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CNN Exchange: Commentary

Warren: Christians must do more to combat AIDS, comfort victims

By Kay Warren
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Kay Warren, wife of Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Church and author of "The Purpose Driven Life," is executive director of Saddleback's HIV/AIDS initiative. An accomplished writer, Mrs. Warren has traveled globally to speak and learn about the AIDS pandemic.

LAKE FOREST, California (CNN) -- Joana crawled toward me on her skeletal elbows and knees, each movement a painful reminder of the fact that she was dying.

When I met her, this emaciated woman was homeless, living under a tree. She had unrelenting diarrhea, little food, no earthly possessions, and only an elderly auntie who had taken pity on her to care for her needs.

Still, she roused herself to offer me, an American visitor to her part of Mozambique, a traditional greeting.

The African pastors who brought me to visit her told me that she had been evicted from her village when it became known that she had AIDS. Now, in this second village, her tiny stick house had mysteriously burned after her status became known. A short time later, Joana died -- rejected, abandoned, persecuted and destitute.

We may think this doesn't happen in the United States. "People who are HIV-positive are treated better than that here," we say. But I'm not so sure.

I live in affluent Orange County, California, yet a disabled man in my area who was HIV positive was not allowed to enter his brother's home.

He and his wife could live in the backyard, but he couldn't come inside. To bathe him, his wife had to attach a nozzle to a hose and shoot him with a hard spray of water that would hopefully dislodge dirt and grime. The family dog was treated better than this man; at least it could go in the house.

Like Joana in Mozambique, this man may also die rejected, abandoned, persecuted and destitute.

As a follower of Christ, I am seriously disturbed by both stories.

Horrific and startling images confront each of us daily through newspapers, televisions, and eyewitness accounts of those suffering from AIDS. You can do what I did for years -- choose to ignore it all because it was too painful -- or you can become disturbed -- seriously, dangerously disturbed -- so disturbed that you are compelled to do something.

Christians are just as guilty as non-Christians of wanting to look the other way when it comes to the problems confronting our world, the topics that make us uncomfortable. But we need to be seriously disturbed about homelessness, child prostitution, rape, poverty, injustice, and HIV/AIDS.

Twenty-five years into the AIDS pandemic, being HIV-positive still carries stigma and shame. But God cares for the sick and so must we.

It's not a sin to be sick. The Bible tells us Jesus was repeatedly "filled with compassion" as he encountered broken bodies and broken minds. While polite society vigorously avoided contact with those they considered diseased outcasts, Jesus responded in a radical way: He cared, he touched, he healed.

I had no medication that could cure Joana, nothing to alleviate her pain, nothing that would restore her to health. But I offered the one thing that all of us can offer: I offered my presence. I put my arms gently around her, prayed for relief from her suffering and whispered, "I love you."

This is a start, but much more is needed. Today, I challenge the worldwide church to take on the global giants of spiritual darkness, lack of servant leaders, poverty, disease, and ignorance. It's past time for those who claim to be Christ's followers to join the struggle against the devastation that the HIV virus brings.

How many more like Joana have to die before you become seriously disturbed?

What do you think? E-mail us

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer. This article is part of a series of occasional opinion pieces on CNN.com that will offer a broad range of perspectives that express a variety of thoughts and points of view.

Your responses

CNN.com asked readers for their thoughts on Kay Warren's commentary. We received a lot of excellent responses. Below you will find a small selection of those e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling. Scroll down to read Warren's take on some of the comments we received.

I'm speechless. This is a well-written, non-inflammatory look at a difficult topic. So much is spoken by the right that spits venom at the hurting and homeless it's nice to finally see something written that displays the compassion that "should" be seen by supposed followers of Christ. Well done.
Jeremy Anderson, Seal Beach, California

Thank you for publishing the commentary on "Christianity and AIDS" by Kay Warren. I grew up as a Christian and still consider myself a Christian, but I rarely recognize my religion anymore when I read about it in the press. It was so good to see a call for compassion instead of the hate-filled screed from the right that one (unfortunately) expects these days.
Peter, Maple Grove, Minnesota

