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.
"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.'"
Some U.S. pastors, on the other hand, are more optimistic. Charles Williams pastors a small congregation at Horizon Church in Statesville, N.C. He wanted to reach out to HIV/AIDS patients in his community, but he was skeptical about his congregation's response. "Quite honestly, we're in the Bible Belt. If it doesn't look like them or smell like them, they want to kill it."
Unsure of what reaction he'd get, he explained to his church that a person doesn't have to be a homosexual to get HIV/AIDS, yet everyone who gets it has a death sentence. "If we don't condemn people for having it and instead love them through it, we may not see them get healed, but we may see them go out with a healed heart," he said.
Of about 120 people, half a dozen said yes, they'd be willing to help. But when Williams began looking for ways to start a church-based HIV/AIDS outreach, he found nothing-until he found Saddleback's C.H.U.R.C.H. model.
Still, skeptics have suggested that the Warrens, in working with international HIV/AIDS groups, will be forced to compromise on their positions on biblical morality. But at the AIDS summit, speaker after speaker made clear that current infection-fighting approaches (such as condom use, needle-exchange programs, and delay of sexual activity) can only slow the disease, not stop it-and that only the church has the moral authority to promote "risk elimination" strategies such as abstinence until marriage, monogamy thereafter.
"One place Christians get stuck is that others perceive us as not seeing the science," Mrs. Warren said. "Our acknowledging evidence that risk reduction strategies are slowing the pandemic leaves [activists] more open to our asking them, 'Is slowing it good enough?'"
Many disagree with the Warrens that people can be abstinent, then monogamous, she said. "That turns into a really rich dialogue, because we can say, 'Actually, millions of people can and do.'"
As a megachurch pastor and bestselling author, Rick Warren learned from his four-day visit to Syria last month that travel in such politically charged anti-U.S. territory can be hazardous to one's reputation. Warren said he decided to include Syria on a missions tour that began in Germany and ended in Rwanda after his neighbor, Yassar Bararak, a Muslim, urged him to visit his homeland and its many historic Christian sites. As the itinerary took shape, Bararak and his contacts also arranged introductions to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and other political and Muslim leaders, as well as church leaders.
Warren said he notified the White House and the National Security Agency about the planned visit and discussed it informally with government officials and experts on Syria. Their caution: The Syrians would look for propaganda openings via the media. When he asked evangelist Franklin Graham, who had extensive relief-work experience and contacts in the Middle East, what to say to the president, Graham replied: "Thank him for protecting the freedom of Christians and Jews to worship there."
The visit seemed to go much as planned for Warren and his team: a large welcome dinner with his neighbor's relatives, sightseeing at historic Christian locations, meetings with church leaders to discuss outreach ideas, appointments with government and Muslim leaders.
Warren promoted his Saddleback Church's domestic and international P.E.A.C.E. outreach program: "Planting churches, Equipping servant leaders, Assisting the poor, Caring for the sick, Educating the next generation." According to a Saddleback news release, its aim is to "train local churches to attack poverty, disease, corruption, illiteracy, and spiritual emptiness, in cooperation with businesses and governments." Saddleback, which attracts more than 20,000 people to weekend services, is training and dispatching teams across the world to help spread the concept.
Assad gave Warren permission to send P.E.A.C.E. teams to Syria. Warren expressed appreciation for worship protection for Christians and Jews, and endorsed a call for greater dialogue with the West. He underscored America's support for President Bush, U.S. troops in Iraq, and the war on terrorism. When asked by a Muslim leader if it were true that American public opinion had turned against the Iraq war, Warren agreed and cited a New York Times analysis of Election Day exit polls showing up to 80 percent of Americans now oppose keeping troops in Iraq. Syrian press accounts and editorials subsequently portrayed Warren, en route to Rwanda by then, as a critic of American policy and a champion of Syria's interests. Some reporters even placed in his mouth pro-Syria words he did not say, as at least one tape-recorded interview showed.
Some U.S. conservatives criticized Warren for going at all to a country that supports terrorism. Although the Associated Press avoided the inaccuracies in the government-run Syrian media, internet bloggers widely publicized the flawed Syrian accounts. Among critics who relied on the Syrian coverage were broadcasters at Milwaukee-based VCY America Radio Network's Crosstalk, a talk show aired nationally on Christian stations.
Crosstalk's Ingrid Schlueter said, "It is an affront to Israelis and Americans both that Rick Warren . . . now fancies himself a foreign-policy expert and official international man of peace. . . . [He] owes an apology to Israel, to the American people, and to the victims of Syrian-sponsored terror."
Warren insisted to Saddleback members in a statement his visit was "neither official nor political." He acknowledged he should have been better prepared: "We would have handled some meetings differently, watched our words more closely, and been more aware of the agenda of their state press."
But taking issue with "inaccuracies, misquotes, and misperceived motivations" passed along by Christian media, he asked: "Does it seem ironic to you that some believers trust Syrian press releases without even checking with the Christian pastor they criticize?"