Each 1 December since 1988 the world recognizes World AIDS Day as a day to remember the millions suffering globally with this pandemic. Activities are scheduled, campaigns launched, celebrities speak, the media reports and even United States President George W. Bush publishes a statement. A few Christian organizations and churches plan events, but for the vast majority of Christians and local churches, nothing special happens on 1 December; World AIDS Day seems to be a non-event. There are some reasons for this: the day is principally promoted by secular organizations, AIDS remains an essentially distant problem and there is social disconnect with those most affected in the West and throughout the world. But what would Jesus do?
Recently, I met with my dear friend John for lunch. Our visit opened my eyes further to the unconditional mercy God has for each of us. John is a wonderful Christian; he is passionate about the things of Christ and serves the Lord faithfully in missions in South Africa and India. John is HIV positive and has been for several years. He came out of a homosexual lifestyle and is just one of the faces of AIDS in the US.
While much of the news about the HIV/AIDS pandemic filters to us through reports from Africa, how much do we hear about AIDS in our Western cities? For the past sixteen months I have lived in Dallas, Texas, USA. It is here that I had lunch with John. While our conversation focused primarily on the international issues involved with AIDS, just a few miles away many live with the same burdens of the disease.
This particular sector of south Dallas, a predominately black and Hispanic neighborhood, has one of the highest HIV rates in the United States. Nationally, rates among black and Hispanic populations continue to escalate. Although African-Americans and Latinos represented thirteen percent and fourteen percent of the US population, respectively, in 2004, they accounted for forty-nine percent and twenty percent of new AIDS diagnoses today.1 This is the growing face of AIDS in the US.
Building Bridges Of Compassion in the United States
While much ministry is directed to nations most impacted, little focus is directed to our own HIV positive “Jerusalem.” More than one million people are HIV positive in America. The evangelical US Church for the most part is absent from caring for these neighbors. The number of US churches who have any outreach to the local AIDS population is abysmally small. This has caused a backlash from affected communities and a sense of distrust toward the Church. One leading US pastor has diagnosed that we are known more for what we stand against than what we stand for.
The question we must answer is: “Why?” Until we can answer this, we will not be able to address the “how.” Introspection is necessary to understand this issue. As those who uphold the Bible and desire to follow Jesus Christ’s example, why would we remain complacent in our lack of attention? Our neighbors are lonely, sick and socially outcast, but what role are we playing—the Good Samaritan or one of those passing by on the other side of the road? The heart of the “evangel,” God’s love for the least, last and lost, must inform and direct our lives. However, too frequently fear, judgment, stigma and misunderstanding continue to communicate louder than our message of hope.
John shared a story with me that illustrates this point. He had written a letter to a leading gay AIDS activist who was also an acquaintance of his in New York. This AIDS activist knew that John was a Christian and had left the “gay lifestyle.” Like others in the AIDS community, this leader held a distrust of Christians, feeling misunderstood and judged. John wrote to ask forgiveness for the perceived and real offenses caused by Christians. A bridge was built through this humble act that has become a friendship based on acceptance and love. Isn’t that what Jesus would have done?
It is across such a bridge that the “evangel” becomes effective toward transforming lives. While this AIDS activist does not yet have a relationship with the Lord (as far as I am aware of), barriers have been removed through John’s demonstrated humility in seeking forgiveness. Jesus did command us toward such expressions of forgiveness, acceptance, understanding and compassion. It is across these bridges that the Church must move if we are to minister effectively in this pandemic. The Great Commandment must compel us to build bridges to bear the light of Christ through the darkness of AIDS.
Bridges naturally serve to connect two separated points and allow movement in both directions across a real divide. For too many years, the Church and the populations that live with and die from AIDS have been separated in a very real sense. “They” had AIDS. Evangelicals were absent and confess to be being late in responding. Thankfully, things are changing as notable Christian leaders have begun to call attention to the need for local churches to be at the forefront of the AIDS pandemic. Bridges are being built.
The Great Crisis—The Greatest Opportunity
The opportunity exists for many more bridges to be constructed in what has been called the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. As has been aptly noted, if AIDS is the greatest crisis, it can also be the greatest opportunity. Consider these bridges that can be built to bring the good news across the divides of the American culture and the world.
- Person to Person. Build bridges of compassionate care to someone who is HIV positive or may be at risk of becoming so. Praying with that person is an effective way to build a relational bridge, opening the door to share Christ. A non-judgmental attitude is a prerequisite.
- Generation to Generation. Build bridges across the age divide in your church and community. Our global youth are at the greatest risk of becoming infected as they discover their own sexuality. Educating young people in God-honoring behavior is of paramount importance.
- Church to Church. Build bridges for the delivery of holistic ministry from church to church. This can be done across international or cultural divides. For instance, a suburban American church can partner with an African church or with an inner-city church. Fine examples of these “bridges” continue to emerge.
- Church to Community. Build bridges through humble service to local AIDS agencies. It may take time to build trust, but it will be worth the investment. Humility is the key that will undergird this particular bridge. More models are particularly needed here.
- Church to Organizations. Build bridges of partnership with development organizations ministering in regions devastated by AIDS. Local churches can effectively work with international Christian agencies that have developed infrastructure and relationships in nations hit hardest by this pandemic.
- Church to the World. Build bridges to our AIDS impacted world through intercession by joining in regular united prayer. The Global AIDS Prayer Partnership offers resources for this purpose. Plan to set aside a few minutes in your service on Sunday, 3 December, for corporate intercession, asking God to show you where he would have you minister.
Building On A Firm Foundation—Jesus Christ
How should these bridges be built? Since our foundation is Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone, our concrete is therefore his love, our roadway is surfaced with his compassion, his grace is our supporting structure and obedience to the Great Commandment is our master plan. Knowing that no one is beyond the reach of God, regardless of how they have lived their life, must inform our design and direct our efforts. Reaching the world for Christ requires that these bridges be built effectively to support the whole gospel.
Demolition is also necessary in the building of bridges, clearing the way for connecting the divides. For the AIDS pandemic, this includes attitudes that are established firmly on Christ. Stigma, judgmentalism and fear must be demolished as they are an affront to the knowledge of God; such attitudes are sin. Jesus dealt more with wrong attitudes than he did with wrong behavior when he established his kingdom here. But it is wrong attitudes that have kept many from crossing over into the areas of transformational ministry needed to bridge the gap to those suffering from AIDS.
Global AIDS Sunday
On this World AIDS Day we can start building bridges to bring Christ to those most affected by AIDS, whether locally or globally. Find out what is happening in your community, learn more about what is happening globally, determine what events are planned for World AIDS Day in your community and then show up. Organize your prayer teams and small groups and find ways to serve in community-planned events. Prepare sermons and other educational opportunities to present to your church on a Sunday adjacent to World AIDS Day.
One way to participate is on the Sunday immediately following World AIDS Day, Global AIDS Sunday, an initiative of the Global AIDS Prayer Partnership, in cooperation with the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and other organizations. The simple idea is to remember and pray for those who are affected by AIDS. Please join us as we pray to end AIDS!