HIV and the Church

Posted by Kay Warren

The following is an excerpt from USAID Frontiers In Development Forum Publication. Click here for the FULL ARTICLE.

Celeste doesn’t know much about foreign aid or development, but she’s an expert on hunger, stigma, and disease. Sitting alone on a hand-woven mat in the African sun, Celeste is covered with lesions, having been expelled from her village due to her HIV-positive status and waiting for death. Down the road, a local church pastor preaches passionately to his small congregation about Jesus’ call to care for the poor and hurting in His name. A church member leaves the exuberant worship service and makes her way toward Celeste’s mat under a tree. Soon, Celeste will feel the volunteer’s soothing touch, receive needed medications from a church-based clinic or a government hospital linked to the local congregation, and begin to rebuild her life. This church member does not have a medical degree—in fact, she is just learning to read and write—but she understands community development because her church has provided extensive, yet simple, training in how to be a volunteer community health worker. Empowered U.S. and indigenous churches are connecting with each other and partnering with governments and other organizations to engage and equip ordinary people in local churches to actively address development issues in the lives of real people everywhere.

If the U.S. public is to be engaged in development issues, global problems—as well as practical solutions—need to be communicated and discussed in ways that make sense to the average person. The PEACE Plan aims to do just that, by identifying the development issues that affect billions of people—the global “giants”—and proposing real-world answers. Global crises require accessing and engaging every equipped partner. Just as a stool requires three legs to endure as a successful seat, the best efforts to meet global development needs require contributions from three sectors to endure as a successful intervention: public (governments), private (businesses), and—the missing component—faith (local congregations).

Even if every dream imagined by USAID and other global organizations and sovereign countries were fully funded, the question would remain, “How will the resources be distributed? Who can originate, collaborate, and implement the plan?” The faith community—is the final leg that provides the stability. The only organizations with large enough volunteer labor forces and distribution networks to tackle the global giants are the Christian church and other faith communities. With billions of members distributed in nearly every community in the world, this network of congregations is a sleeping giant waiting to be mobilized.

The Western Rwanda Healthcare Initiative has been a startling example of the power of engaging the faith community in development. At the heart of the effort is The PEACE Plan at work in the community, mobilizing ordinary church members to engage in addressing and solving local problems. Beginning with two U.S. church volunteers providing healthcare training to 28 Rwandan church volunteers in July 2008, the initiative has grown to 3,000 Community Healthcare Volunteers with a trajectory of more than 7,000 volunteers by the end of 2012. Volunteers carry caseloads of seven homes each, to which they make regular home healthcare visits and, as appropriate, teach basic hygiene, distribute medication, and provide HIV teaching and referral. To date, 137,000 people have been positively affected through this local church program.

The effort to move the American church from relief agents to catalysts in development is the distinction that sets apart The PEACE Plan from previous mission efforts. Instead of encouraging global churches to passively receive assistance for survival—assistance that often contributes to the dehumanization of the recipient and political corruption in the region—the faith-based community is now expertly engaging, equipping, and mobilizing people and resources to provide care while also advocating for appropriate U.S. policy and intervention.

Every member of an American church or faith community has a role to play in global development. The hope and care that people like Celeste have received can be made available to the impoverished, ill, and hurting around the world by unleashing volunteers within the church. The local church and faith-based communities are critical partners in development, strategically poised to impact the world’s most pressing problems—the global giants—through engaging, equipping, and mobilizing the untapped resources of the faith community.

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