The stranger attacked Joyce Turner Keller as she returned to her home in Picayune, Miss., from a morning run.
“I remember trying to get in my house,” Keller said of that morning in 1995.
“I found myself in the fight of my life, and I’m still in the fight of my life,” she said.
Keller, 61, a minister, mother and grandmother, learned six years later that the rapist had brought not only violence and terror but also had infected her with HIV, which has developed into AIDS, an immune system disease that has no cure.
Keller has since become a spokesperson for people with the disease.
She believes she has spoken at least 100 times before congressional groups in Washington, D.C., for the need for increased AIDS awareness, prevention and resources.
“I was a praying woman, a good grandmother, mother and daughter,” Keller said.
“I had to reach down deep … for the energy to make sure I was going to be OK,” she said, of the days after she got the diagnosis.
“I have to live. I have to take care of my grandchildren,” Keller said.
In fact, she remembers that it was one of her grandchildren who helped her regain her hope and courage.
Just 4 years old, he had come home from school hungry.
He told his grandma that he knew she wasn’t feeling well, so if she could just fix him some New York steak and baked beans, that would do fine.
“I got up and fixed him that New York steak and those baked beans,” Keller said.
“’You can do this,’” she thought.
“I knew I was going to live,” she said.
Keller said she became an activist because she realized, “If it was happening to me, it was happening to someone else. If I didn’t know anything about HIV, I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was.”
The upshot is that Keller has expanded the work of an interdenominational ministry she founded more than 30 years ago, as well as a nonprofit youth organization, Aspirations, she founded a decade ago, to include AIDS awareness and prevention information.
And she’s always ready to comfort those who have the same disease she has.
“I’ve known several people die of rejection. The disease didn’t kill them, the loneliness did,” Keller said.
The very places where people traditionally turn to for comfort and help are often closed to people with AIDS, because of the stigma of the disease, she said.
“Families and our church homes actually destroy with their judgment” many times, Keller said. “People feel unworthy.”
A native of Slaughter, Keller raised three children as a divorced, single mom, working over the years as a paralegal — in 1989, she was one of the first graduates at a then-new paralegal course at LSU — a professional seamstress, a paraprofessional in public schools and, for a short while, an airline flight attendant.
A lifelong learner, she’s taken academic classes at various times in her life at LSU, Southern University and William Carey University, in Hattiesburg, Miss., in such subjects as theology, art, psychology, gerontology and African-American history.
The idea for the nonprofit youth group, Aspirations, came out of a grant-writing class she took at Southern, she said.
The organization works with teens, providing violence prevention, self-esteem building, conflict resolution, and education about preventing teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS, Keller said.
She would have liked to have become a lawyer.
“I’ve always been interested in human rights,” Keller said.
Alongside of her workaday world, Keller has had an active life of ministry.
As a young woman in the 1970s, Keller studied for and obtained a series of ministerial licenses through a nondenominational church here.
In 2009, she received a doctorate in theology from a nondenominational theological center, called Belle Glades and then based in Colorado, she said.
More than 30 years ago, Keller founded a ministry called Travelers of Christ Evangelistic Ministry and often holds services in her home.
Keller seems tireless, despite AIDS.
One morning at her Baton Rouge home, Keller showed visitors the large vegetable garden and fruit orchard in her backyard — that she uses to teach young people about healthy eating — then went inside the house to begin the daily regimen she maintains to try to stay strong.
Every morning, while her breakfast is cooking, she works out a bit on a machine that targets the abs and another one called a “stepper” that lets her walk in place.
She said that most days she works out in heels and full business dress, ready to head out the door on her next mission after breakfast.
She likes to eat protein for her morning meal — often grilling steak or chicken on her George Foreman Grill — to keep up her strength, she said.
After breakfast, it’s time to take the approximately 10 different medicines she takes to combat the symptoms of AIDS.
The top drawer of the dresser of her room is full of medicine bottles, some old, some current, that attest to the trial-and-error of finding the right medicines and their combinations during the 10 years since her diagnosis, she said.
Sometimes, Keller brings the medicine bottles to educate youth about the realities of AIDS.
“Young people need to know there is no quick fix to this,” Keller said.
“It’s horrific what you go through” until you know what your body can tolerate, she said.
Keller receives assistance in getting her medicine through the Louisiana AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) and also receives some assistance with medicine from the Volunteers of America.
Her local physician is Dr. Rani Whitfield, and her AIDS specialist is Dr. Joseph Gathe Jr. in Houston.
Keller does much of her volunteer and ministry work from her home office at the back of her house.
“It feels so good at night to walk out of there,” Keller said.
She’ll end up resting in a comfortable rocking chair in her front living room.
“Many times I fall asleep writing” for grants that help fund the activities of the Aspirations organization, she said.
In her home, she has beautiful wooden carvings from Africa that she bought years ago, when she traveled there, as a guest on faith-related missions, she said.
“God has been good to me,” Keller said.
The AIDS symptoms she experiences the most, she said, are feelings of fatigue and a worsening of arthritis in her hands, legs and back.
But when someone first asks her how she feels, living with AIDS, she says, “Empowered.”