Faith & Healing
HIV Advocate Twana Lawler Talks to A&U’s Chael Needle About Transforming Her Experiences into Her Ministry
Photos by Dayn’l Beeler
In the filmed stage play, God’s Precious Jewels, written by Twana Lawler, a group of women meet to support each other, helping to raise each other’s consciousness with diverse perspectives and gems of wisdom. All are African-American women and, despite differences, all form a united front against intimate partner violence. In one scene, the husband of new-to-the-group Taneka barges into the women’s safe space. The threat is terrifying, but the women in the Precious Jewels ministry form a protective shield around Taneka with words, with faith, with their bodies. And with the help of the stand-up men in their lives, the threat is expelled.
Twana Lawler has found a sweet spot in her creative expression. Not only do her poems, songs, plays, screenplays and other writings engage audiences, they also educate about topics, such as sexual assault, domestic violence, stigma, and HIV/AIDS.
The writer has always, if intermittently, worked on her writing. At nineteen, as a disc jockey, she penned some rap lyrics. “This was in the ’70s so their lyrics were clean. If you know what I mean. You see I just rapped a little? But seriously, it was the writing that I realized that I did love so dearly, but life kept me away from the pen and paper,” she says. Early encouragement from her college professor, Mr. Brown, gave her a taste of being a literary celebrity when the campus newspaper published her A+ paper on teen pregnancy. Says Lawler: “He pulled me aside and said one day you will be a great writer. Well, today I write a lot so he knew what he was talking about.” Over the years, she has written books (including one for children), plays, poems, songs, and screenplays. If you have Amazon Prime, check out the films she wrote when she relocated to California for a while: Who Did I Marry, God’s Precious Jewels and When A Woman’s Fed Up. Love Happened By Chance, her gospel stage play, was staged in New York City.
Frequently, however, her writing has been waylaid by the traumatic events she has experienced. Lawler shares an early loss: “The most hurtful thing was that my father committed suicide and that was when my life began to spiral downhill. I was twelve years old and this took away from my creative expression. He was my everything and I was his. This happened in 1974. My brothers and I were not allowed to mourn properly. My creative expression disappeared or, shall I say, went into hibernation for many years because the pain was so deep.” Family life became difficult—the sexual untowardness of her mother’s new boyfriend helped drive her into the arms of a boyfriend and she became pregnant. Early marriage provided no help; her husband physically abused her. A relationship with another man became toxic because of his drug use. “I had to leave him alone for my sanity as well as my daughters’ but I was still unhappy,” she shares. “A couple of years later I was asleep in my home awakened to a man sexually assaulting me. After this I became an alcoholic.”
She continutes: “I tell people all the time my life was like a punching bag. The type that has air in it—you punch it and it comes back up.”
As a motivational speaker who seeks to empower others, the Kentucky native seeks to inspire listeners with her tale of “triumph over tragedy,” as she calls it.
Diagnosed positive in 2010 after ten years of celibacy, Lawler experienced depression and dementia as her disease progressed. She found stability in her steadfast faith in God, therapy, and the support and caregiving her four daughters provided to her. Now, she is undetectable, and, in her writing and ministry work as a born again Christian, one through-line persists: surviving trauma is possible, healing is possible, change for the better is possible.
Says Lawler: “My faith is strong because I know that God has my back. I now live in Atlanta, Georgia, because of my faith and my desire to not only advocate for HIV/AIDS, but to write movies and share my other gifts as well.”
A&U recently had the opportunity to interview the advocate.
Chael Needle: When did you start writing as a young person?
Twana Lawler: Let me see, I think around ten years old and I abruptly stopped, and the reason why is that writing was not my forte. Movies and fashion were.
I can remember the day when my father asked my three younger brothers and myself what we wanted for Christmas, and I said a video camera and a sewing machine. Christmas morning, there was a sewing machine and a movie projector with a large movie screen. But that was not what I asked for! I asked for a movie camera so I could make home movies. My father looked at me and asked me what was wrong, and I told him that this [projector] is not what I asked for and I don’t even know how it worked, and his reply was that I needed to teach myself. You know what I did? I taught myself; I fell in love with it. I learned how to put the tape on the reel so my brothers and I could have our very own movie night. I would make clothes on my sewing machine.
