AIDS in the U.S.: It's simply a matter of 'Whoever loves them first, wins'

EDITORS' NOTE: In recognition of World AIDS Day, Baptist Press is publishing a project about the spread of the disease around the globe and how people of faith have responded.

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)--More than a million individuals live with HIV/AIDS in the U.S.; yet, despite responding with Christ's compassion to care for the sick and to meet the needs of "the least of these" in so many other instances, evangelicals in America largely have struggled with how to respond in ministry to those stricken with this disease.

Hesitancy stems in part from the nature of how HIV/AIDS has spread across the states. Unlike the rest of the world (e.g. in Africa, heterosexual sex with multiple partners is the main transmission factor, and in Russia HIV/AIDS is spreading through rampant intravenous drug abuse and sharing of infected needles), the HIV/AIDS virus has spread among Americans mostly from homosexual sex and secondly through dirty needles shared by illicit drug users.

Because homosexuals and Christians have been engaged in a culture war for more than two decades, believers are at odds with themselves about how to show their compassion by proclaiming the Gospel to and by caring for AIDS patients, but without giving the appearance of condoning sin or surrendering the fight for the soul of the country.

In an exclusive interview with Baptist Press about evangelicals' response to the spread of the disease in the U.S., Kay Warren said she believes Christians need to start by understanding that HIVAIDS is not a gay disease. She added that evangelicals should see homosexuals with HIV/AIDS for what they are -- an unreached people group who need to know God loves them.

Ten years ago, Warren would have been an unlikely principal for a discussion about AIDS in America. She was a Bible teacher and the wife of Rick Warren, who is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church and author of "The Purpose Driven Life."

But Kay has emerged as a recognized leader in her own right for her efforts to marshal the church to engage in this ministry area because God cares for the sick and it is the only institution with the moral authority to effect the behavioral change needed to stop the spread of AIDS. She now is executive director of Saddleback Church's HIV/AIDS Initiative.

Warren's stance on ministry to those sick with AIDS was something of a journey for her.

"I sat for the first 20 years of this pandemic," she said, adding her typical reaction was something like, "[Y]ou know what? It's a white, gay man's disease and everybody knows how it's transmitted and so if you get sick, oh well. Don't come crying to me for sympathy."

She described her attitude then as harsh and judgmental: "You commit the crime, you pay the time."

About five years ago, God opened her heart to AIDS sufferers by appealing first to her compassion for African children orphaned by the disease. Through visits to Africa and seeing firsthand the devastation there, she eventually came to the place spiritually where she saw HIV/AIDS-infected homosexuals and intravenous drug abusers in a different way.

"[T]he church has the opportunity to reach into the communities of people that have typically stayed away," she said. "I really think of the gay community and the HIV community in the United States as, if you will, unreached people groups.

"And they're not going to come to us."

Warren said her attitude about homosexuality was an obstacle to ministering to hurting people.

"I actually felt that because of the way somebody might have gotten sick that eliminated my responsibility to care for them or to demonstrate compassion."

She added that to win anyone to Christ, you have to establish relationships.

"Five years ago, I couldn't even name anybody who was gay or lesbian, or if I did, they were people who would come to our church and we made them leave," she said. "Today, I have friends in the gay and lesbian community and in the context of relationship we talk about what the Bible says."

"I had a four-hour conversation a month ago with a young man who would identify himself as gay and Christian," she said, "a four-hour conversation of 'But what does the Bible say about this?' and 'How are you reconciling that with your faith?'"

From that kind of relationship, she added, a Christian can help someone with temptations admit, "This is where I'm struggling; this is where I'm hurting. Help me find God here. Help me find how to live my life in a way that pleases Him and yet deals with the fact that I'm a broken person."

"Our community of faith is supposed to be a place where the rock can be lifted and all those gross-looking bugs that are disgusting to look at and that shrivel in the light of exposure are dealt with ... and we can be fixed and can be sympathized with and can be given fellowship," Warren said.

Most importantly, she added, the church is the only institution that can make a difference.

