December 1, 2006
AIDS Activism Makes Strange Bedfellows
This morning I attended a prayer breakfast in my town for World AIDS Day. Despite the blizzard conditions, leaders from local churches, schools, and relief organizations gathered for the event. More than a few people remarked about the odd group. My table had three evangelical pastors, a newspaper reporter, and a board member from an organization led by a gay man. Across from us were Roman Catholic nuns in their habits, Wheaton College students, and leaders of the gay community.
The two main speakers represented the polarity of the group. Ruth Bell Olsson is the leader of the HIV/AIDS ministry at Mars Hill Church near Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ruth comes with solidly evangelical credentials, and she also happens to be Pastor Rob Bell's sister. The second speaker was Dan Pallotta, founder of AIDSRides and Breast Cancer Walks. Pallotta's passion for AIDS awareness stems from his own experience as a gay man in Los Angeles watching many in his community die from the disease.
In a time when cultural divisions are as distinct as blue and red, the coming together of liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and gays, was refreshing - at least to me. But not everyone is happy about the emerging connection between evangelicals and those outside the conservative camp. Rick Warren, for example, has taken flak for inviting pro-choice Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) to Saddleback to speak at the HIV/AIDS summit today. Saddleback responded to the critics:
"We do not expect all participants in the Summit discussion to agree with all of our Evangelical beliefs. However, the HIV/AIDS pandemic cannot be fought by Evangelicals alone. It will take the cooperation of all ? government, business, NGOs and the church. That is the purpose of this Summit."
[Read more about Senator Obama's remarks and Saddleback's AIDS Summit here]
I applaud Rick Warren, Saddleback, and those in my own town who are defying cultural divisions in order to tackle the issue of AIDS locally and globally. I am amazed when Christians refuse to participate in the fight against the pandemic because others in the trenches don't agree with them politically or theologically. 8,000 people die everyday from AIDS. Eight thousand! As a friend reminded me this morning, for the church to sit on the sidelines is tantamount to a New York firefighter refusing to enter the burning World Trade Center because another firefighter voted for Hillary.
Anyone who has been to the front lines of the AIDS battle knows it is not simply a political, moral, social, or theological issue. AIDS is a human issue. My first encounter with AIDS was in college. A young man with HIV came to our state university to talk about being a Christian with the disease. He had contracted the virus from a blood transfusion, not through sexual contact. I suppose that made him more acceptable in Christian circles. But he challenged the Christians on campus to reach out to everyone affected by HIV/AIDS, including gays and lesbians.
While in seminary, I served as a hospice chaplain visiting dying patients in the poorer neighborhoods of Chicago. That was the first time I saw the devastating final stages of AIDS mingled with the dehumanizing effects of poverty. I sat with one woman, a mother in her forties, as she cried about her children. She feared they would be lost to gangs after she died. Her emaciated hand clasped mine with meager strength as I prayed for her.
Last year I had a similar experience, but on the other side of the world. In a tiny village outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I held another mother's hand as she wept for her children. Her husband had died of AIDS just weeks earlier, and now she was in the final stages - confined to her dirt and grass hut. Her four-year-old daughter (the same age as my little girl) was being held by my friend. "I know my mommy will be the next to die," she said.
The tiny village, in which every adult had AIDS, was organized by missionaries. The Christians cared for the suffering, sought desperately to acquire drugs to slow the progression of the disease, and ran an orphanage for the abandoned children. They also held funerals, sometimes multiple services a day, and cremated the bodies of the parents as the children watched.
Whether it's a neighborhood just minutes from my home or a village half a world away, AIDS is destroying lives and families everywhere. As followers of Jesus Christ, our participation in this battle is a test of our claim to be "pro-life." To quote Saddleback's statement again, to truly be pro-life "means far more than opposing abortion. It also means doing everything in our power to keep people alive, so they might respond to the grace of Jesus Christ. Sometimes that means working with people you disagree with. With AIDS killing 8,000 people a day, saving lives is more important to us than political alignment." Amen.