Kay Warren: Pondering suffering, caring for people with AIDS/HIV

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)--Kay Warren has an impressive ministry resume. She’s the wife of Rick Warren, perhaps America’s best-known pastor. She’s a Bible teacher and the president of Acts of Mercy, a foundation she and Rick established to help vulnerable people and needy communities.

But she admits there are some things about God she just doesn’t understand. Suffering tops that list.

God opened Kay’s heart to suffering in March 2002. She was at home, reading through a newsmagazine, when she saw an article with photographs of Africans suffering with AIDS -– images so horrifying she had to cover her eyes. One line of text said, “12 million children orphaned in Africa due to AIDS.”

“That was a shocking statistic to me. I couldn’t believe there were 12 million orphans anywhere due to anything,” Kay says.

The number –- 12 million -– continued to haunt her. She told God, “Well, even if it’s true, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m a white, suburban, soccer-mom type person. This has nothing to do with me.”

When the thought of so much suffering was still with her a month later, she realized she had come to a crossroads.

NO LONGER A NUMBER

“I made a conscious decision to open my heart to the pain,” she says. “When I did, God broke my heart. He shattered it in a million pieces, and I cried for days.

“I knew I couldn’t stand before God when He called me home and look Him in the face and tell Him, ‘Yes, I knew about the suffering of millions of people, but I did nothing about it,’” she says.

Kay began sharing her heart with Rick, who encouraged her but insisted God was speaking to her -– not to him or to their congregation at Saddleback Church.

Kay began reading about AIDS/HIV and talking with experts. She was deeply moved by the testimony of Bruce Wilkinson, author of “The Prayer of Jabez,” and his wife, Darlene Marie, who moved to South Africa to serve the poor.

But it was a trip to Malawi that transformed her heart.

At one house, she met a 15-year-old boy who was raising his 11-year-old brother and 3-year-old sister. Their parents had died from AIDS.

Kay’s voice breaks as she recalls holding the little girl outside the hut: “She has no daddy to stand proudly when she marries, no mama to answer her cries in the middle of the night when she’s had a bad dream, no mom to tell her how to be a woman.”

On that trip, 12 million ceased to be a number. It turned into faces and names.

“That’s the only way we’ll ever be moved to do anything about the pandemic -– when we move it beyond statistics and it becomes personal,” Kay says. “Each of those I was holding and weeping for, God is weeping for.”

A VISION DISRUPTED

Rick came along on Kay’s second trip to Africa. Up to that point, he was thinking more about the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 -– building his church and strengthening pastors around the world -– than helping the poor and needy by fulfilling the Great Commandment of Matthew 22:37-40.

During Rick’s first five hours on African soil, though, God captured his heart for the world’s suffering and began showing him what to do about it. On that trip, the P.E.A.C.E. Plan -– attacking the world’s giants of spiritual darkness, lack of servant leaders, poverty, disease, and ignorance -– was born.

They began working to put the P.E.A.C.E. Plan into motion -– and then Kay was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Breast cancer seemed at the time like the biggest interruption,” Kay says. And though she never asked, “Why me?” she did ask, “Why now?”

When she became very sick during chemotherapy, Rick also had to pull back from ministry, and the P.E.A.C.E. Plan practically halted for several months. They both asked, “What is this about, God?”

What it was about was increasing her empathy for people who suffer.

Her hair was just growing back after chemotherapy in July 2004 when she traveled to Thailand for an international AIDS conference. She visited a widow who had AIDS and listened as she talked about how sick her medicine made her. When Kay told her about the medicine that made her hair fall out, each woman found a friend who understood her suffering.

Witnessing -– and experiencing -– suffering have made God both more intimate to her and more mysterious, she says. She understands more about Him -– and less.

“I don’t get this world system,” she says. “I don’t get the suffering.”

In Rwanda, she saw churches that had been used as slaughterhouses and skulls stacked on top of each other with evidence of machete wounds. In Cambodia, she heard of people killing each other in horrible ways. Around the world she’s seen countless orphans.

“When you see suffering, it takes your heart and wrenches it,” she said. “It has made me long for [Jesus’] appearing. It has made me long for suffering to come to an end.”

What she does understand more than ever is how, as a Christian, she takes God’s presence with her wherever she goes.

CHRIST’S HANDS

“When I go into a place -– whether it’s a hospital or mud hut or Mother Teresa’s home for the dying -– I take His presence and I offer it,” she says. “I’m His reflection ... His messenger ... His hands. That’s very intimate.”

Kay is convinced that the church is the answer to the world’s global giants, like AIDS.

“The evangelical church has been asleep at the wheel,” she says. “We have been absent from our post in caring for people and their needs for a very long time now. But I see repentance happening. I see people waking up with the same shock that I did and wanting to respond. That fills me with hope.”

Kay knows the world won’t be perfect until Jesus returns.

“But we can push back the darkness,” she says. “We can bring His presence and His light. We can be His hands that relieve the suffering, that comfort the dying, that care for the sick.”

God is mobilizing His people to touch broken and hurting people with His love, she says.

Saddleback members have made their church a place where HIV-positive people can share openly about their illness and find healing for their souls. The congregation has established relationships with AIDS service providers and asked, “How can we serve you?”

And Kay has personally built friendships with HIV-positive people in her own community.

“They’re not objects of evangelization. They’re people I care about,” she says. “They have to know that they matter to me as people. In the context of relationship, they share my life, I share their life.

“And, of course, I talk about my best friend, Jesus.”

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Key church leaders from around the world will gather Nov. 29-Dec. 1 at Saddleback Church for the Disturbing Voices: HIV/AIDS Conference to learn how churches can address HIV/AIDS in their communities and around the world. Learn more at http://www.purposedriven.com/en-US/Events/AIDS/Overview.htm.

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