The comment "It's not a sin to be sick" is revealing. Everything else connected with this disease is presumably a sin, one surmises. The church has been remarkably consistent in its stinginess in doling out mercy -- carefully adding the requisite condemnation at every turn. In 25 years it has not abated. I am confident that they are more concerned with victims' answer to the question "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?" than whether the person on the other end of the dialogue can swallow or breathe or see. These absurd outreach junkets smack of self-satisfied, feel-good piety and are more about suburbanite adventuring than producing solid, practical help to prevent the disease from being transmitted in the first place (a subject the all churches and mosques are still too bashful to confront). It makes you feel tired all over.
John Thompson, Charlotte, North Carolina

Mrs. Warren is right on the money. Christians need to respond and we need church leaders to influence politicians and donors to fight HIV/AIDS with sound and practical interventions that prevent HIV and provide care for the people living with AIDS and the millions of children who have lost parents due to this deadly virus.
Ellen McCurley, Cambridge, Massachusetts

I cried when I read this, as I'm sure many others will. Though I don't define myself as a Christian anymore due to the profound lack of compassion found in the overall Church, small actions like this illustrate just how powerful and God-filled we all are. We can discern right from wrong ourselves if we just listen to our hearts, just as Jesus did and hoped we would continue to do.
Harry, Seattle, Washington

I am a Christian who has raised funds for AIDS the past two years. It is such a disturbing thought, to be sick and to have people think you deserve it. This is NOT what Jesus would do. Love the article!
Melissa, Vancouver, Washington

When the misguided pastor's wife refers to those who "claim to be followers" of Christ, she is implying that if we do not join in this "struggle" with HIV, then we are not truly what we claim. As a Christian, I take offense at this. HIV is a medical condition, no more a crisis than cancer, blindness or a host of other unfortunate ailments that torment mankind. True Christians are moved by Christ's compassion to help those in need who may cross our paths, regardless of the ailment. Just because HIV has been earmarked as a "gay" disease in the past, does not mean we are to bow before it. There is a hidden agenda here, one which would have Christians not only be kind to gays outside the church, but to accommodate gays in the church as though they could actually be a part of spiritual union with Christ. The Bible does not condone sin in any form, and is very clear on God's opinion of this particular sin. Those who do not see this, choose not see it because of their spiritual rebellion. The deluded pastor's wife should recognize that she is being used to deceive many, and should repent while there is yet time.
Brenton Hunter, Dallas, Texas

I say 'Amen'. It's long past time when so-called leaders-both religious and political-should shut up if they have nothing to say but "you should have tried abstinence". Then they should put their resources where their mouths were, and proceed to eschew tax cuts and perks for the well-to-do, and get to work tending to the impoverished, the sick, the homeless and the destitute, including those with the AIDS death sentence.
Roger Tanner, Florence, Alabama

Mrs. Warren is right. Absolutely right. I'm sure that we'll be judged based in large part upon our compassion and generosity towards those with AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, the 1 billion who struggle to live on $1 a day or less, the three billion who live on $2 a day or less. God have mercy on us that we don't sacrifice much more of our money and time to help them.
Doug D'Jay, Ridgefield, Connecticut

I think this is an amazing AIDS story, and sadly, all too true. The stigma of AIDS/HIV, with the lack of understanding in the general population, causes most of the problems. If we can overcome those two things with AIDS/HIV education, we can begin to help fight HIV/AIDS as it needs to be fought; Humans unified on the same side to eradicate HIV/AIDS.
Mary McKinney, Houston, Texas

Thank you so much to Kay Warren and CNN for this article. As a Christian, I've been saddened to see that many who share my faith are reluctant to reach out to AIDS victims. As a child, one of my close friends died of AIDS at the age of 5 -- a painful memory I will never be without. A common misconception is that AIDS/HIV is always the fault of the person. In my friend's case, she contracted it from her mother before birth. The truth must be heard: That AIDS victims are indeed victims in many circumstances, and that we must care for those in need just as Jesus did.
Andrea Amabile, Bowie, Maryland

I agree there is much more we can do. We can volunteer our services, be willing to teach those around us how to love and care for those with the HIV/AIDS virus. Rejection and abandonment will make a health person sick; a suffering person will become sicker.
Mae Tullis, Montgomery, Alabama