"You know the government and business groups are trying to work in HIV," she said. "They can talk about it, but they have no moral authority whatsoever to talk about how people can change their behavior and protect themselves, and the church has that responsibility. Only the church has the moral authority to talk about behavior change."

Ministry to those with HIV/AIDS starts with the Bible, Warren said. They are desperate people who need Jesus Christ, and the way for them to know He cares is for us to care for them, she said. Outlining practical steps any church can take, she referred to the C.H.U.R.C.H. acrostic developed at Saddleback (for details see www.purposedriven.com/hiv):

-- Care for and support the sick

-- Handle testing and counseling

-- Unleash a volunteer labor force

-- Remove the stigma

-- Champion healthy behavior

-- Help with nutrition and medication.

Warren underscored that above all ministry must be personal. She noted that generosity with financial gifts is important, but it cannot substitute for direct involvement.

"I've grown up Southern Baptist, so I don't have any other experience other than that. I think I personally got caught in the idea that I was doing enough for those situations because I tithed ... and I knew that my church also tithed to the Cooperative Program," she said.

"We gave to Lottie Moon, we gave to Annie Armstrong," she continued, "and I think because I knew that I was giving in that way, and in my church and my denomination, I felt like I had done enough, but it wasn't personal.

"It was me giving money so that somebody else could do the work," Warren observed, "and I think what we're trying to say is that's not enough. God doesn't just want your money, He wants you. And when AIDS and poverty and disease and illiteracy and corruption and all those things become personal, suddenly you can't ignore it."

When asked whether there is a point at which ministry to homosexuals with HIV/AIDS stops because there has been no response to the Gospel, Warren replied, "Yeah, when they die."

"We teach people that up until the moment that somebody passes from this life to the next, there's a possibility of salvation. I mean, that's what we believe as Baptists. That until the moment a person passes from this life to the next ... that God is holding His hand out to them. His hand is extended to them until they leave this life. And if that's the way God is responding to broken, sinful people, how dare I do any less?"

Warren shared that, ultimately, evangelicals need to see the HIV/AIDS population in the U.S. with the same focus as overseas missions.

"God's message is the same. He doesn't adapt His message based on a people group. His message is the same," Warren said. "It's how we portray it. It's how we win their hearts.

"I have a friend, Chad Thompson, who has written a book called 'Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would' -- an excellent book that everyone should read -- and he makes a statement in there: 'Whoever loves them first, wins.'"

"Whether you're talking to the gay community, a people group in Sudan, it doesn't really matter where it is," she said. "The fact of the matter is whoever loves them first wins. We've gone about it in all the wrong ways. If we think we can bring people to Christ by shouting at them, by ... holding up placards, we're fooling ourselves.

"Whoever loves them first, wins."


Will Hall is executive editor of Baptist Press.

A partial transcript of other topics follows:

ON EVENTS LIKE THE FOLSUM STREET FAIR THAT

REVEAL RADICALISM IN THE HOMOSEXUAL MOVEMENT

We're all the least, the last and the lost. And the problem for us is that sometimes other people's sinful behavior is very external and we can see it. You know, the things you described, I believe that those break God's heart and I don't believe the Bible supports that ... but the fact is that somebody else's behavior is more external and I get to see the results of their sin, but nobody gets to see the results of mine.

And the truth is we are all just as broken. We are all just as desperate for salvation. We just get to cover ours up sometimes in ways that nobody else really knows. And so to judge everyone else's sin as being so much worse than mine is what keeps us from reaching out to every person with the love of Jesus Christ.

ON WHY THE SOCIAL VACCINE OF ABSTINENCE AND FAITHFULNESS HAS

BEEN EFFECTIVE IN UGANDA AND NOT AMONG U.S. HOMOSEXUALS

Well, I think also if you look at Uganda, it is abstinence but it is also fidelity. It's people not having multiple sexual partners and that is probably just as significant, if not more, from what I understand as not having any premarital sex -- so, those two need to go together.

As human beings, we want to do what we want to do. Whether that's "I just don't want three potato chips, I want this bag of potato chips," "I don't want to wait for sex, I desire sex now," "I don't want to put off buying that house for two more years while we save the money, I want it now." There's just something within us that doesn't like to wait, doesn't want to have limitations put around us. We want to do what we want to do, and we want to do it now in every domain of our lives. That's part of our problem, and it's our main problem.

