Now I want you to know,
brothers and sisters,
that what has happened to me
has actually served to advance the gospel.
I asked Chris Rees to my senior prom in 1991. It was our first date. I was 17; he was 19. Our families had known each other for years, and we attended the same church.
words + photographs ROBIN REES
From our first date, I can say he felt like home to me. The only way I know to describe it is I was comforted and calmed in his presence. Since I’m not a calm person, this is a significant description.
No grand gestures were planned on our first date. We were just two kids getting to know each other, with both sensing this was something special.
On Christmas Eve seven months later, Chris proposed in the living room of my parents’ house in front of my family. We knew we wanted to always be together, and we were married on June 5, 1993. We were like most young, newly married couples: broke, lots of love, and lots of adjusting. We fought – I once was so mad I whacked a hairbrush on the side of the bathroom sink and the top of the brush flew off –we made up, we learned, and we grew. I’m so thankful for the first four years of our marriage.
My purpose is not to be happy or even healthy. My purpose is to glorify God.
In 1996, we were blessed and excited to buy our first home. Chris had a college degree and a salaried job, and I was working for hourly pay as a teller at a local bank. Shortly after we moved into our new home, we found out we were expecting our first child. We were elated. And nervous. First home, first baby; life was good.
Around Thanksgiving of that year, Chris was laid off from work. I remember I had driven, unaware, to pick him up at his job so we could travel to Bolivar to see some of his family. When he came out to the car, he told me I better let him drive. He had just been laid off from work and knew he would have to tell his pregnant, emotional wife on the drive to Bolivar, so he drove. This is love. Love is just stepping up and doing the hard thing to help those around us. Chris lives this.
After about three months of Chris being unemployed, he was hired by then-Southwest Missouri State University in January 1997. Shortly after he began working there, he developed an infection in his mouth called “thrush.” It is an infection healthy adults don’t typically develop. I remember him telling me after his doctor’s appointment it was strange because the doctor did an HIV test on him.
Chris had a tumor behind his left eye, inside his sinus cavity, when he was young. Part of the treatment depleted some of his counts, so he needed blood transfusions. The tumor was not cancerous, but it was the size of the doctor’s hand. It left Chris with no central vision in his left eye.
The doctor knew Chris’ history of blood transfusion in a time before blood was tested for HIV. With the infection he had, the doctor felt like Chris needed to be tested just to be safe. His words.
About two weeks later, the doctor called asking us to come in for the results. My stomach dropped, but I thought, surely not. On Feb. 17, 1997, Dr. Pegram met us in the waiting room. I remember thinking it wasn’t a good sign when the doctor was the one who came to retrieve us. As Chris and I sat across the desk from the doctor, he explained Chris’ HIV test had come back positive, and he had made us an appointment with an area specialist.
To say I was in shock would be an understatement. We had an extremely limited knowledge about HIV and AIDS. Would I be OK? We had been married four years; surely I would be positive too. Would our baby be OK? I remember on the way out to the waiting room Chris holding my hand, stopping me, looking me in the eyes and saying, “It’s going to be OK.” Again, reassuring me, taking care of me, stepping up for me, when he was the one who had just been dealt this life-altering diagnosis.
Once we were home, I curled up on the couch in a fetal position and stayed there. I was 23 years old, 14 weeks pregnant, and completely frozen in shock. I was zero help to my husband. While I lay on the couch, processing and praying, Chris called his folks in Honduras to deliver the news. He called other family members. He called friends. He took care of telling everyone who needed to be told. He answered their questions the best he could and then made the next call. He stepped up and did the hard thing so I could lay on the couch in shock.
Both families were concerned, loving, attentive, and wanted to do all they could to help. It wasn’t until years later I started hearing stories from friends and family about how they remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned our news. The stories reminded me of the big impact our news had on so many. We really couldn’t have had more support. I hurt for those with this diagnosis who don’t have the same response from their family and friends and church.
I was relieved when our healthy baby was born. HIV is transmitted from mom to baby. However, when Alli was about 18 months, I had her tested again because I was worried. She was often sick, and I wanted to be cautious. Even though all my tests looked good, I did not feel I had the freedom to nurse either girl (spoiler alert!) because I worried about the possibility of having HIV. That is one of the things I’ve always felt like AIDS took from me.
For the next 24 years and counting – 4,380 + days – Chris has continued to do the hard things so he can protect and provide for his family, which now includes two healthy, beautiful daughters. Chris is consistent, he is faithful, and he is determined. The virus and the medicine are both physically hard on him. He fights fatigue almost daily, but he steps up every day. Love is doing the hard things necessary to take care of those we love. Love is doing the hard things, the right things, even when you don’t feel like it or maybe even want to.
God gave me a phrase a long time ago: My pain can have a purpose. Pointless pain creates huge frustration for me, but pain with a purpose gives me hope and helps me to persevere. I’ve also learned, through lots of wrestling in the early days, the good God wants to work in our circumstances is for us to know Him more, love Him more, and to help others know and love Him more. That is our purpose. That is why we all exist. To become more like Jesus and to glorify Him.
Chris’ diagnosis has definitely produced that. It is a journey, but we see the progress. We know and love God so much more than we used to. We see how God has used our pain to encourage others and to bring them closer to Him. That isn’t a side-hustle-gig purpose to our lives. That is the purpose.
When Chris was first diagnosed, my Aunt Darla found AIDS Project of the Ozarks, a local nonprofit that serves those impacted by HIV and AIDS. She contacted them and bought us a John Hopkins book all about HIV and AIDS; Google wasn’t a thing quite yet. We were connected with a caseworker from APO who was a HUGE help. Not only did she educate us, but she came to my work and to our church to offer education, as well. We did not keep our news quiet.
God had a plan, and He was inviting us into it. Chris and I started the AIDS ministry at Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri, where my dad was the senior pastor at the time.
When Chris was moved out of client status at APO, we moved into a volunteer role, through both our AIDS ministry at church and through serving with APO directly. When we started the AIDS ministry at Ridgecrest, it took about two years before we were able to have contact with clients directly. So many people had bad experiences with “church” people, so it took a long time to earn their trust. I heard stories of church people who would go to visit an AIDS patient in the hospital, but they wouldn’t touch the patients or even get close to them. I am thankful APO, who currently serves 700 clients with HIV/AIDS, was willing to partner with us to minister to their clients. Each year, we are able to host their annual Christmas party. Pre-pandemic we would host a nice sit down meal, sing carols, read the Christmas story, and just try to love on those in attendance.
Today, Chris is the APO board president and has been on its board for many years. I serve on the finance committee. God has opened doors for us to show love, and I am grateful. APO has been kind and gracious and an amazing partner. The work they do is incredible, and we are blessed to be a small part of what they do.
By God’s grace, I am virus free and both our daughters are healthy, as well. One of the miracles I see is just the joy for life Chris and I still have in the midst of our daily battles. Chris works full time, and we are starting to dream of retirement and growing old together.
God has also allowed us to travel to Africa and work with local pastors and their wives. At the end of our week together, Chris shared his story. After hearing it, our translator spoke in the closing session and shared how we taught them to love the positive. Wow! I’m not sure God could make it more clear to us how He was using what Satan intended for evil to work miraculous good instead.
My purpose is not to be happy or even healthy. My purpose is to glorify God. Our pain has a purpose, and I am so thankful God has opened our eyes to see it. RR
Robin and Chris Rees have been married 28 years and have two daughters, Alli and Molly. Robin is the CRA officer at OakStar Bank. The Rees family lives in Nixa, Missouri.
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