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Ava Gardner-Shipp



Ava Gardner-Shipp (pictured above) thought she had met the man of her dreams, a knight in shining armor.  A handsome man who adored her daughter, who could cook and quote scripture.

He was also a respected minister in the community and his name was Bernard Shipp.   Ava and Bernard dated for six months before they married in 1988.   They moved from Oakland to Sacramento where Bernard became the youth minister in their new church and Ava taught bible study.

Their perfect marriage began to unravel two years later when she learned her husband ‘intentionally’ infected her with HIV because ‘he didn’t want to die alone.’

Ava soon realized, Bernard had married her to hide his downlow status.  After a year into the marriage, Bernard became distant and moody.

He also brought paper bags home from doctor’s appointments but wouldn’t say what the medications inside were for.  One day she called his doctor.  He told her to talk to her husband about the illness.  At first, Bernard became defensive and refused to tell her what he had. With his health declining, he finally told her he had AIDS.  It was a shock to Ava.

Bernard denied contracting HIV through sex with other men but looking back, Ava remembered him introducing her to men from other churches and Bible study groups.  She would learn that some of those men had been sexually involved with her husband.

The last time they were intimate (before Bernard’s HIV admission) he stopped in the middle of having sex with Ava, looked in her eyes and said, ‘I can’t do this, I prefer men.’

“When he realized he was dying, that’s when he told me the whole truth.” Gardner-Shipp cared for her husband until he died.  When he could no longer walk, she lifted his 6-foot frame into a wheelchair and took him for walks.  She bathed and fed him and changed his adult diapers.

Before he died, he told her, “I infected you purposely because I don’t want to die by myself.” Ava says, “That was the cruelest thing he could have done to me.”

She continued to care for him and wouldn’t leave him because, he threatened to tell people in their community that she had infected him, he added, ‘don’t think about divorcing me or exposing me to family and friends or else I’ll put the blame on you.’

When Bernard Shipp died in 1993 at age 34, she told people at the funeral he died of cancer.  She says, “I stayed with him. I buried him.  I forgave him for what he did to me.”

“I didn’t hate him, I hated what he did to me. I stayed with him.”

It took Ava two years after her husband’s death to come to grips with what happened to her.  In 1997, she decided to come forward and tell the truth to friends and fellow parishioners in her new church.  When word spread, she was surprised to get calls from women who feared their husbands were on the downlow, secretly having sex with other men.  She also got calls from men who had AIDS and wanted help in telling their wives.

“I’ve met other women who say, ‘Your story is my story but I can’t tell it.’

Now 45, Gardner-Shipp has a small ministry called ‘Heaven In View’ in Elk Grove (Sacramento County).  She also does counseling and speaks before church groups, high schools and health seminars.  Her health is good, although she must take medicine and closely watch her condition.

Source: Jason B. Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle staff writer



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