Early this year Beatrice Radede, a 57-year-old South African widow, lived in constant grief. Her husband, two daughters, and two sons-in-law had died of AIDS. As if the weight of her sorrow were not enough, Ms. Radede faced also the difficulty of raising four orphaned grandchildren alone.
International fundraising efforts like World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 have aimed to publicize the frequency of such plights in sub-Saharan Africa, which the UN says is home to an estimated 12.6 million AIDS orphans. Even as the dollars pour in, however, the number of orphans climbs steadily toward a predicted 20 million by 2010, and an unavoidable question emerges: Who will parent these children?
Rob Smith has an answer. From his office in Everett, Wash., the South African native maps out the details of an idea he had four years ago. "Evangelicals can raise these orphans," he says. Selling his home and abandoning his profitable cabinet-making business, Mr. Smith has established the Agathos Foundation, employing a Greek adjective meaning "good."
The organization aims to purchase 4,000 South African farms over the next decade, each generating enough revenue to support hand-picked communities of AIDS orphans and widows. Married couples will also live in the villages, providing parental figures for orphans in exchange for living quarters and a small stipend.
That might sound like a pipe dream, but it's real to Ms. Radede and the four orphans, who live in a charter village for which Agathos seven months ago signed a 15-year lease. "It's been a blessing to watch them become lovers of life," says Mr. Smith, who has since brought in 21 more orphans and 33 more caregivers.
One problem, though, is that South Africa's regional governors "are not really excited to see us," according to Agathos volunteer Kabyn Begg: "The government is in official denial about everything going on." When Mr. Begg informed the regional head of social welfare where Agathos had positioned its first site-in Loskop, an area of 45,000 people-the man claimed disingenuously to have never heard of Loskop.
Such resistance shows that many people refuse to acknowledge an AIDS crisis even exists. To force the issue, the Agathos team spends considerable time in local shops, instigating provocative conversations with young men. "They'll acknowledge they have multiple girlfriends, but they won't acknowledge that's a problem," Mr. Smith says. "They all think AIDS will happen to someone else or that condoms will protect them. We tell them condoms fail 20 percent of the time."
The promotion of abstinence by Christian missionaries in Africa is not new. Since 1987 Chikankata Health Services, a ministry of the Salvation Army, has propagated that message in Zambia. In Uganda, a program called "True Love Waits" has dramatically changed the sexual lifestyles of youth since 1994, significantly lowering the spread of AIDS. Despite the relative success of these and other faith-based abstinence programs, opposition remains strong to messages that do not include condom use.
Mr. Smith hopes his organization's success in caring for orphans will soften such opposition and elicit broad support from government agencies. Chikankata Health Services receives financial help from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans also receives UNICEF funding for its Artisan Training Program, in which orphans learn a money-producing skill such as fishing or carpentry through local apprenticeships.
Agathos holds equally practical objectives, but Mr. Smith believes lasting transformation will only come through spiritual revolution. He indicts past missionary efforts to South Africa for conducting countless ineffectual altar calls: "They haven't engaged the culture to disciple people." In the name of discipleship, Agathos is working with the Acts 29 church-planting network in training an indigenous man to found and pastor a church.
In the meantime, Mr. Smith often fills the role of pastor, opening the Bible to the fourth chapter of 1 Thessalonians for a lesson on purity and personal responsibility. For every young man who dismisses such teaching, a child listens intensely and learns. "It's good that you're working with the younger kids," the head of a local clinic said recently. "By the time they're 15, they have HIV."