North American Consultation on the Role of the Church in the HIV/AIDS Pandemic

Abstinence is working in the fight against AIDS in Africa. Findings which have appeared controversial, contradictory or politicized to both mainstream media and secular aid agencies continue to show that the “Abstinence, Be faithful or use a Condom” (ABC) promotion in places such as Uganda, Rwanda and other African nations is slowing the numbers of people being infected and living with HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Edward Green, senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and a self-described liberal, said the media assault on the ABC method (in publications such as Newsweek and TIME) promotes a warped view of AIDS trends instead of showing solid research findings.

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Richard Stearns (left) and Ted Yamamori. 

“When major newspapers are warning people about abstaining and getting married, something has gone terribly amiss,” Green told an audience of about six hundred church leaders, mission agency representatives, field workers, aid agency personnel and others during the North American Consultation on the Role of Church in the HIV/AIDS Pandemic on 10 November at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY, USA.

It was the first time the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization hosted the consultation. The goal was to equip prominent North American church pastors and Christian leaders to speak out on the AIDS pandemic and to urge churches in the United States and Canada to get involved.

Dr. Tetsunao “Ted” Yamamori, international director for Lausanne, opened the consultation by praying for wisdom, reflection and inspiration to act both intelligently and with compassion. “May this day become one which will change our lives for the sake of those affected and afflicted with HIV/AIDS,” he prayed.

With the AIDS crisis increasingly being seen as the greatest humanitarian emergency in the history of the world, leaders are looking not only for medical answers but for a way to share the gospel with those affected.

Green commended faith-based organizations (FBOs) for their stepped up involvement during the last year in particular, as major organizations such as USAID and PEPFAR (President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) have funded FBOs. In addition to limited funding for anti-retroviral therapy treatment, the bulk of the monies disseminated to FBOs have gone toward prevention—and in particular to the ABC promotion, something Green asserts must be judged solely on its positive results.

He showed correlative data suggesting that declines in the number of AIDS infections were related to the ABC promotion. He also pointed to statistics indicating that rising infection rates paralleled increased condom distribution in several countries.

“We see more condoms being associated with more AIDS,” Green said. “This is counter-intuitive.”

Attempting to seek answers to why this was is happening, Green cited the inconsistency of use, which he said is worse than never using a condom. According to Green, people are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior if they have condoms. He also said there is a disinhibition related to condom promotion which ironically encourages risky behavior.

Green related research from his book, Rethinking AIDS Prevention: Learning from Successes in Developing Countries. Green listed several other countries that have adopted the ABC method, including: Senegal, Jamaica, Zambia and Thailand. Other areas showing apparent condom success, he found, were concentrated in areas of the commercial sex trade. According to Green, many may think of Thailand as “the great condom success story,” but the underlying fact is that HIV is concentrated among prostitutes there.

He said except for commercial sex workers, condom usage is relatively low, and most sexual behavior changes (in Uganda in particular) are related to abstinence before marriage and faithfulness during marriage.

Green encouraged church leaders to continue to promote abstinence and faithfulness as a proven way to slow HIV/AIDS infection.

“You in the Church have a comparative advantage,” he said, referring to religious organizations’ influence on behavior change. However, he balanced this with, “You [also] have a great responsibility and challenge.”

Working Together as the Body of Christ
Gary Edmonds of Churches Together told more than one hundred workshop attendants that the AIDS pandemic may determine the relevance of the Church for the twenty-first century. In particular he charged that AIDS is turning many ministries towards a more holistic view of ministry, including caring for AIDS orphans and widows and providing medical aid for affected people—something many “eternally focused” churches had lost sight of before the AIDS pandemic.

“The Church had lost the agenda of God,” Edmonds said.

Churches can no longer relegate justice and poverty issues to the United States government. Edmonds believes the government is just not getting the job done, referring to the fact that since 1980 some $20 billion a year has been poured into Africa to address poverty, corruption and disease, yet as of 2003, all three have increased. “Money was not solving the problem,” Edmonds said.

Neither can churches continue to go it alone. “The operating principle for you is, ‘How well are you working together?’” Edmonds said. “Realize that there’s a lot of vision already there, ideas already taking place and an incredible wealth of assets.”

Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, a global network that reaches nearly two hundred million evangelical Christians in 123 countries, recommended pooling resources and relief efforts, especially in response to AIDS, a problem too large for any one organization, denomination or agency.

“We have to understand what our role is and come together in collaborative effort,” Tunnicliffe said. He went on to state that unlike other disasters, AIDS is taking more lives, impacting the health of more people and leaving more children orphans and homeless than any hurricane, earthquake or tsunami.

“It’s not just another social problem to be added to other social problems,” said Richard Stearns, president of World Vision. He told conference goers that he believes AIDS is an historical turning point and gives the Church an unprecedented opportunity to show compassion. “The question that will be asked of us is ‘Where was the Church?’” he said.

“I believe the very heart and soul of the Church hangs in the balance,” he said. “Indeed, we must ask the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And when we answer it, we must not fail to do it.”

Engagement of the Church
According to Tunnicliffe, there are four phases of engagement of the local church can take in addressing HIV/AIDS: jugmental, anemic, cautious and wholehearted/holistic. He believes North American churches are “now beginning to step up” to a wholehearted and holistic involvement.

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Geoff Tunnecliffe

He referenced the HIV/AIDS Consultation at Southeast Christian Church, the first event sponsored by Lausanne, but the third event of its kind linked to the Global Medical Health Conference focused solely on HIV/AIDS. According to Tunnicliffe, “God is calling church leaders like never before to respond.”

Stearns described his own reaction to AIDS seven years ago when he was appointed president of World Vision. Grief turned to anger and anger to resolve. He did not understand why the devastation of AIDS wasn’t bigger news in the United States. And he wondered why there was no government response. However, his main concern involved the lack of response from the Church.

“Perhaps most distressing of all,” he recalled, “was, where was the church of Jesus Christ? Why wasn’t the alarm being sounded from every pulpit in America?”

Stearns referred to a 2001 Barna Research study commissioned by World Vision that indicated most evangelical Christians were reluctant to donate money for AIDS orphans. Only seven percent said they would help. Fifty-six percent said they would not help. The study also showed that non-Christians were more likely to say they would help.

In the four years since that study, Stearns said the numbers have only slightly improved. Judgment and indifference, rather than compassion, continue to characterize the Church’s response to HIV/AIDS. However, Stearns has seen that once Christians understand and hear the facts about AIDS, they have a change of heart.

Ben Homan, president and CEO of Food for the Hungry, International, also suggested church and mission leaders have that change of heart.

“We are together after having visited some of the hard places ourselves, some of you in the trench work with HIV/AIDS,” he said. “My core question to you this afternoon is this, ‘So how are you doing?’”

He challenged the group to repent and present their dysfunctions, weaknesses and need for the comfort of Christ in order to offer it successfully to others. “As an evangelical church, I believe we often pride ourselves on how much we are accomplishing, rather than presenting our weakness,” he said.

One such weakness he suggested was a numbness to the problem of AIDS. “There are those within the evangelical church that are speaking out, but we have many miles to cover,” Homan said. “May God awaken us from numbness.”


Rebecca Barnes is a freelance writer and editor in Louisville, Kentucky. She can be reached at www.rebeccabarnes.com.