You mention your father’s lesson on Christmas morning. Who do you consider the teachers in your life, then and now?
Yes, this is a great question. Of course, my father was my everything. He talked to me about life. He took us to church; we had dinner at the table as a family and he would ask us how our day was. He would bring us gifts home each day after he got off of work. [And then] another teacher is my college professor, Mr. Brown.
When did you start incorporating HIV in your writing, and why?
2014 is when I incorporated HIV into my writing. It was a question of timing because I had written about infidelity, domestic violence, and healing. I had to heal mentally myself before I even wrote about a disease that I have. That was when I decided that I would write a play about HIV and AIDS and that was when I was ready to share on paper about the disease.
The reason I incorporated HIV in my writing is for those dying due to lack of knowledge or for those who are depressed, in denial, or concerned about the stigma. That is why I wrote a play entitled Stigmatized, [and] taking this into churches was on my mind when I wrote this.
My writing is to inspire, lift, and heal. Not all of my writing is about HIV, but it all promotes and embraces truth, healing, and life. A lot of us tend to turn our heads on people with HIV or AIDS, so my writing is to educate those who know no better. It is also to help those with the disease to hold up their head high because it is not a death sentence. The reason why I write about it is: people! I once was in their shoes where I wanted to die, but no longer do I feel that way. You know what I mean? It was a hard mountain to climb, but it became so much easier when I decided to utilize my gifts to walk down that mountain. I use my gifts not only to inspire others but to inspire me as well. “Don’t die, stay alive” is my motto. It is even a title of the HIV AIDS organization that I one day will have. I am also writing a book about my life. You know, once I decided to incorporate HIV into my writings I felt free. I was able to share my story with my head held high.
I am so glad you survived to be a messenger. What is your main message to people living with HIV/AIDS or at risk for acquiring the virus?
Thank you and I am happy that I survived. My message [for those at risk] would be: abstain! But, some people may not be able to do that; therefore they need to take precautions, such as condoms. I share my story to encourage people to be safe because they may have not been lucky as I was or, shall I say, blessed. God kept me for a reason such as this and that is to share my testimony….
I was so depressed and in denial that I did not take my one pill that I had to take. Three years [after my 2010 HIV diagnosis] I had a seizure and that is when I found out that I had AIDS, dementia, and severe depression. I could not walk, use the bathroom on my own, brush my teeth, comb my hair or—the most important thing that I love—write. I had two weeks to live. That was in 2013 and it is now 2021.
Is the ministry in God’s Precious Jewels similar to your ministry? Please tell me about it!
Yes, it is part of my life. I write about social issues. I wrote a screenplay entitled Honor to Pledge, a drama, which was a semi-finalist in an L.A. screenwriting contest. I also wrote When a Woman’s Fed Up and Who Did I Marry?, both of which are based on infidelity which I experienced with my second husband, whom I divorced due to that and his lies.
[In God’s Precious Jewels] the part where Taneka brought her friend from the women’s center to the Precious Jewels meeting and [the friend] shared her story of abuse—how her husband hit her when he was driving because she looked out of the window. Well, in actuality, I experienced that. My husband was controlling, jealous, and abusive. One day, he was driving and I glanced out the window at some guys standing in front of a store and he smacked me and told me to never do that again. I feel that my life story is my ministry.
I do have an HIV/AIDS ministry, “DON’T DIE STAY ALIVE,” where my vision is to take plays into churches as well as share my testimony.
I have been through a lot and it would make one wonder why I am not crazy. What I am is a strong woman and with each punch I got stronger and it gives me things to write. Although it was not a joy, I got to keep my head up and continue to bless others with my work. People call me the lady Tyler Perry and one day I pray to be able to work with him, but right now I will focus on my spiritual growth as well as my writing.
For more information about Twana Lawler, visit: www.twanalawler.com.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.