Mission through the Lens of AIDS

For five days at the end of December 2006, 593 Urbana 06 delegates collectively focused on what it means to live missionally in a world pressed with the numbing reality of forty million people living with HIV/AIDS. Participants in “Mission through the Lens of AIDS,” an Urbana 06 residential track, explored the state of the pandemic, effective programs and opportunities to respond as Christians. Key topics included discerning how the Church can learn from AIDS and learning how the good news of God’s kingdom can bring and manifest hope in places where coping with AIDS is a necessity.

Let Scripture Speak
Attendees who signed up to be part of the track resided together in the Drury Plaza Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, USA—the city where Urbana 06 was held. On the first night, they formed family groups of four to six people. This allowed them to practice on a small scale the type of communal processing and living described in the book of Ephesians, the subject of the “Let Scripture Speak” Bible studies. Don Everts, InterVarsity area director from Boulder, Colorado, USA, led these family groups through a study of Ephesians. Everts facilitated the 90-minute sessions, utilizing staff with roving microphones to stimulate group discussion. He included time for individual reflection and prayer as well as large and small group dialog that allowed opportunity for consideration of a biblical response to HIV/AIDS. Similar studies on Ephesians for other delegates were held in sixty-nine additional venues, after which the 22,250 attendees trekked to the Edward Jones Dome, where missionary statesman Ajith Fernando of Sri Lanka led four additional expository sessions on Ephesians.

Engaging the Pandemic through Seminars
The heart of “Mission through the Lens of AIDS” was the thirty-one seminars led by those intimately involved in responding to the pandemic. Speakers were selected by an internationally diverse steering committee co-led by Grace Tazelaar, missions director for Nurses Christian Fellowship, and Jim Thomas, professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Steering committee members Sujai Suneetha, a physician from Hyderabad, India, and his scientist wife, Lavanya, spent over fifteen years in leprosy work and research in different parts of India before God led them to begin a drop-in center in their home that now caters to five hundred HIV-positive persons and their families. The couple spoke eloquently on “Caring for People with HIV/AIDS” and were joined in their presentation by University of Illinois at Chicago infectious disease specialist Dr. Jonathan Uy.

Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan Catholic priest and professor of theology and world Christianity at Duke University, also served on the steering committee. Katongole spoke on “Theology through the Lens of AIDS,” drawing on the personal experiences of watching his 21-year-old niece, his eldest brother and ultimately scores of friends in Uganda die of AIDS. Katongole said, “I found myself raising more questions than I or anybody had answers for—as it soon became clear that with HIV/AIDS we had entered a new kairos, a moment of truth, in which AIDS was killing not only our bodies but also our usual and comfortable ways of being church and what it means for us to be God’s people.”

Jane Wathome, founder of Beacon of Hope in Kenya, led seminars on “Income Generation to AIDS-Stricken Communities.” Wathome’s ministry began in 2002 through listening to the needs expressed by women in the impoverished community of Ongata Rongai. Starting with the production of textiles, Beacon of Hope has grown to include childcare and orphaned child sponsorship, a feeding program, medical assistance, training in home based care, spiritual guidance, group support therapy, HIV testing and counseling and a youth program. To accommodate the rapidly expanding programs, Beacon of Hope has purchased an eight-acre parcel of land and is embarking on the development of a self-sustaining community initiative that will continue to serve women, children and youth affected and infected by HIV/AIDS and poverty.

As an HIV-positive person, Christopher Yuan shared how his past addiction and drug trafficking led to a three-year federal prison term, during which he was informed by a prison nurse that he had contracted HIV. Alone in his prison cell, he noticed a reference to Jeremiah 29:11 scrawled on the metal bunk above him. At the time of his trial, Yuan began reading a Gideon Bible he had found in a garbage can. “At the most hopeless time in my life, God met me and told me he had plans for me, plans to give me a future and a hope. It was at that point that I submitted to him and relinquished control,” Yuan said. A documentary produced by CrossRoads and shot on location in South Africa, Russia, Jamaica and the United States relates the thought-provoking stories of Yuan and three other HIV-positive Christians who not only share a grave diagnosis but a sustaining hope in Christ.

Deborah Dortzbach and W. Meredith Long’s The AIDS Crisis: What We Can Do (InterVarsity, 2006) was also introduced at Urbana 06. Colleagues at World Relief with a combined forty years of engagement with the pandemic, Dortzbach and Long draw readers into responding to HIV/AIDS through vignettes of those whose lives have been changed by AIDS. Solid information interlaced with study questions and online resources enable readers to take the next step in both personally responding to AIDS and in stimulating their churches to do so. Long presented with Stella Kasirye, who has directed World Relief’s AIDS initiatives in Malawi, to speak on “Church Partnerships: Tackling AIDS Together.” In a “Sex, Sexuality, Gender and HIV/AIDS” seminar, Kasirye dealt with the issues of poverty that force women into sexual slavery. Paul Robinson, director of Wheaton College’s (Wheaton, Illinois, USA) HNGR (Human Needs Global Resources) internship program, addressed the social and economic inequities that propel the pandemic, while Serge Duss of World Vision outlined strategies for AIDS advocacy.