While this kind woman's sentiment is great, the real obstacle to having Christians effectively address the AIDS/HIV problem, particularly in Africa where it's the most critical, is dealing with their moral quandary of wanting to prevent death and suffering vs. their opposition to condom usage. While the "faith-based" initiatives supported by the Bush administration encourage abstinence and monogamy, the sad reality for most women in sub-Saharan Africa is that they often have no choice in their own sexual conduct or in their husband's. In Botswana for example, the average girl loses her virginity at 15 to a member of their extended family. This would be called rape in our country. Particularly in countries where there are prevalent myths about sex with virgins curing AIDS or that condoms are a trick from Westerners that actually cause AIDS, spreading the uncontroversial, but competely naive idea of abstinence and monogamy is useless. It's easy for Christians to say, "love thy neighbor." What's hard is confronting the letter of their moral laws and its opposition to condom use, and the spirit of their law which is to prevent suffering and pain among those weaker than ourselves.
Bee, New York, New York

I'm surprised and pleased to hear this coming from a conservative Christian leader. Her point is not on the means by which people get HIV, but on the fact of its absolute devastation. Her emphasis is on relieving the suffering of the sick rather than on enabling divine social retribution. She seems to me to be taking a very important first step, and it leaves me hopeful. However, the second step, prevention of the spread of the virus, is more contentious.
Allen Siverson, Gilroy, California

Christianity has become more of a lifestyle than a way of life. Most go to church/mass, say hi to long-time friends, enjoy a handshake, a back-slap, then retreat to comfy homes, watch TV, then go to work without any thought of really following Christ's example, and the lead of the Holy Spirit. I guess, in large part, because we've painted our love into a corner created by the walls of doctrine and debate, and less about doing, caring. So I believe her commentary is on target -- though the issues are varied from her neighbors, block & community than to mine. But that's okay too. If we all took care of our own neighbors, blocks and community, we'd all be covered with love by someone.
Andrew, Parsippany, New Jersey

Warren responds

Kay Warren responds to your comments: The range of e-mailed responses to my piece on Christians and AIDS is vast.

Some of you believe those of us who are late to the table in caring for those with HIV/AIDS can never do enough to make up for our former apathy and lack of care. Some believe there is a hidden agenda. Some take encouragement from knowing fresh voices are being raised in a call to care for people with HIV/AIDS. And some are pierced to their core as they come face-to-face with their own prejudices and fears and realize they have ignored the cries of 40 million men, women and children who suffer from the HIV virus.

To those who read into my words a hidden agenda, there is nothing hidden about my belief that we were all made by God and for God and find our purpose for living in relationship to God. But when I sit beside a woman like Joana in Mozambique, or Ben in Orange County, California, or hold an HIV-positive baby doomed to an early, painful death, my first reaction is not to quote scripture to them, but to hold them, comfort them, and ease their suffering in any way that I can. No one cares what I believe theologically until they know that I care for them as a person. Whether anyone agrees with my belief system or not doesn't affect the level of my compassion. The point is to love.

For those who think AIDS is a gay disease, it is not. But even it if was, that doesn't lessen the need for compassion. Around the world, more women than men are infected by AIDS, and millions upon millions of children are orphaned because their parents have died from AIDS. It is a pandemic -- men, women and children are infected at the rate of 14,000 a day.

Many ask why HIV/AIDS should receive so much attention -- why not fight cancer or malaria or tuberculosis or high blood pressure? All are illnesses worthy of attention. That is true. But HIV/AIDS carries a stigma unlike cancer or most other diseases. Being HIV-positive can lead to loss of employment or even something as severe as a beating or divorce for a woman who reveals her status. I've heard women in Mozambique, Malawi, Rwanda, Cambodia, Thailand, Philippines, and in Orange County, California, say, "What will happen to my children when I die? No one will want to take care of them if they know I died of AIDS."

As a two-time cancer survivor, I've yet to hear of anyone who was afraid to be around me because I had cancer. No one would have refused to care for me or my children. But this is reality for millions of people in our world. The stigma and shame associated with HIV/AIDS puts it in a category by itself in terms of the way we respond to those infected.

Just getting HIV/AIDS on the radar screen of Americans is a monumental task. Typically the only people who care are those infected or affected by it or the doctors who treat them. Yet we are called to care for the sick. A society that ignores its weakest members reveals a sickness deeper than the physical.

To eradicate HIV/AIDS --- not merely manage it -- will require unselfishness and a long-term commitment. It will require honest, fact-based conversations among people who have the same goals but differ in the methods to achieve those goals. Nothing about it is easy -- neither treatment nor care nor prevention is simple -- but we must press on in spite of the difficulties.


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