When Los Angeles Lakers star Ervin “Magic” Johnson announced that he had contracted the AIDS virus during a now-infamous press conference on Nov. 7, 1991, West Side Pastor Diana Body’s interest in the erstwhile unheard-of disease piqued.
“It was a pivotal event for me because it was the first time I saw someone who I had followed being directly impacted by the virus,” Body said during a recent interview.
She would go on to launch her own personal reconnaissance mission into the disease —investigating its causes, its symptoms, its origins and the difference between it and HIV. Body said she wanted to discover as much as he could.
“It was a fact-finding mission that was greatly enlightening for me because I discovered things I had never known before that point,” said Body, who pastors Life of Peace International Ministries, 5902 W. North Ave.
The research would prove beneficial to the pastor’s present mission. Body, who is a member of the West Side Minister’s Coalition for HIV/AIDS, has dedicated a significant part of her life since Johnson’s diagnosis raising awareness about the disease. The coalition works with local health care organizations like Loretto Hospital and the West Side Health Authority to spread information through a range of local events.
Last month, the coalition, which is made up of approximately 35 local religious leaders, held its 13th annual Back-to-School HIV Awareness event at Austin Town Hall. The event was attended by nearly 200 community residents and allowed patrons to enjoy a fun-filled afternoon of music and food, while also receiving access to information about prevention and treatment of the HIV virus.
Although the number of reported HIV and AIDS cases has decreased over the past decade, Chicago still has a higher infection rate than the national average. And among Chicagoans, blacks are much more likely to contract the HIV and AIDS than other racial and ethnic demographic groups — particularly blacks who live in neighborhoods like Austin, West Garfield Park and North Lawndale.
According to a 2013 report by the Chicago Department of Public Health, in 2010-11, West Garfield Park was averaging nearly 80 reported cases of HIV infection per year — a rate that was among the highest in the city. Austin and North Lawndale had averages of nearly 44 and of 64, respectively. For comparison, the average infection rate for the entire city was around 37.
And yet, despite those high averages in West Side communities, Pastor Body said many people who contract HIV and AIDS struggle with feelings of isolation.
“One of the things that I have discovered from my research on the disease is how alone some people can feel when they receive a positive on an HIV test,” she said. “We want to let them know that there are options available to them and that they don’t have to feel like they will be stigmatized.”
Body, who grew up in the Austin neighborhood, said that offering relief to those who have been diagnosed has been an animating feature of her activism.
“I knew I wanted to give back to the community and wanted to expand my involvement with the church,” said Body. “I felt that God was calling me to give back to the community.”
“She’s just an amazing person,” said Stanley Stevens, president of the coalition. “I think it’s the combination of being both a great team player and having a compassionate heart that allows her to be so successful from the pulpit and in-person discussing how HIV and AIDS has impacted our community. This is a subject that means a lot to her.”