Kay Warren Urges Evangelicals to Help People With AIDS

The matter-of-fact display on prostitution was startling enough. Then, a large remote-controlled condom floated above the conference hall. Kay Warren, wife of pastor Rick Warren, wondered, ''What had I gotten myself into?''

BY Matthew Van Atta

January 03 2008 12:00 AM ET

The
matter-of-fact display on prostitution was startling enough.
Then, a large remote-controlled condom floated above
the conference hall.

Kay Warren, wife
of pastor Rick Warren, wondered, ''What had I gotten
myself into?''

It was her first
International AIDS Conference, in 2004 in Thailand. Just
two years earlier, an article on how HIV was devastating
African families led Kay Warren to take up the cause
when very few conservative Christian leaders were
doing so. She chronicles her journey into activism in her
new book Dangerous Surrender, which is a plea
for Bible-believers to join the fight.

''I think there
are some people who won't get past the first few
chapters. It's not a light read,'' said Warren, whose
husband wrote the multimillion-selling The
Purpose-Driven Life.
''For some people, it
will come at the right time for them.''

It was only a few
years ago that evangelicals began tentatively putting
their energies into combating the infection. Many
conservative Christians considered the illness a
punishment from God for same-gender sex, prostitution,
and drug use. AIDS activism also inevitably meant working
with gay leaders who evangelicals had been battling over
same-sex marriage.

As recently as
last year, the Barna Group, which specializes in
researching the views of conservative Christians, conducted
a survey in which two out of five born-again
Christians said they had more sympathy for people with
cancer than for those with HIV/AIDS.

That attitude has
been changing. International Christian relief groups
such as World Vision have been bringing U.S. pastors to
visit AIDS-ravaged communities in Africa.

U2 front man
Bono, citing his own faith, barnstormed the United States,
pressing President Bush and other U.S. government leaders to
do more to stop the pandemic.

Three years ago,
Kay and Rick Warren began organizing the annual Global
Summit on AIDS & the Church at Saddleback Church, the
megacongregation they started in Lake Forest, Calif. Bill
and Lynne Hybels of the Willow Creek Association of
megachurches are offering an annual Courageous
Leadership Award to churches with the best programs to
combat the disease.

''I think there
has been a sea change,'' said Steve Haas, vice president
for church relations at World Vision. ''James 1:27 states
that pure and unadulterated religion is this: That you
take care of the orphans and widows in their distress.
The greatest orphan and widow creator of all time is
upon us. It's called AIDS.''

Yet, Haas and Kay
Warren say everyday evangelicals are only starting to
accept the idea. A common fear is that supporting people
with HIV condones sinful behavior. Kay Warren tells
them, ''It's not a sin to be sick.''

In her book,
Warren describes her travels to Mozambique, Cambodia,
Philippines, Rwanda and elsewhere, meeting AIDS orphans and
women who got HIV from unfaithful husbands, and
learning of the vulnerability of child prostitutes.
The majority of people with HIV worldwide are women.

''If people are
infected, they need to be embraced and valued, and
receive the love of relationship in the church,'' Warren
said in an interview, wearing an AIDS red-ribbon lapel
pin wrapped around a cross. ''Churches can reduce the
stigma.''

A small number of
detractors have also focused on the Warrens'
willingness to invite abortion rights supporters -- Sen.
Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton -- to
participate in the AIDS summit. The Warrens, who avoid
partisan politics, had invited every presidential candidate.
Only Clinton attended, while others sent videotaped
messages.

Not everyone
welcomes the support of conservative Christians. Gay
activists, who for years waged a lonely, difficult struggle
to help the HIV-infected, have been suspicious. Many
wonder whether Bible-believers are ''coming in looking
for Christian scalps,'' Haas said.

Warren writes
that she understands the concern ''when we show up 25 years
later and tell them we would like to serve them.'' But she
said she is slowly building relationships with gay-led
AIDS organizations. Haas said pastors who travel
overseas with World Vision often return and start
HIV/AIDS ministries in their own neighborhoods.

''I think we had
to earn our stripes,'' Warren said. ''Some immediately
embrace us. Others wonder if this is the cause of the month.
Others are fearful and suspect we have hidden
agendas.''

Beyond providing
care, the Warrens have also entered the contentious
policy debate over how to end the pandemic. They have
developed an approach, which they copyrighted so it
cannot be misrepresented or misused, called
S.L.O.W./S.T.O.P.

It is a
complicated acronym: To slow the spread of HIV, they support
correctly using condoms, limiting the number of partners,
offering needle exchange programs (even though Kay
Warren says it's still not clear how effective they
are), and advising young people to waiting for sex until
they're 18 or older. ''I don't know how anyone can
reasonably say that virginity isn't a protection
against HIV,'' she said.

To stop the
virus, the Warrens advocate saving sex for marriage,
teaching men and boys to respect and honor women and
girls, offering treatment through churches, and
partnering with one person for life.

Kay Warren said
that while the U.S. government can make the issue a
national priority and businesses can fund charity work, the
church can be especially successful in easing the
crisis by promoting behavioral change. In Dangerous
Surrender,
she aims to break down barriers that
have kept conservative Christians away from the issue.

''I hope this
book is disturbing to people,'' Warren said. ''There are
situations in the world that I cannot tolerate for one more
second.'' (AP)

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