Churches claim central role in fighting AIDS

by Jordan Green

The pastor at Adams Farm Community Church, part of the conservative evangelical Associate Reformed Presbyterian denomination, honed a message about the obligations of affluent, comfortable members of the faith in the suburban United States towards their fellow Christians in sub-Saharan Africa, who are being decimated by an AIDS crisis of plague proportions.

“It’s economic when an entire continent loses eight to fifteen percent of our people,” the Rev. Joseph Moore said. “We know we live in a globalized world, so it affects us. But what if it doesn’t affect us? What if you never had to worry about contracting HIV? I would argue that the further out the issue is the more Christ-like it is to step up to it.”

As Moore and other members of a panel at a June 9 banquet and fundraiser at the Jamestown church described it, stopping the spread of AIDS in Africa is the particular calling of Christians in the 21st century, and history will judge them by how they respond to its ravages.

Almost 100 people attended the event, and after listening to a panel moderated by Kelley McHenry of UNC-TV and a keynote address by Olympic speed skater Joey Cheek, they filled out financial commitment cards suggesting amounts ranging from $50 to $6,000 to support a new healthcare project in Kenya carried out by Hope for Africa, an ecumenical organization that cares for orphans, provides homecare and preaches prevention.

Bob Carter, a missionary who will lead the Hope for Africa project in Kenya with his wife in August, likened the worldwide AIDS crisis to a series of jumbo-jet crashes.

“Three million people died of AIDS in the past year,” he said. “That’s twenty jumbo jets crashing to the ground. Two-thirds of those jumbo jets crash were in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, where Hope and I will be going, one hundred and thirty million people are flying on jumbo jets. Those jumbo jets are in the air. Many of them are orphans. You need to be able to intervene on such a wide-scale basis. You need to touch every community. What organization has the ability to do that: The body of Christ. Because there are at least one or two churches in every community.”

Carter and another panelist, the Rev. Isaac Gitundu, insisted that faith-based prevention strategies are right to deemphasize condom use.

“The secular world says that the only way to do it is condoms,” Carter said. “And yet we have Botswana putting all their eggs in the condoms basket. They’ve gone from confirming their first HIV infection to one in three adults being infected with the virus. Abstaining from sex until marriage and being faithful within marriage are what works.”

The United Nations’ 2001 Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS calls for prevention programs that emphasize responsible sexual behavior, including abstinence and fidelity, while also encouraging expanded access to condoms.Gitundu, who is establishing a Kenyan church for Africans northeast of Atlanta, dismissed condom use as a prevention strategy in remarks after the panel discussion.

“It encourages people to continue sinning,” he said. “Condoms are not safe. It may bust. Because of the pressure maybe you forget to use it. I’ve told [parishioners] condoms are not the solution. The solution is self-control.”Gitundo said that despite their frowning on contraception, churches in Africa have undertaken robust intervention efforts, starting with talking to teenagers about sex and the possible consequences of risky behavior. In the past, the subject has been considered taboo.

Many churches now insist on HIV testing as a prerequisite for marriage.

“The church is telling the people they should have a certificate saying that they have had a medical exam,” Gitundo said.

“The preacher will not perform a marriage without it.”

He also acknowledged that entrenched social attitudes that place women in a subordinate position to men have contributed to the spread of the HIV virus in Africa. For instance, it is not uncommon for husbands to have sex with infected partners outside their marriages and then treat sex with their wives as an entitlement. Churches are challenging those norms by placing women in positions of leadership, Gitundo said.

“I’m a Presbyterian and I know we are giving them responsibility,” he said. “I have been telling women they are the pillars of their homes. She has an obligation to say no to sex with her husband if she knows he is infected.”

While decisions about sex illuminate how Christians in Africa are redefining relationships between morality, practicality and gender equity, Moore suggested that the AIDS crisis is forcing their less numerous counterparts in the United States to redefine their religious identities. To maintain its relevancy, Moore suggested, the American church might have to bridge an old gulf between its conservative and liberal halves.

“About one-hundred years ago there was a split in the American church,” Moore said. “The split was between the more conservative Christians – the doctrinal Christians – who were very adamant that ‘we’re right’ and didn’t necessarily do anything about it, and the liberal Christians – the social gospel Christians – who were out doing something but they weren’t always clear about why they were doing it. We need to bridge that split. History’s going to view us through the lens of this crisis of AIDS in Africa.”

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