Christian AIDS experts urge compassion, persistence

With Dec. 1 being the annual recognition of World AIDS Day focus on the disease is prevalent at the moment. Such attention can be fleeting. With the Christmas season here and a wide array of social issues from climate change to health care in the national spotlight, it would be easy to set AIDS aside as a pressing issue. That, in the opinion of two Christians directly involved in AIDS relief, would be a big mistake. Debbie Dortzbach is the Director of Health and Social Development for World Relief. She lived in Kenya for 25 years and worked on public health issues in urban settings such as the capital city of Nairobi and rural areas. She has worked intensively with AIDS issues since 1993 and has been with World Relief since 1997. Scott Todd is the director of the AIDS Initiative, Child Survival Program and Complementary Interventions for Compassion International. Todd holds a Ph.D. in immunology and left academic research circles to join Compassion in 2003. He has lectured and held workshops domestically and internationally on AIDS issues. A key reason for keeping AIDS a front-burner issue for Christians is how much attitudes toward the disease have changed and how deeply Christian communities around the world are committed to battling it. “Many things have changed the perspective that American Christians have of AIDS,” Todd said. “Twenty years ago AIDS was seen from a U.S.-centric view as a ‘gay disease’ and that was associated with a lot of judgment. Today most American Christians understand AIDS as a global health issue with a heavy emphasis on Africa. “Many Christians are embracing a fuller understanding of their faith and of the gospel as something that is not only proclaimed and believed, but also as a faith that is lived out in acts of compassion. In other words, the general trend in evangelicalism toward greater social concern has impacted views toward AIDS. Christian attitudes and actions regarding AIDS have been advanced by leaders like Rick and Kay Warren, Bill Hybels and for the broader community by Bono and many others in media. I imagine Compassion has played a role in that as well. There have been multiple factors – secular and Christian – which have moved Christian attitudes and actions toward compassionate action.” Dortzbach emphasized the impact technology has had on effective AIDS education, particularly where the bulk of new AIDS cases emerge in sub-Saharan Africa. “Certainly education has enriched us,” she said. “We know so much more about AIDS today than we did 25 years ago. Communication made that transfer of knowledge available from cell phones to texting to the Internet. For example, you can get online in really remote places in Rwanda, and that is changing the environment as well as helping get correct and accurate information where there is an information gap. “The church can play a phenomenal role from pulpits to families to Christian schools and Christian teachers. … Many of us who know who have been touched by AIDS and know people with it put it all in a different light. Through that light we examine our own vulnerabilities. I’m grateful for the many Christian organizations which are involved with AIDS around the world. Most were very slow get going, but God is using all these means to equip us and even break us.” Challenges remain substantial in Africa. Dortzbach said promoting traditional family structures is vital along with battling against some cultural norms in different countries such as sexual cleansing, wife inheritance, coming of age or initiation rites and participating in sex trafficking or engaging in prostitution. She also cited research that circumcision can lead to decreased risks of transferring sexually transmitted diseases. She said encouraging abstinence in teens and unmarried adults is ideal, but that older adults need to do a better job of modeling the behaviors they’d like to promote in younger people. “It’s not just words and dialog and only filling young people with knowledge,” she said. “It is about having a support system where there are adults to look up to who model what they are trying to teach. … We have messaging problems. If you tell young people to stay abstinent but here’s what you do if you become sexually active sends a mixed message and they see right through that.” While she does feel educating young people domestically and internationally about contraceptives is important in the appropriate circumstances, she said it’s incumbent upon Christians to take a biblical perspective on sexuality. “Christians need to face the reality we live in a fallen world,” she said. “All messaging issues bring risk. Jesus always found ways to wrestle with hard things whether that was in parables with nuggets of truth in a real story as and example. There were other times he was very direct and deliberate and hit issues right between the eyes and forced us to wrestle with it. There isn’t any one perfect formula. We need to prioritize with principles.” Those principles have been effective in different African locations, Todd said. “Africa represents many nations and even within those nations there is a rich diversity of sub-cultures so it is not possible to speak of one set of ‘cultural beliefs,’” he said. “Having said that, many African cultures are more modest than U.S. or European cultures and certainly among the millions of Christians in Africa there is a belief in the virtues of abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within marriage. “Those values, if lived out, are without question effective in preventing infection with HIV. Uganda is an oft-cited case study which demonstrates that indigenous values of abstinence and faithfulness caused a massive decline in the rate of HIV infection in that country.” Stigmas associated with AIDS persist despite the level of educational resources. Foremost among those is that AIDS is a “sinner’s disease,” a scourge placed on homosexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes. Dortzbach quoted current United Nations statistics that 90 percent of the 1.7 million women living with HIV in Asia became infected from their husbands or partners while in long-term relationships. “Definitely the issue of stigma has moderated, but it is still a huge problem, often in emergent countries facing AIDS as an issue,” she said. “Even adults in the U.S. can easily relegate it. We want it be out of sight out of mind. We can rationalize about it that this thing is too big and since we can’t do anything about it we won’t. There is also indifference, a feeling that people deserve what they get because of their behavior. “That feeling of deserving it is really an attitude which is un-Christian. We can usually respond to babies and orphaned children and see their innocence. What we fail to realize is that Jesus came to get messy with sinners, all of us. If we fail to respond where God is leading us as a global church in relationship to others, then we fail to some degree as disciples transformed. The woman at the well (John 4:1-26) was mocked and the tax extortionist mocked Jesus from the cross beside him (Matthew 27:32-44). … We need to understand need for grace regardless of the sin.” Todd agreed in principle, emphasizing that playing a blame game didn’t serve a purpose. “The Scriptures are rich with passages that guide Christian compassion – protecting the vulnerable, caring for the sick, showing mercy – there are so many that it is difficult to choose one passage, but John 9 has stood out to me as particularly insightful. Jesus and his disciples are walking together and they come across a man who was born blind. The disciples’ first question is, ‘Who sinned?’ They are looking to point a finger of blame or judgment. Jesus response was, ‘This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life’ and then Jesus made some mud with his spit and gave the man the gift of vision. “When we encounter suffering of any kind, including AIDS, we should stop asking pointless questions about who is to blame and we should get busy following Jesus example of healing and restoring, demonstrating the work of God. When Jesus healed people it always created a buzz within the community, ‘Who was that man? Where is he?’ If we choose to put our faith in action we will see similar results and people will become curious about Jesus and try to find him. Compassion sees those same results when we equip churches to care for children.” And that equipping requires persistence. “AIDS may no longer be a headline item, but it needs to be a heart-line item in front of a world becoming more and more sexually promiscuous. For example, in the Congo where you have multiple rapes as acts of war and not addressing it corporately as Christians and individually as believers, then what does it mean to be a Christian in today’s world? It’s not as easy as handing glass of water cold water to thirsty person, but it is just as compelling and vital for life.” Links: Compassion International: http://www.compassion.com/ World Relief: http://worldrelief.org/Page.aspx?pid=192

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