As a faculty member at Wheaton College (Wheaton, Illinois, USA), I received an email invitation last year from a leader in the Student Global AIDS Campaign inviting me to participate in a panel discussion on HIV/AIDS. “What I am aiming for,” he said, “is to convince students that responding to AIDS does not [necessarily] mean giving up a career and going to Africa or India. I want students to walk away from the discussion feeling that AIDS is something they can respond to simply by the way they live their lives and eventually go about their careers.”
I have thought a good deal about that aim and focus, both in preparing my panel remarks and subsequently. Given the cascade of responsibilities and activities that fill daily life, not to mention the multiplicity of career directions, how can a critical mass of Christians be stimulated to respond in a significant, biblically holistic way to HIV/AIDS?
Part of the answer to that question may come in parsing out the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. Historically, there has been an emphasis not on the main verb of make disciples but on go, which might be better translated going or as you go. In this greatest of pandemics, while there is a clear need for many to undertake HIV/AIDS as a life calling, it is equally crucial that large numbers engage the pandemic “as they go” in response to many life callings. How can that happen? Perhaps there are several ways forward.
1. Sit Together at the Table
Prior to teaching at Wheaton I had worked nearly five years in West Africa and then another nine years in international health with MAP International, a Christian relief and development organization. While part of my work at MAP included facilitating an initial organizational response to HIV/AIDS internationally, I keenly felt the need to be involved locally as well. I joined a community grassroots organization and signed up as a buddy for a client with full-blown AIDS. This was the late 1980s. Over dinner at a Mexican restaurant, my friend described the difficulties of life with AIDS. Only as we prepared to leave the restaurant did I realize that our waiter had stopped serving us, going so far as to have another employee accept our payment. It was a brief moment for me but a repeated encounter with stigma for my friend with AIDS.
During those same years, volunteers in our AIDS service organization regularly drove clients more than two hours for medical care because we could not find local medical providers. As our case load swelled to 180 clients, we struggled to negotiate filing for Medicaid and establishing appropriate accounting procedures. I had become chair of the board and with a knotted stomach had to meet with members of the United Way and the county health department who observed our vulnerable efforts with concern and sympathy.
In the end, the Lord enabled and blessed our offering of five loaves and two small fish. The organization continues to serve those with HIV/AIDS today. Surely one way forward in the pandemic, as comedian-playwright Woody Allen has famously said, is “just showing up.” That is a step all believers can take. Make an acquaintance with an HIV-positive person. Serve as a friendship partner. Do a five-kilometer AIDS walk. Be present. Show up. Sit together at the table.
2. Contribute from Your Strength
Wheaton College president Duane Litfin established an HIV/AIDS task force at the college four years ago. Students, staff, faculty and alumni all serve, and its greatest merit is that members contribute from their strengths. The college chaplain arranged a chapel service in which Kay Warren of Saddleback Church (Lake Forest, California, USA) spoke engagingly and with conviction about AIDS. Theologians led the task force in developing a carefully crafted and scripturally grounded statement on “HIV/AIDS and Wheaton College.” Faculty from the Politics and International Relations departments helped to found a community AIDS Action Network that engages in activist training and political lobbying.
Students raised over $12,000USD at an elegant evening themed “AIDS Benefit: An Occasion for Hope” to support an AIDS clinic in Uganda and affected women and children in Kenya. An alumnus serving with the Supply Chain Management System was involved in the procurement and distribution of medicines for two million infected persons. Wheaton’s Class of 1965 started an endowment to support AIDS-related efforts on campus which has reached over $25,000USD. Human Resources and the task force have hosted educational workshops for faculty and staff. An HIV-positive student has spoken on “Living with Hope and HIV/AIDS.” A Communications Department faculty member teaches a course on “The Rhetoric of AIDS.” Another in the field of international development has addressed “Root Causes of AIDS.” Each year one-third of student interns who serve six months in a Majority World country through the HNGR program (Human Needs Global Resources) focus on HIV/AIDS.
