On June 5, 1981, my wife Kay was late into her second pregnancy, just weeks away from giving birth. Absorbed in caring for our 2-year-old and preparing for a newborn, the farthest thing on our minds was news that day of a cluster of men in Los Angeles with a mysterious, devastating disease.
But what began in Africa and was first observed in this small California group became an epidemic, then swelled to a pandemic - touching lives in every country on every continent
Though late to the fight, in 2003 Kay and I heard God calling us to care for those infected and affected, to raise our voices on their behalf, and to figure out practical ways for local churches to serve them.
We traveled to Africa, ground zero for this pandemic, and were brokenhearted by the pain and thrilled by the compassion we observed.
Out of the bubble that is American life, we sat with dying men and women, held newly orphaned babies in our arms, and cried with shattered family members.
In America, we’d heard public leaders, including pastors, make pronouncements about AIDS that implied that those infected were enemies, or at least deserved their illness.
But at the grassroots level we witnessed Christ-followers by the thousands opening their hearts, their homes, their wallets and their churches to fellow human beings in their suffering. Clearly, local churches were at the forefront of this battle in Africa.
We returned home determined to model our church’s response to HIV and AIDS after the African church’s response. We began by inviting a member of our church – Saddleback, in Southern California - who was HIV positive to tell his story publicly for the first time.
Our members responded with overwhelming love. And once people realized our church was a safe place, other HIV positive people began attending and opening up about their status. To help remove the stigma, I was publicly tested for HIV with network TV cameras rolling.
We began support groups for anyone infected or affected; trained church members to be part of personalized teams for an infected individual; brought in experts in the field to educate our congregation; and hosted three “Global Summits on AIDS and the Church” to showcase the latest scientific, behavioral and psycho-social aspects of the disease.
We reached out to local, regional, national and international organizations, offering our manpower and networks in the fight against AIDS.
One of the great lessons of this fight is that the single fastest way to mobilize at the grassroots level around the world is through local congregations. Nothing comes close to the size and scope of this pool of compassionate volunteers.
The church has the largest distribution network on the planet. There are more churches in the world than all the Wal-Marts, McDonald’s and Starbucks combined. The church was global 200 years before anyone else thought of globalization. We could take you to thousands of villages around the world where the only institution to speak of is a church.
Plus, the Christian church is the only organization growing faster than the new infection rate: while 7,000 people are newly infected globally every day, and church growth experts estimate that the church is adding 35,000 converts daily in China alone.
These church members have a non-profit motivation to serve. We are commanded by Jesus Christ to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Our church sent 14,869 of our members to all 195 nations in the world to beta-test a local church humanitarian program based on the model of Jesus.
Called the P.E.A.C.E. Plan, volunteers Plant churches that promote reconciliation,Equip servant leaders, Assist the poor, Care for the sick and Educate the next generation.
We’ve learned that any church can provide six essential services in the fight against HIV/AIDS, easily remembered by the acronym CHURCH:
–Care for and support the sick. Caring requires no money, just a willingness to offer compassion and kindness.
–Handle HIV testing. At the least, churches can encourage members to get tested, with the pastor leading the way. Everyone should know their HIV status.
–Unleash volunteers. There will never be enough professionals to fix all that is wrong in our world. The Christian church claims 2.3 billion followers worldwide. If only half could be mobilized to care for those with HIV and AIDS, the fight would look very different
–Remove the stigma. It is not a sin to be sick. Jesus never asked a sick person, “How did you get sick?” He asked, “How can I help you?”
–Champion healthy behavior. HIV is almost completely preventable. While new reports suggest that accessing HIV treatment at an earlier stage of the illness is a vital way to prevent transmission, the cost may be an impediment. Behavior change will continue to be the most effective way to cut down on new infections.
–Help with antiretroviral drugs for HIV patients. The simplest way to cut down on new infections, to help infected individuals live longer, and to prevent children from becoming orphans, is to create accountability with medication compliance. Church volunteers can make daily visits or phone calls, reminding individuals to take their medication.
This strategy has been enormously successful in the Karongi District of the Western Province of Rwanda, where Saddleback Church, the government of Rwanda and local churches established a pilot program to train community health workers.
Started in 2008, more than 2,800 community volunteers have been trained through the churches to take on a caseload of 26,000 homes in the rural district where there is one hospital for 300,000 residents.
These volunteers provide access to basic healthcare information and are addressing preventable and opportunistic diseases – the big killers of those living with the virus. The lives of 120,000 children and 50,000 adults are being positively impacted.
Thirty years have passed since HIV was first recognized. In that time, millions have lost their lives and millions of children have been orphaned. Millions more are living with the virus today.
But if the church and other faith communities will step up to the table, and as governments and other health organizations welcome their assistance, the future can be brighter.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rick Warren.