Evangelicals confront AIDS
By Gillian Flaccus
By Gillian Flaccus
LAKE FOREST, Calif. — After years of ministering to AIDS patients overseas, evangelical Christians are turning attention to the disease in their own backyard. One of the nation's megachurches is leading the way.
Nearly 2,000 pastors traveled to Saddleback Church for a national conference on World AIDS Day. On the agenda: How to start local AIDS ministries and free HIV testing in churches.
The "Disturbing Voices" initiative, led by best-selling author and megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, represents a shift among evangelicals. Many sidestepped the U.S. crisis because of its association with homosexuality even as they made AIDS part of their missions in Africa and other places where the disease disproportionately affects women and children.
"The evangelical church has pretty much had fingers in our ears, hands over our eyes and mouths shut completely," said Kay Warren. "We're not comfortable talking about sex in general and certainly not comfortable about talking about homosexuality — and you can't talk about HIV without talking about both of those things."
Saddleback, with 22,000-members, isn't alone in its newfound domestic focus. A small but growing number of evangelical Christians are focusing on homegrown AIDS ministries.
Churches have realized AIDS isn't a "gay disease" and can't be easily labeled, even in the United States, said Doug McConnell, dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.
McConnell said some evangelicals began asking, " 'We're involved overseas ... so why aren't we involved here?' "
"This is a relatively recent awareness and it's come primarily from the devastating effects AIDS has had on Africa," he said.
That's the kind of epiphany Kay Warren said she had while flying home from one of the four trips she's taken to sub-Saharan Africa. "On the plane ride home I realized that we had done nothing," she said. "Let's get our act together and get every pastor doing something in their church — and then we really have the right to go somewhere else and say, 'You need to do something for the people in your community.' "
Harry Knox, director of the religion and faith programs at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation — a leading gay rights organization — said he welcomed the outreach as long as it wasn't judgmental.
"For far too long, many radical right pastors have mischaracterized the disease for their own political purposes, and we have reaped the unfortunate reward of that misinformation," he said. "It is good news that evangelicals are now embracing people with HIV and AIDS to help us get our needs met."
Warren said he's encouraging other pastors to offer free testing and counseling at their churches, start service groups to help HIV patients and train lay members to administer crucial antiviral drugs.
"The church has the moral authority to say, 'Hey, it's not a sin to be sick,' " said Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life." "The Gospels repeatedly show that Jesus loved, touched, and cared for lepers — the diseased outcasts of his day. Today's 'lepers' are those who have HIV/AIDS."