Spotlight: Meet the Queen!
Updated: Sep 9
Sanctuary is found in many places; it is rooted in safety and refuge for all who seek comfort. Many find their sanctuary within the church. But for those who are living with or affected by HIV/AIDS, stigma can create a barrier within their own community.
Faith is deeply personal and sometimes is the driving force in someone’s life. Furthermore, faith is the cornerstone for many Black communities. According to Jacquine “Queen” Rankins, a longtime employee of Friends For Life, the Memphis Black faith community still has a lot of work to do when it comes to serving its members affected by HIV/AIDS.
“Church is the place that people can go and not feel scared,” said Queen. “It’s the opportunity to feel safe. It’s the foundation of their lifestyle.”
Queen has been a Friend for more than 20 years and got her start in the organization volunteering with her husband, who she calls her “King.”
Throughout the years she has taken on many roles, doing clerical or receptionist work within FFL. Over time, she found her real passion is providing clients with direct health services.
“I have made so many friends here. Clients trust us and many don’t have family they can rely on,” said Queen. “We have to stand by what they are. We are their friends.”
This passion is what led Queen to start her most important and fearless work yet: Lift Up Your Love.
Lift Up Your Love (LUYL) was birthed with the help of a transformative Gilead COMPASS grant as part of their larger initiative to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the South.
By collaborating with community stakeholders, solutions can be created to meet the needs of people living with and impacted by HIV/AIDS.
This grant allowed Queen to create LUYL from the ground up to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS within Memphis’ predominantly Black churches.
With Queen currently being the only LUYL representative, she has taken it upon herself to foster these important connections with church officials.
“I had to call 78 churches before 6 even agreed to fully partner with us,” said Queen. “Churches do so much in their communities. Many of them want to get involved, but frankly they’re scared to.”
Queen dropping information about LUYL in the mailbox of a local Memphis church.
In 2019, Memphis and Shelby County rose to number three in the nation for new HIV transmissions and to number one for AIDS diagnoses. These statistics are disproportionately reflected in the local Black community. Queen says she saw the disconnect in the support needed for these community members and support actually provided to them in their churches.
“Many HIV positive people go to church for release,” said Queen, “there’s a lot of pent up emotion and worries to let out.”
However, the more work she did with clients, the more she realized how important it was to pursue meaningful relations with church officials.
“They call me the survey lady,” said Queen. “I want people to know that this project is amazing and that it’s here for the community. Fighting the stigma is hard, though.”
The stigma around HIV/AIDS has lingered for the past 40 years and Queen has found that this mentality is what makes it so hard to find partners for LUYL.
The negative image that was created in the early stages of HIV has left deep scars in the Black community, and they are slowly healing.
“This work is extremely important and these people are missing out on life-changing things,” said Queen. “Lack of jobs, lack of being given opportunity, being treated differently by friends and family. Stigma is so, so real. [HIV positive] individuals all live with a bit of fear because of that.”
This fear is why Queen is so passionate about the work she does with LUYL. She hopes that with her assistance, the misunderstandings surrounding HIV can start to take a turn for the better. She wants to assist churches with realizing just how big of a role they can play in the lives of their communities.
“If free, confidential testing can be provided, then the road to change can begin,” said Queen.
Part of her initiative is to measure and document the negativity surrounding those who are HIV positive by tasking church members to take a survey about HIV stigma. LUYL is an evolving initiative and Queen hopes that by finding out what the people she is serving think of HIV, she can empower them through education and challenge their biases.
“I want to find Faith Ambassadors within the local churches,” said Queen. “I want it to be a partnership where they are sending us volunteers and getting involved. Our agency wants to educate, and we are ready begin.”
Queen on her way to the Abundant Life Temple.
Another branch of the work she does is discussing with church members the importance of getting on PrEP, a daily medication that can prevent the spread of HIV. When discussing it with people, oftentimes she is met with pushback for fear of the side effects. However, she is finding her own ways to change their minds.
“I ask them if they take medication for blood pressure,” said Queen, laughing. “When they say yes, I ask them if they read the little letters on the back with all the side effects. They then stop talking and start listening.”
She is also teaming up with her partners to start an HIV ministry where HIV positive individuals can find community with those who are affected.
“It all starts with you and me,” said Queen. “ We always talk about the problems, but we have to be active. We have to make it personal.”
Queen hopes that when LUYL begins to take off, the Black community will begin to see profound change within those who are HIV positive. She hopes that they take a new stab at life and realize that their lives are not over if they find out they are positive.
“One time I met a client who told me getting diagnosed with HIV was one of the best things to ever happen to him,” said Queen. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘because now I can live.’ I want them to know that we just keep on living.”