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Purpose driven AIDS plan

HIV/AIDS | Pastor Rick Warren stirs passions-and politics-at church AIDS summit

Issue: "2006 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 16, 2006

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif.- When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) appeared at this month's 2006 Global Summit on AIDS and the Church, at Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., some fellow evangelicals warned of dark fallout: Saddleback Pastor Rick "The Purpose Driven Life" Warren was pandering to the secular elite-and was giving quarter to a pro-abortion enemy. Warren and his wife, Kay, would be forced to favor condom distribution over abstinence as a means of preventing AIDS. And Obama, a putative presidential hopeful, would parlay his appearance on Saddleback's stage into a churchy photo-op designed to woo evangelical voters in 2008.

While pundits burbled over the unusual Warren-Obama alliance, Alison Sutherland had more immediate worries: the hundreds of people she works with in Tanzania who are suffering and dying from HIV/AIDS.

Sutherland, 57, an Episcopal missionary, recently provided free HIV testing for 64 people who live in Shelui, a tiny hamlet in the country's Singida region. Ten of them tested positive.

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"I visit one village each week," said Sutherland, a Briton who runs the Nuru Centre, an AIDS outreach program headquartered in Singida Manispaa, a larger Tanzanian town. "The infection rate is about 15 percent."

Wearing a red and gold kofia, Tanzania's traditional gabled headdress, she explained Nuru's challenges while sitting on a park bench on Saddleback's sunny campus. "I can tell villagers they are HIV positive, but I can't give them anything because I'm too far away. And they have no money to get to town. Sometimes, if they are sick with HIV, they are thrown out of their villages."

Sutherland traveled literally around the world seeking solutions at the AIDS summit, hosted by the Warrens. Ironically, what Sutherland was told is the answer to caring for HIV/AIDS sufferers in Singida may lie . . . in Singida.

Largely lost amid the post-game, Obama-related analysis was the focus of the AIDS summit: inspiring local churches to care for the sick.

Around the world, 40 million people have HIV/AIDS, including 1 million in the United States. The global pandemic has orphaned more than 15 million children in Africa alone.

The Warrens began studying HIV/AIDS in 2002. "As we studied the pandemic and the related problems such as the lack of a grassroots global distribution network for medicine and nutrition, and the need to mobilize millions of . . . volunteers, we realized that . . . the answer is local congregations."

The church, the Warrens point out, was a global organization before "globalization" was cool.

"You can go to the international AIDS conference and you will find an absence of local churches," Kay Warren told WORLD, speaking of the August 2006 event in Toronto. "Even at the ecumenical pre-conference, to my knowledge, there were NGOs and denominations represented, but only two local churches-Saddleback and Willow Creek," Rev. Bill Hybel's Illinois megachurch.

Saddleback's own HIV/AIDS outreach is Kay Warren's idea. In 2002, a newsmagazine article about the ravages of the disease in Africa ripped her out of her "self-centered, affluent, Yankee worldview." She then traveled to Mozambique, where she met poverty-stricken men and women dying of AIDS, children orphaned by the disease, and people too weak to stand who still struggled to offer in hospitality what little they had. Africa also shook Rick Warren when he found a tiny tent church made up of 50 adults and 25 children orphaned by AIDS. "They were growing a garden. They had a few books and were trying to school the children. The kids were sleeping in the tent," he told an audience of pastors, activists, and lay Christians at the AIDS summit. "I thought, 'This church is doing more to help than my megachurch.'"

The Warrens, who admit they are latecomers to AIDS awareness and activism, began by establishing a support group for HIV/AIDS patients in their own congregation. The prospect unnerved Mrs. Warren. "The only people I knew of in the U.S. with HIV/AIDS were gay men," she said. "Then I asked myself, does that in any way excuse me from caring? It does not."

Since 2002, the Warrens formulated what they call the C.H.U.R.C.H. plan. The letters cue willing pastors on the six elements of the Warrens' vision for AIDS outreach at the congregational level: Care for and comfort the sick, Handle testing and counseling, Unleash a volunteer labor force, Remove the stigma, Champion healthy behavior, Help with nutrition and medications.

Alison Sutherland of Tanzania sees both clouds and silver linings. She believes Singida churches could, in theory, help with such things as home-based healthcare, orphan care, and possibly a mobile health clinic she hopes to launch. "But there is not a lot of concept of volunteerism there," she said. "People will say, 'Yes, I want to help, but I'm poor and need to earn money.'"

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