I think that messages asking people to put limitations on themselves, asking people to delay sexual gratification, or if you're married, asking people to stay faithful to their partner, it just goes against our basic human nature, and so government really doesn't have any power to offer people -- doesn't have any spiritual messages that deal with those internal heart issues that drive us. And that's why I think that the church has something significant to contribute to this discussion.

ON HOW TO PROMOTE HOLINESS AMONG PEOPLE

WHO DEFINE THEMSELVES BY SEXUAL BEHAVIOR

It's a tricky thing. We swim down a river. We swim down the middle of a raging river because on one side we have the truth of God that says He has standards; He is holy; He is pure; He is perfect. He has told us what it is to be a holy person. There is no ambiguity in Scripture that I can see of what His standard is of holiness ... none, whatsoever. That is on one side of the river, and at the other side of the river is His compassionate love for us that recognizes that we are absolute, utter failures at keeping His standards and that we mess it up every day a thousands times.

What stands in the middle of that is Jesus. So, we're just chugging along on Jesus' boat, if you would, knowing that His standards are impossible to keep, but they are clear and we must hold them up; and at the same time His love and mercy comes alongside and says, "I know you can't do it, so here's how -- through My Son."

So, of course we hold up God's standards. And in those conversations we have with people, I make no apologies for what I believe. And sometimes on interviews, secular interviews, people will say, they'll ask me what I think about this or they will ask me what I think about that. And I try to be very clear and say from my understanding of Scripture, "This is what God says," ... "and" -- and I always throw in the "and" -- "and He is madly in love with every person He has ever made and longs to be in relationship with them."

We have to hold the standards that God has -- there's no bending of God's holiness -- but He makes a provision for the fact that we can't keep them.

ON THE DIFFERENCES IN EMPHASIS BETWEEN CHRISTIANS AND OTHER GROUPS ABOUT THE ABC METHOD OF STOPPING THE SPREAD OF AIDS (A&B v. C)

I don't know how anyone could possibly deny that not having premarital sex is a protection from HIV. Abstaining from sexual intercourse and other intimate sexual behaviors is the best protection. Secondly, how can anybody argue even scientifically that when both partners are faithful to each other that that does not protect people from HIV? Of course it's a protection.

And, this is where others don't always agree with me in the faith community, I've studied it enough to believe it to be true: I don't know how anybody can argue that condoms used correctly, consistently every time, I don't know they can argue and say that that doesn't add some measure of protection against HIV. It does. I wouldn't trust my life to a piece of latex. I'm not willing to do that. But, I think, for people who refuse to be abstinent or remain faithful, I want them to live.

I want them to live long enough for them to know that Jesus loves them. I want them to live long enough to parent their family, to parent their children.

It's not foolproof ... the failure rate is 5 to 6 percent, it varies, all the way down to 14 percent, but up to 5 to 6. But I think that Christians, we get laughed at when we refuse to acknowledge, scientifically, that condoms used correctly, consistently every single time, add some protection against HIV.

So I think all three are necessary to protect people. But I'm going to go for the ideal. I'm going to go for the best because that's what I want. I want the best, and I want people to not even to put themselves in risky situations in which transmittal of HIV is a possibility; but neither am I going to ignore the fact that billions of people will not follow the first two.

ON THE PURPOSE OF THE DEC. 1 SADDLEBACK YOUTH SUMMIT

We have three goals. We want them at the end of that day to make a commitment to remain HIV free themselves -- that they will not be one of those statistics who becomes HIV positive, and that they would follow God's standards and save themselves for marriage. Absolutely. And that they would make a promise to be faithful to their partners once they are married.

The second goal is that they would make a commitment to help others remain HIV-free.

The third goal is to make a commitment to care for those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

We are going to tell them everything that we know, but we are not about. ... I think the schools do a big job on the C of the ABC and very little on the A and B. So we are going to put the preponderance of our time urging them, and convincing them, that's our job, is to convince them that remaining pure and remaining faithful in their commitments is God's way.

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