Experiencing AIDS
A “Broken Bread Meal for AIDS” gave Urbana 06 participants the opportunity to develop a physical awareness of hunger and its impact on a community. A simple meal of corn soy porridge, fortified with vitamins and minerals and easily digestible for those living with AIDS, was served to all conference participants. Such a meal is commonly provided by relief and development organizations to hungry communities. Participants were also given a card that contained ideas for discussion and prayer as well as the stories of people living with AIDS.

World Vision and the North American Millers’ Association partnered with Urbana in providing the recipe and the ingredients for the meal, which were sent to the convention chefs to test. Urbana director Jim Tebbe reported that the chefs rebelled, saying students would not eat the porridge, additional heavy duty trash bags would have to be ordered for the discarded food, the meal would go down in infamy and they did not want their names attached to it. But Urbana staff insisted and eight tons of gruel was prepared. In plenary sessions, delegates were informed of the purpose of the meal and responded to the challenge, eating virtually all the gruel. Money saved with this meal went toward the conference offering of $1,212,000USD. Robert Zachvitz, a World Vision senior policy advisor, urged students to host Broken Bread Meals on their campuses. Bible study guides together with packets of the corn-soy mixture are available through www.actingonaids.org.

Urbana 06 attendees had the opportunity to step into AIDS in Africa through an interactive exhibit in which they received the identity of someone in Africa together with headphones and an MP3-player to listen to that person’s life story. Progressing through rooms of a hut with dirt and hay on the floor, and confronted with stirring photography and compelling stories, the experience culminated with participants having their hands stamped either HIV-positive or negative. With nearly forty percent of the population of Botswana and Swaziland infected with HIV, the exhibit, hosted by James Pedrick and his Acting on AIDS colleagues at World Vision, provided a haunting simulation of the lives of Africans living with AIDS. World Vision also provided three thousand free copies of a comprehensive and instructive DVD, “Acting on AIDS Toolkit,” to help students develop their own campus programs.

Through the Lens of AIDS and Beyond
The 5 January 2007 Wall Street Journal rightly reported of Urbana 06 that “a big focus of the program this year was the AIDS epidemic and the ways that Christians can respond to it.”

In addition to the residential track on AIDS, an extended evening session for all delegates featured Kay Warren of Saddleback Church’s (Lake Forest, California, USA) HIV/AIDS Initiative, and Princess Kasune Zulu representing the voices of those living with AIDS. Zulu’s sister, mother and father all died of AIDS. At a young age, Zulu began caring for those with AIDS at a local hospital in her native Zambia. She married an older man who had already lost two wives to AIDS. Now HIV-positive herself, Zulu has hitch-hiked across Zambia to make high-risk truck drivers aware of AIDS prevention methods, hosted a national radio program on AIDS and travels internationally speaking on behalf of AIDS orphans and girls forced into the sex trade to provide for their younger siblings. Half of the twelve agencies receiving portions of the $1.2 million Urbana 06 conference offering, including IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students), MAP International, Serving In Mission, World Relief and World Vision, have AIDS initiatives.

Why Should I Care?
Affy Adeleye of Nigeria, who led a seminar on “Speaking on Campuses about AIDS and the Gospel,” said that some attendees, many personally untouched by the pandemic, came to the conference still asking, “Why should I care?” In contrast, a Kenyan student studying in the United States confided to track co-leader Grace Tazelaar that she was questioning her faith in God because, “It doesn’t seem fair. The United States is so blessed, yet the people of Kenya are so poor and suffering with AIDS.”

The prayers, planning, Bible studies, sacrificial meal and programmatic efforts of “Mission through the Lens of AIDS” were conceived from the passion that no Urbana 06 attendee leave with the first question unanswered and that many would feel compelled to stand alongside those like their Kenyan sister who have tasted the grief of the pandemic. Tazelaar urged the Kenyan student to “hang onto the faith that you have been given. Maybe God has a calling on your life for Kenya and that is why you are here.” Indeed, that many would heed the call to respond to HIV/AIDS was a deep part of the heartbeat of Urbana 06. It is part of living a life worthy of the calling.

Dr. Evvy Hay Campbell is chair of intercultural studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, USA, and was facilitator of the 2004 Forum for World Evangelization Holistic Mission Issue Group. She is Lausanne senior associate for holistic mission.