I am now more than a month away from Africa and I am finding myself feeling more distant from Zambia, more immersed in American culture, and sometimes wondering if maybe it's time to take a break on all this poverty, this AIDS, this Least stuff...after all we've done more than almost anyone I know haven't we? And some days I want to just enjoy things here without feeling conflicted all the time...why do I wonder what my African friends would think when I walk into our new church building for the first time? why do I get a little squeamish walking into the Apple store literally humming with everyone pulling gadgets off the shelf? why do I fell guilty worrying about the stock market and my investments here when a US dollar is worth 100 billion dollars in Zimbabwe? And then Kay Warren reminds me of what is true in my life and what causes the discomfort and concern even when I am thousands of miles from Kakolo Village...it is simply that I am on a journey of responding to AIDS, to the needs of others, to living biblically with my resources, of caring when it seems others might be losing interest because there are still incredible needs, AIDS is still real, and the call of Jesus on my life in relationship to the needy here and in Africa simply will not and must not lessen or go away till my days on earth end here...may we have the courage and faith to be in it for the long haul and not stop caring today and tomorrow and next year and for a lifetime...
Recent research has changed the AIDS headlines, but that shouldn't matter to the church.
At first glance, a comment this week from the head of the HIV/AIDS department of the World Health Organization seems to indicate that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is all but over. In an interview with London's Independent, Dr. Kevin De Cock said, "There will be no generalized epidemic of AIDS in the heterosexual population outside Africa."
Coming on the heels of the UNAIDS report in November 2007 that revised the estimates of those infected with HIV downward from 40 million to 33 million, one could conclude that HIV is no longer a humanitarian crisis.
Not so. As De Cock goes on to say, "AIDS still remains the leading infectious disease challenge in public health. It is an acute infection, but a chronic disease. It is for the very, very long haul. People are backing off, saying it is taking care of itself. It is not."
To me, the larger questions are not about numbers or categories — how many people are infected, or whether more homosexuals or heterosexuals are likely to become infected. The reasons I became an advocate for people with HIV six years ago are just as valid as they were then. Not much has changed.
I can think of several compelling reasons why the church of Jesus Christ must care about people with HIV and AIDS whether they're straight, gay, old, young, victim, victimizer, African, Asian, Indian, Latino, or Caucasian. The categories are irrelevant to our call to care.
The most important reason is for the church to care is that it is completely unexpected. When was the last time the church cared about a sexually transmitted disease? Historically, we haven't done a very good job of teaching healthy sex and sexuality, so it isn't surprising that we don't want to talk about HIV and AIDS.
You can't talk about HIV without talking about sex! Because it is a sexually transmitted virus, the stigma is profound. Internationally and in my Southern California backyard, people diagnosed with HIV or AIDS can face divorce, beatings, job loss, rejection, loss of friends, discrimination, and violence. I could fill pages with the tragic stories of men, women, and children who have endured the painful stigma associated with HIV.
Unlike malaria or tuberculosis (which can be cured with $20 worth of medication when caught early enough), HIV is incurable. It is ultimately a fatal disease, ravaging the immune system of the infected person, leaving them vulnerable to opportunistic infections that a normal immune system could deal with.
One piece of good news amid the bad is that HIV is treatable. In the United States and in other developed nations, where life-saving medications are readily available, an HIV positive individual can expect to live a relatively normal life. People in developing nations do not fare so well. Without access to these "wonder drugs," life expectancy after diagnosis can be three to five years.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, I asked my oncologist how I got cancer. Did I do something wrong? Was it genetics? Should I have eaten more broccoli? He told me he had no idea why I got cancer. HIV is different. We know how it is transmitted. That mystery was solved more than 20 years ago, and in the process, we also learned it is almost 100 percent preventable.
The toll HIV and AIDS exerts does not end with claiming the life of the infected person. Children whose parents die prematurely face a bleak future, easily becoming HIV statistics themselves, thus repeating a vicious cycle of infection and death.
If you knew there was an incurable but preventable and treatable disease that brought shame and stigma, created millions of orphans, decimated families, and jeopardized the hard-won development gains of dozens of the nations of our world, wouldn't you care?
If you're still not sure, reluctant to give your heart and your help to those with HIV and AIDS, take a look at Mark 1:40-42 (NIV). A leper, widely assumed to have secret, unconfessed sin, braved the crushing stigma and fear his illness created to find Jesus. So ashamed of his condition, he approached our Master on his knees, begging to be healed. Jesus could have turned his back on the man, shouted accusations at his sinful state, refused to even speak to him. Instead, the Bible says he was "filled with compassion." He reached out his hand, touched the man, and healed him.
This story never fails to instruct me, to move me. Jesus had the perfect opportunity to ask this man how he became ill, but he didn't. He just helped him. I don't think it's wild speculation to assume that the man's spiritual leprosy was healed that day as well. Jesus models for us how to approach people with the leprosy of our time — HIV and AIDS. As we care for their bodies, care for the orphans and vulnerable children left behind, care for the spiritual wounds that lie hidden deep in the soul, categories and numbers become people.
People Jesus loves. People Jesus died for. People who will never know there is a Savior unless our biblical worldview includes a willingness to ask the larger questions.
Kay Warren, author of Dangerous Surrender, is head of the HIV/AIDS Initiative at Saddleback Church. In late June, she was part of the official U.S. delegation in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, Special Session, on HIV/AIDS.