After years of
ministering to AIDS patients overseas, evangelical
Christians are turning attention to the disease in their own
backyard--and one of the nation's largest and best-known
megachurches is leading the way.
pastors have traveled to Lake Forest, Calif., in Orange
County, to Saddleback Church for a national conference that
coincided with World AIDS Day on Thursday. On the
agenda: how to start local AIDS ministries and free
HIV antibody testing in churches.
Voices" initiative, led by best-selling author and
megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay Warren,
represents a shift among evangelicals. Many
sidestepped the U.S. health crisis because of its
association with homosexuality even as they made AIDS part
of their missions in Africa and other places where the
disease disproportionately affects women and children.
church has pretty much had fingers in our ears, hands
over our eyes, and mouths shut completely," said Kay Warren,
whose interest in HIV led her husband to sponsor the
conference. "We're not comfortable talking about sex
in general and certainly not comfortable about talking
about homosexuality--and you can't talk about HIV
without talking about both of those things."
22,000 members, isn't alone in its newfound domestic
focus. A small but growing number of evangelical Christians
are focusing on homegrown AIDS ministries.
realized that AIDS isn't a "gay disease" and can't be
easily labeled, even in the United States, said Doug
McConnell, dean of School of Intercultural Studies at
the Pasadena, Calif.-based Fuller Theological
Seminary. Interest in domestic ministries has steadily grown
in the past five years, he noted.
some evangelicals began asking, " 'We're involved
overseas, so why aren't we involved here?' " He added,
"This is a relatively recent awareness, and
it's come primarily from the devastating effects AIDS
has had on Africa."
director of the religion and faith program at the Human
Rights Campaign--a leading gay rights organization--said he
welcomed the outreach as long as it isn't judgmental.
"For far too
long, many radical-right pastors have mischaracterized
the disease for their own political purposes, and we have
reaped the unfortunate reward of that misinformation,"
he said. "It is good news that evangelicals are now
embracing people with HIV and AIDS to help us get our
executive director of AIDS Services Foundation Orange
County, said Saddleback Church helped collect $5,000 in food
for HIV patients last year and is doing it again this
year. He said the help is welcome because his
organization is too small to collect so much food on
"A group like
Saddleback is late to the table in terms of stepping up
to help, but they're stepping up to help at a wonderful
level," he said. "We try to practice the same kind of
thing that we want from people. We don't morally judge
who's supporting us. We wouldn't turn our back."
senior pastors from evangelical churches nationwide attended
the Saddleback conference, which ended Thursday evening with
a free concert featuring Wynonna Judd and nearly a
dozen Christian rock acts.
Warren said he's
encouraging other pastors to offer free HIV antibody
testing and counseling at their churches, start service
groups to help HIV patients with daily chores, and
train lay members to administer crucial antiretroviral
The focus isn't
on the behaviors that led people to contract the
virus--and Warren hopes other pastors will follow his lead.
"The church has the moral authority to say, 'Hey, it's
not a sin to be sick,' " said Warren, author of
The Purpose Driven Life, a best-selling
book. "The gospels repeatedly show that Jesus loved,
touched, and cared for lepers--the diseased outcasts of
his day. Today's 'lepers' are those who have HIV/AIDS." (AP)