by Rebecca Barnes
What began as a disease infecting homosexual men has become a worldwide crisis that is decimating populations of women and children in sub-Saharan Africa. And the Christian response that began with shunning and condemnation has become an answer to the call for help from the 43 million people now living with HIV/AIDS. (Approximately 8,000 die of the disease every day.)
According to Carl C. Stecker, senior program director of the AIDS Relief ART Project, involvement in the AIDS crisis is our mandate as Christians. He cited the directives found in Matt. 25 and Luke 10 that require Christians to help those in need and heal the sick.
He spoke for the third year at the Global Missions Health Conference, held Nov. 11-13 in Louisville, Ky. The ninth annual event brought together more than 2,000 Christian health professionals, medical students, relief groups, church leaders, and missionaries to consider the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Along with a new Christian response to the crisis has come a $15 billion grant from the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). And because President George W. Bush's plan includes allocation of funds to faith-based organizations, there was renewed dialog on solutions to the HIV/AIDS problem, much of which centered on the involvement of the church.
Stecker is working with a consortium that includes Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Medical Missions Board, Interchurch Medical Assistance and others to provide anti-retroviral therapy to some 137,600 Africans and Haitians by the year 2009. Both the $335 million in PEPFAR monies and the decrease in the cost of AIDS drugs led to this tactic.
Tom Davis of Food for the Hungry, which is slated to receive a share of $100 million in PEPFAR funds plus a $2.5 million private gift, said that organization will focus on disease prevention and care for people living with AIDS and the increasing number of AIDS orphans.
"The dust has not settled on the treatment issues," Davis said. He pointed out problems in the manufacture, transport, and cost of AIDS drugs as well as the stigma and discrimination issues that continue to surround people infected with AIDS, so that many "would rather die than die of the shame."
"To be able to halt the epidemic, there's going to have to be a really heavy dose of prevention," Davis concluded.
While Food for the Hungry has created an in-depth program of abstinence education, there are instances where the abstinence message will fall flat. "Obviously the abstinence message isn't going to work for someone in prostitution," said Clydette Powell of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Instead, Powell, Davis, and others working with another coalition of nine Christian organizations that received a total of $18.2 million from PEPFAR, are advocating life change for prevention. Davis said the Christian message gives people hope in God to help them change.
Powell cited statistics about the effectiveness of the ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful, Condoms) message in Uganda and other places where the program has been fully endorsed. She also cited numbers indicating that HIV/AIDS infections increased at a parallel rate to condom sales. "Condom sales in themselves are not going to turn the tide," she said.
According to Ann Peterson, appointed by President George W. Bush as assistant administrator of the Global Health Bureau of the USAID, preventing AIDS comes down to evangelism and discipleship. "If we're going to get ahead of the AIDS epidemic," she said, "it's each individual we need to change."
Food for the Hungry is mobilizing churches through its new project, "Bringing Hope to the Hopeless." The program involves a sort of foster-care model for AIDS orphans and people living with AIDS that has already found success in Ethiopia where Florence Muindi reported she works with a church of 300 members to fight against AIDS. Although the congregation has little resources and meets in a tent in a rural area, "the Lord began to move them to do something about HIV/AIDS," Muindi said. They started a program for pregnant mothers, aimed at caring for those suffering from the disease and preventing mother-to-child transmission.
Another church in the capital city Addis Ababa began to hold worship and fellowship meetings for people living with HIV/AIDS. "The church provides food for them and care for their orphans," Muindi said. "Finding that hope in the church is a wonderful opportunity," she said. "To see poor churches help, we are challenged to see what more we can do."
World Vision is also joining the AIDS fight. Ken Casey, special representative to the World Vision International president for the HIV/AIDS HOPE Initiative, said the organization realized three-and-a-half years ago that all of its other humanitarian work was quickly being unraveled by the rising problem of AIDS.
World Vision is involved in a prevention, care, and treatment program similar to Food for the Hungry's new project. Both groups are using a community care model for their work with AIDS orphans. Already 10,800 orphans and vulnerable children have been reached in one Uganda province through the World Vision program. The organization is now bent on mobilizing churches to help care for the 15 million orphan victims of AIDS.
"On the one hand, some of the most heroic work on HIV/AIDS came out of the faith community," Casey said. "At the same time, I think it's equally honest to say the church has not been at the forefront of this until recently." World Vision is now educating church leaders in a biblical perspective on the fight against AIDS. So far 491 pastors in 359 churches in 19 countries have attended workshops on the subject.
"When you actually are able to sit down with church leaders in the United States and Africa and go through the reality of what's going on and bring in scriptural principles, hearts warm up, and it's been encouraging to see what's taking place in the lives of church leaders."
Casey said becoming aware of the vast nature of the problem is a first step toward involvement for churches. "When Jesus told us to love our neighbor, he never told us how far away that neighbor was from the building."
Copyright © 2004 Church Central Associates. Used with permission.
Rebecca Barnes is the editor
at Church Central.