When the eldest servant of Abraham succeeded in the task of finding a bride for Isaac he said, “The LORD has led me on the journey.” Like Abraham’s servant, we need to take the initiative and undertake the journey of responding to HIV/AIDS. The pandemic needs economists, journalists, actors, natural and social scientists, healthcare professionals and thousands of helping hands—each making a contribution according to his or her skills and abilities.
3. Be Informed and Open to the Challenge
Alumni of Wheaton College who have led the way in responding to HIV/AIDS have both informed and challenged us. Dr. Art Ammann, a tenured physician at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, diagnosed the first case of pediatric AIDS from a blood transfusion. Today he travels widely through Global Strategies for HIV Prevention to distribute anti-retrovirals and HIV testing kits.
Deborah Dortzbach and Dr. W. Meredith Long, both of whom authored The AIDS Crisis: What We Can Do (InterVarsity 2006), wrote from their combined forty years of experience walking alongside both those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Their global overview of the crisis, perceptive discussion of the social complexities that fuel the pandemic, and sensitive suggestions on caring for families with AIDS not only make for excellent reading but helpfully press readers toward a response. The online resources in the concluding chapter of their book are especially valuable.
Dale Hanson Bourke has contributed The Skeptic’s Guide to the Global AIDS Crisis, a straightforward explanation and discussion of the pandemic.
The task force developed a database of alumni responding to AIDS and it is inspiring. Graduates serve in Jubilee Centre leadership in Zambia, with Prison Fellowship in Ethiopia, at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine, with Campus Crusade’s “Crossroads” curriculum, in Episcopal pastoral care and with Lifewind’s Community Health Evangelism initiatives. Every region of the world responding to AIDS has its role models who encourage, rebuke and help us to be more engaged. Let us honor and celebrate what they do and demonstrate our gratitude by serving in turn—by asking, seeking and knocking for opportunities to contribute. We can respond by the way we live our lives and go about our careers.
4. Share the Good News!
The pandemic has tested the Church by providing the opportunity for a renewed and deeper understanding of biblical truths. We are indeed our brother’s keeper and are to corporately challenge the poverty, human trafficking, social inequities, conflict and both personal and societal sin that fuel the pandemic.
The good news we have to share is not only the joyous certainty of an afterlife in the presence of God, but also of God’s work of restoration in the world now, including that done through our hands and feet. Sharing the gospel is not simply imparting truth but delighting in spiritual friendship with new brothers and sisters in Christ—learning from each other and walking together. For some, the good news first reaches them through deeds; for others, through a powerful moving of the Spirit, and still others, through the Word.1 The proclaimed gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Good news indeed! This is something to be winsomely and boldly shared “as we go.” God is working redemptively both in and through the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and he has invited us to be part of that work. May we not fail to respond.
The AIDS Crisis: What We Can Do. Deborah Dortzbach and Meredith Long, 2006.
A Guide to Acting on AIDS. eds. Jyl Hall, Laura Barton and James Pedrick, 2006.
The aWAKE Project: Uniting Against the African AIDS Crisis. Nelson Mandela, Bono, George W. Bush, Jeff Sachs, Kofi Annan, Philip Yancey, Richard Stearns, et al, 2002.
Children Affected by HIV/AIDS: Compassionate Care. ed. Phyllis Kilbourn, 2002.
HIV/AIDS Clinical Case Studies. R. Brown, A. Low, S. Moore and M. Bilonda, 2006.
HIV/AIDS Counseling Case Studies. J. Brown and A. Mburu, 2005.
The Hope Factor: Engaging the Church in the HIV/AIDS Crisis. Charles Colson, William Frist, John Piper, et al, 2003.
Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues. Paul Farmer, 2001.
Living Well with HIV and AIDS, 2nd edition. Allen Gifford, Kate Lorig, Diana Laurent and Virginia Gonzáles, 2005.
Rethinking AIDS Prevention. Edward Green, 2003.
Skeptic's Guide to Global AIDS. Dale Hanson Bourke, 2004.
The Truth About AIDS. Patrick Dixon, 2004.
1. Steward, John. 1994. Biblical Holism: Where God, People & Deeds Connect. Burwood, Victoria: World Vision Australia.