AIDS in the U.S – ‘Whoever loves them first wins’
LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)-More than 1 million individuals live with HIV/AIDS in the U.S.; yet, despite responding with Christ’s compassion to care for the sick and to meet the needs of “the least of these” in so many other instances, evangelicals in America largely have struggled with how to respond in ministry to those stricken with this disease.
Hesitancy stems in part from the nature of how HIV/AIDS has spread across the states. Unlike the rest of the world (e.g. in Africa, heterosexual sex with multiple partners is the main transmission factor, and in Russia HIV/AIDS is spreading through rampant intravenous drug abuse and sharing of infected needles), the HIV/AIDS virus has spread among Americans mostly from homosexual sex and secondly through dirty needles shared by illicit drug users.
Because homosexuals and Christians have been engaged in a culture war for more than two decades, believers are at odds with themselves about how to show their compassion by proclaiming the Gospel to and by caring for AIDS patients, but without giving the appearance of condoning sin or surrendering the fight for the soul of the country.
In an exclusive interview with Baptist Press about evangelicals’ response to the spread of the disease in the U.S., Kay Warren said she believes Christians need to start by understanding that HIV/AIDS is not a gay disease. She added that evangelicals should see homosexuals with HIV/AIDS for what they are-an unreached people group who need to know God loves them.
Ten years ago, Warren would have been an unlikely principal for a discussion about AIDS in America. She was a Bible teacher and the wife of Rick Warren, who is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life.
But Kay has emerged as a recognized leader in her own right for her efforts to marshal the church to engage in this ministry area because God cares for the sick, and it is the only institution with the moral authority to effect the behavioral change needed to stop the spread of AIDS. She now is executive director of Saddleback Church’s HIV/AIDS Initiative.
Warren’s stance on ministry to those sick with AIDS was something of a journey for her.
“I sat for the first 20 years of this pandemic,” she said, adding her typical reaction was something like, “You know what? It’s a white, gay man’s disease, and everybody knows how it’s transmitted and so if you get sick, oh well. Don’t come crying to me for sympathy.”
She described her attitude then as harsh and judgmental: “You commit the crime, you pay the time.”
About five years ago, God opened her heart to AIDS sufferers by appealing first to her compassion for African children orphaned by the disease. Through visits to Africa and seeing firsthand the devastation there, she eventually came to the place spiritually where she saw HIV/AIDS-infected homosexuals and intravenous drug abusers in a different way.
“The church has the opportunity to reach into the communities of people that have typically stayed away,” she said. “I really think of the gay community and the HIV community in the United States as, if you will, unreached people groups.
“And they’re not going to come to us.”
Warren said her attitude about homosexuality was an obstacle to ministering to hurting people.
“I actually felt that because of the way somebody might have gotten sick, that eliminated my responsibility to care for them or to demonstrate compassion.”
She added that to win anyone to Christ, you have to establish relationships.
“Five years ago, I couldn’t even name anybody who was gay or lesbian, or if I did, they were people who would come to our church and we made them leave,” she said. “Today, I have friends in the gay and lesbian community and in the context of relationship, we talk about what the Bible says.”
From that kind of relationship, she said, a Christian can help someone with temptations admit, “This is where I’m struggling; this is where I’m hurting. Help me find God here. Help me find how to live my life in a way that pleases Him and yet deals with the fact that I’m a broken person.”
“Our community of faith is supposed to be a place where the rock can be lifted and all those gross-looking bugs that are disgusting to look at and that shrivel in the light of exposure are dealt with . . . and we can be fixed and can be sympathized with and can be given fellowship,” Warren said.
Most importantly, she added, the church is the only institution that can make a difference.
“You know the government and business groups are trying to work in HIV,” she said. “They can talk about it, but they have no moral authority whatsoever to talk about how people can change their behavior and protect themselves, and the church has that responsibility. Only the church has the moral authority to talk about behavior change.”
Outlining practical steps any church can take, Warren referred to the C.H.U.R.C.H. acrostic developed at Saddleback (for details see www.purposedriven.com/hiv):
_ Care for and support the sick
_ Handle testing and counseling
_ Unleash a volunteer labor force
_ Remove the stigma
_ Champion healthy behavior
_ Help with nutrition and medication.
She underscored that above all, ministry must be personal. She noted that generosity with financial gifts is important, but it cannot substitute for direct involvement.
“God doesn’t just want your money, He wants you,” she said. “And when AIDS and poverty and disease and illiteracy and corruption and all those things become personal, suddenly you can’t ignore it.”
When asked whether there is a point at which ministry to homosexuals with HIV/AIDS stops because there has been no response to the Gospel, Warren replied, “Yeah, when they die.”
“We teach people that up until the moment that somebody passes from this life to the next, there’s a possibility of salvation. I mean, that’s what we believe as Baptists. That until the moment a person passes from this life to the next . . . that God is holding His hand out to them. His hand is extended to them until they leave this life. And if that’s the way God is responding to broken, sinful people, how dare I do any less?”
Warren shared that, ultimately, evangelicals need to see the HIV/AIDS population in the U.S. with the same focus as overseas missions.
“God’s message is the same. He doesn’t adapt His message based on a people group. His message is the same,” Warren said. “It’s how we portray it. It’s how we win their hearts.
“I have a friend, Chad Thompson, who has written a book called Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would-an excellent book that everyone should read-and he makes a statement in there: ‘Whoever loves them first, wins.’”
“Whether you’re talking to the gay community, a people group in Sudan, it doesn’t really matter where it is,” she said. “The fact of the matter is whoever loves them first wins. We’ve gone about it in all the wrong ways. If we think we can bring people to Christ by shouting at them, by . . . holding up placards, we’re fooling ourselves.
“Whoever loves them first, wins.”