cruel? There were no drugs on the market to deal with AIDS. At the time, most doctors and patients played the wait-and-see game. As in wait-and-see while the virus ravaged the human body. Eventually drugs like AZT arrived, but the massive dosages prescribed at the time usually made patients sicker and more tired. Rae suffered through those early toxic doses, and later tried a plethora of pharmaceutical attempts to attack the virus, most of them coming with the high price of severe side effects.
But she persevered. She survived until more life-sustaining drugs came along. A youthful, educated, attractive, assertive and ambitious woman who’s been through the trenches of AIDS for almost two decades, Rae is now a motivational speaker and a messenger with a powerful message.
“People ask me often how I do this, how do I survive. It’s not just about treatment. Treatment is half the ball game, but with that you have to have a good doctor who understands how HIV works, who’s up to date on HIV meds. Then once you’ve got the physical health together, you have to start looking at your mental health. And then you have to have some spiritual peace, too. You have to have a support system, too. The combination of all of those together will help you cope with this disease for a long period of time.”
Despite having full-blown AIDS, Rae is on a personal crusade to educate and challenge audiences young and old to take control of their own bodies, futures and health. She uses her own life as a living example that AIDS is a non-discriminatory disease. She challenges the most common myths and stereotypes surrounding the virus.
Her pulpits have included media outlets many only dream of being a part of. She appeared on the cover of the December 1994 issue of Essence magazine, as well as in numerous feature stories in Ebony and Emerge magazines. In their November 2002 issue, Ebony Magazine named Rae Lewis-Thornton one of America’s 57 Most Intriguing People of the year. She’s also told her story in publications like the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Washington Post, and Dayton Daily News. In addition. Rae has bared her soul on several national television documentaries, news shows, and television specials, including Nightline and the Oprah Winfrey Show. She also served as a contributing editor for WBBM (a CBS-owned and operated television station in Chicago) for an ongoing series of first-person stories on living with AIDS. Her series garnered her an Emmy Award.
. Rae received a Master of Divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary in June 2003 and is a magna cum laude university honors graduate of Northeastern Illinois University. She was the recipient of the Arthur Hays Fellowship in Church History. Rae is currently a PhD candidate at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a Master of Arts candidate in Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Rae is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She was licensed as a Baptist minister in July 2000 at Fellowship Baptist Church, in Chicago, Illinois by the Rev. Clay Evans.
Prior to becoming a motivational speaker, Rae was on her way to a promising career in the political sphere, including stints as Senator Carol Mosley Braun’s Campaign Advance Coordinator, Illinois State Youth Coordinator for the 1988 Dukakis Presidential Campaign and National Youth Director for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 Presidential Campaigns. In 1993, Rae was forced to retire from politics as a result of her health, but that hasn’t stopped her from getting out her very political and personal message.
When asked what keeps her going, Rae responded, “There is a desire to continue to push forward to tell my story so that others will keep themselves safe from the disease. On another level, I tell people often that there’s a sense of not surrendering to the darkness of HIV, and at the end of the day, it’s about maintaining one’s dignity in the midst of the adversity, shame, guilt and hurt that HIV causes. I continue to preserve as a way to not surrender, so people know you can hold your head up and do it without shame.”