The North American Church’s Role in HIV/AIDS Care

The issue of HIV/AIDS in the world today is so large that it may appear beyond hope. According to the UNAIDS/WHO 2004 AIDS Epidemic Update, there are more than 13,400 new infections and 8,400 deaths each day from HIV/AIDS. The same report shows that nearly forty million people are living with this deadly disease. As individuals and churches, what are we to do about these dire statistics? How do we grasp a pandemic of this magnitude? How do we bring the love of Christ to the millions affected? The truth is, the love of Christ is already evident through committed individuals within the Church body. Every church has a role in combating this massive problem, whether through prayer, dialogue, partnership and/or ministry.

The stigma attached to HIV/AIDS keeps this pandemic from being properly addressed. Throughout the world people are shunned, feared and condemned when it becomes known that they or someone in their family has HIV. The following is an example of a woman in Kenya who has been affected by HIV/AIDS: 

Johnes is a widow and grandmother. Two of her eight children have died of AIDS and another one is HIV-positive. She has watched several grandchildren die of AIDS and at least two of her eight surviving grandchildren are HIV-positive.

Due to recurrent deaths in the family (and the family’s history with HIV/AIDS), the community and the local church have neglected and abandoned Johnes and her family. People are afraid of contracting the HIV virus through casual contact with them. When her grandchild died, Johnes carried the body of the child by herself from the district hospital to the village. She dug the grave and buried the child alone, without any help from the church or the community.

It is hard to blame people for being afraid of a deadly disease like HIV/AIDS. The answer lies in providing information that will replace fear with knowledge. When people become educated about the disease and its transmission, they can then reach out in compassion without thinking they are risking theirs or their families’ lives. In many areas of the world, the most effective way to share information is in person and in relationship. If we want education to take place, we must personally provide individuals and communities with the needed information.

Unfortunately, the stigma results from more than just a fear of catching the disease; it is also based on moral and social concerns. The majority of HIV infections are transmitted through sexual contact. This fact alone results in moral and social judgments. The Church must look beyond these judgment calls and reach out with compassion. As the Church talks about how to deal with this pandemic, it must simultaneously accept without stigma all of the children, women and men infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

Ministry through the Local Church
In many places and in different ways Christians have taken the lead in caring for those with AIDS. One example of this is an Alliance for HIV/AIDS, pulled together from the Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations (AERDO). Members of the Alliance include World Concern, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Food for the Hungry, Medical Ambassadors International, Medical Assistance Program, Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, Operation Blessing, Salvation Army, World Hope and World Relief. Programs are being organized in Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zambia, Nigeria and Haiti to name a few.

The Alliance is mobilizing church interventions by building on the complementary strengths and areas of service of each contributing agency. The Alliance is currently working on two programs. The first is caring for orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS; the second is implementing an HIV/AIDS prevention program aimed at youth. The Alliance seeks joint funding to use local community programs to reach a larger number of people.

There is a common belief among the organizations that the best solution to this pandemic will come from the local church, which has the mandate from Jesus to provide care for the sick, for orphans and for vulnerable children. The existing church structure provides a place to work. Unlike outside groups or agencies, it has been and will be an ongoing part of the community. Christians have the compassion of Christ to reach out and love those in need.

By training volunteers to use resources within their own church, each church is empowered to get involved. Volunteers visit the homes of orphans and vulnerable children to assess the needs and share the love of Jesus. They then encourage others to help. Churches are also being taught how to run prevention campaigns using a youth-to-youth education model. Pastors and church leadership soon recognize their call to serve those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. In many churches, this includes overcoming the stigma of involvement in HIV/AIDS ministry. The Alliance has seen God moving the hearts of his people to reach out and care in mighty ways.

The North American Church

The North American church has a significant role to play in the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. However, we must accept that this role will require a long-term commitment. There are no universal or quick solutions. The Church must engage and stay at the center of prevention and care for the foreseeable future. It can do this in four ways:

Prayer. As Christians, we uniquely bring the presence of Jesus Christ. This means praying for individuals suffering from the disease and those suffering because of the disease. Let us cry out to the Lord to bring hope through the gospel. Let us pray for brothers and sisters who are spending their time, energy and resources to be the hands and feet of Christ. Let each one of us pray that our own hearts would be open and that God would show us what part we are to play in his work.

Dialogue. We must share the needs of those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS within our churches. The starting point in most congregations will be overcoming the stigma surrounding this disease. We need to reach a point where HIV/AIDS is discussed as comfortably as malaria or cancer. Through open discussion, God will bring together those he is calling into the church’s HIV/AIDS ministry. What that ministry will look like will be as unique as the people God calls to serve. Those called to this ministry need to work with others that have walked the road before.  There are many lessons that experienced practitioners can offer those new to the HIV/AIDS ministry.

Partnership. If your work will be overseas, you will encounter many challenges.  Understanding the culture takes time and project accountability at a distance requires significant infrastructure. For those looking to start a mega program, venturing out alone might be an effective method. For those wanting to partner with others, find missionaries within the same denomination that already have HIV/AIDS programs. Contact one or more of the agencies in AERDO to get information on who has missions and projects that match the heart Christ gave you. It is also important to support mission hospitals that are serving and caring for HIV/AIDS patients.

Ministry. Trying to take on the global issue of HIV/AIDS is overwhelming. Let me suggest one approach. Once you decide God is calling you, select a place where you will work. This can be done by finding a partner with a project you believe in and then selecting a location in which to carry it out (or vice versa). By partnering with someone else, you can learn about cultural issues surrounding the disease within a specific people group. There is no single plan that will address all the needs in every location. Interventions must be tailored to specific situations. 

The needs of this pandemic can be overwhelming. Children and adults are being lost when the Church does not engage in loving the sick and dying. Let us dialogue within the Church and pray for Jesus to show us where to get involved. Those of us that know Jesus Christ know that we have the hope that millions are searching for. Let us, therefore, go forth in love.

David Eller is HIV/AIDS program manager for World Concern.