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U.S. churches: Tackling a humanitarian crisis with growing resolve

Once a taboo subject in many churches across America, the AIDS pandemic is now the focus of innovative ministry in congregations that want to reflect Christ's love to those who are suffering. (VIDEO)

January 2008

Pastor John Rivera of New York City's Christ Tabernacle greets the children of Nyamagabe, Rwanda, during a World Vision Pastor's Vision trip.
Pastor John Rivera of New York City's Christ Tabernacle greets the children of Nyamagabe, Rwanda, during a World Vision Pastor's Vision trip. Now, Christ Tabernacle is a partner church in Rwanda, with a focus on helping those affected by HIV and AIDS.
© 2007 Karie Hamilton/World Vision
Churches across the nation are embracing cutting-edge ministry that many U.S. congregations once shunned: responding to the AIDS pandemic.

In a groundswell of support, Christian leaders are gathering to learn more about AIDS and how their churches can respond. Whole congregations are extending care to those who are sick, not only in their own communities but around the world as well. As exemplary work is accomplished, leadership awards are being bestowed on churches with outstanding ministry among those affected by AIDS.

Knowing the stakes

"I could enumerate many reasons why the Church has a stake in the fight against AIDS," says Steve Haas, World Vision's vice president of church relations. "But none speaks with greater clarity than that the Church — the greatest moral agency in the world — has the opportunity to respond with compassion and hope to the world's greatest humanitarian threat. And the world is watching us as we do."

When AIDS was identified in the early 1980s, the few evangelical churches bold enough to care for those infected and affected often were little more than a cry in the wilderness. Today, that cry is a growing chorus of hope as some of the nation's most influential churches provide leadership on this urgent issue. As a result, the stigma in the Church is quickly evaporating, and Christians are rolling up their sleeves to help those who care for the 6,800 people who become infected with HIV each day and the 15 million children who have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

'Tremendous growth and movement'

In late November, just before World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, some 1,400 U.S. church leaders gathered at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., to explore ways their congregations can come alongside those affected by AIDS. Under the leadership of Rick and Kay Warren, this annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church is designed to call and equip churches to join forces in turning the tide on AIDS.

"We've seen tremendous growth and movement in U.S. churches as more accept the responsibility and privilege of serving Christ by serving the sick and the orphan," says Kay Warren. "The Church can become even more effective if each congregation took this seriously, made it personal, and utilized practical church-based strategies to become engaged."

Video: Dealers in Hope

Pastor John Thomas of Fish Hoek Baptist Church in Cape Town, South Africa, talks about how his congregation ministers to people suffering from AIDS in their community. In August, Fish Hoek was presented with the 2007 Courageous Leadership Award.

Ways to engage the crisis

World Vision is providing churches practical, hands-on opportunities to make a difference on the frontline of AIDS:

The World Vision Experience: AIDS. Congregations are learning more about the pandemic as they host and visit the Experience. Combining a stirring audio tour with captivating photography, the interactive exhibit transports participants to the heart of Africa as they see, hear, and experience the crisis of AIDS. Last year, the Experience attracted 30,222 visitors in 15 events across 10 states. This year, the exhibit will be available at more than 60 locations in 25 states.

Visitors line up to go through a showing of the World Vision Experience: AIDS.
Visitors line up to go through a showing of the World Vision Experience: AIDS.
© 2007 Robert Coronado/World Vision

Church Partnerships in Africa. U.S. church leaders are flying to Africa to visit and build partnerships with AIDS-ravaged communities. "The Pastor's Vision trip ... turned my life inside out and upside down," said Keith Stewart, pastor of Springcreek Church in Garland, Texas. "There has not been a day in the past year that I have not yearned to see my precious friends in Katito, [Kenya]." Today, Springcreek Church is one of 56 U.S. congregations partnering with African AIDS-affected communities as local residents are equipped to heal and lift themselves out of poverty.

Caregiver Kits. Across the country, churches are responding to God's call to serve others by equipping volunteers in poor nations who are caring for those living with AIDS. More than 230 U.S. churches have assembled 70,903 Caregiver Kits, which provide essentials like soap, antibiotic cream, gloves, and flashlights to trained volunteers ministering to the sick and dying in their often-isolated communities. Recently, the 600-member Pine Lake Covenant Church in Issaquah, Wash., assembled a record 7,500 kits. "We grew a greater heart for the world, Africa, and specifically, AIDS," says Tamara Buchan, the congregation's associate pastor. "Most importantly, we built bridges of friendship and partnership in our [Zambian] community and helped do something that has left a lasting impression on people in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools."

Recognizing superb ministry

Churches that accomplish outstanding work in combating AIDS are awarded the Courageous Leadership Award, presented by Willow Creek Association and World Vision. Last year, three churches — one in Africa and two in the United States — received the award. Eleven churches also received honorable mentions. The award is presented at Willow Creek Association's annual Leadership Summit.

World Vision's work on the frontline of AIDS in the developing world testifies to the needs — and opportunities — that AIDS presents. "AIDS is not just another problem on the world's to-do list," says Richard Stearns, president of World Vision U.S. "This crisis calls for the Church of Jesus Christ to rise to the occasion. The question hangs in the air, 'What are we going to do about it?' This could be the Church's finest hour. Whether it is or not is up to us."

Learn more

>> Read an article about the Global Summit on AIDS and the Church.
>> Read an eNews feature about the 2007 Courageous Leadership Award.

Four ways you can help

>> Please pray for churches around the world that have dedicated their ministries to helping those affected by the AIDS crisis. Pray that these churches would be an example for all to follow and that God's love and compassion for the suffering would be reflected through their efforts.
>> Assemble Caregiver Kits for volunteers around the world who care for those suffering from AIDS.
>> Participate in a Pastor's Vision trip to Africa. Build a partnership with a community on the frontlines of the AIDS crisis.
>> Reserve tickets for a showing of the World Vision Experience: AIDS in a city near you.

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