Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance

Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest from Uganda who is HIV positive, and American pastor and best-selling author, Rick Warren, offered much the same core challenge in the closing session of an event for faith-based organisations, Faith in Action: Keeping the Promise, held prior to the International AIDS Conference in Toronto earlier this month. Both say churches can and must play a more vital role in the global response to HIV and AIDS.

AIDS conference

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Dr Rick Warren congratulates Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha at the recent Ecumenical AIDS Pre-Conference. PICTURE: Melissa Engle/EAA 

 

"(W)e have a choice to make - whether we want to continue with cosmetic surgery or whether we want to have a total commitment towards HIV elimination," Reverand Canon Gideon Byamugisha told the conference.

"We leave this place more aware of the links between broken promises and broken lives," said Byamugisha, founder of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living With and Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS, who serves as a resource person for World Vision International. 

"We leave this place aware that there is a difference between cosmetic contribution and total commitment."

"And we have a choice to make - whether we want to continue with cosmetic surgery or whether we want to have a total commitment towards HIV elimination."

Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, USA, and author of The Purpose-Driven Life, challenged churches to recognise the unique resources they bring to the struggle against HIV and AIDS.

"You're never going to solve this pandemic with just public and private partnership. A one-legged stool will fall over. A two-legged stool will fall over. It takes a three-legged stool for there to be stability," Warren said. "Government has a role, no doubt about that, but it is highly overrated. Businesses and NGOs have a role. But the church has a role and it is the missing leg of the stool. We will never, never resolve this pandemic until the church - and I mean local churches, not denominations, local churches - are mobilised. We can't do it without the church."

Byamugisha and Warren did not present the only challenges of the evening. As a presentation by young people began, a montage of voices spoke, reminding participants that young people are capable leaders who are part of the discussion and have something to say. "We are committed to our promises," they told the crowd. "What about you?"

A video brought together messages from young adult conference participants from Zimbabwe and Canada, Timor Leste and the Netherlands. "We have the energy and the determination and the motivation to bring about a world of justice," one said. "If we're going to make a difference", another stated, "we need to be taken seriously."

The evening's session began with a report summarizing the key points of the conference. Peter Okaalet, Africa director for MAP International, presented what Kathy McNeely, a policy analyst for Church World Service, and he had heard, as "listeners" over the two days.

Key in their presentation was the idea that effective ministry is rooted in the presence and participation of people living with HIV and AIDS.

Byamugisha said the wider ecumenical group can be assured of the support and partnership of the African Network of Religious Leaders Living With and Personally Affected by HIV and AIDS (ANERELA+) and a new international network of religious leaders.

He warned of the temptation to search for simple solutions. "We must begin training our minds to embrace and appreciate complexity, that there is no magic bullet that's going to fix AIDS," he said.

"The death and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is our guarantee that HIV and AIDS will not and do not have the final word in shaping our global future and destiny. Our God is more powerful than AIDS."

The world is complex and so solutions are complex as well. "We must do things uniquely. It's not business as usual," Byamugisha said.

Warren told listeners that church response needs to happen at a grassroots level. In answer to the question of what can churches do he replies, "If you're talking about denominations, not much. If you're talking about local churches, the sky is the limit. The role of denominations is to empower local churches to do what only they can do."

The church has advantages in combating HIV and AIDS that no government or business has, beginning with the widest distribution system in the world, he said. Villages that are without clinics, doctors, or schools often have churches. "In fact, in most of the world the only civil service structure is a church," Warren stated.

The church has the biggest pool of volunteers, the best credibility at the local level, and the longest record of caring. "There is no government and there is no NGO that's lasted 2000 years," he noted.

Warren said Christians have the moral authority that governments and businesses can't offer in dealing with this issue. "And we must use it. Jesus said don't hide your light under a bushel."

Both speakers held to the lasting source of hope rooted deep in the promises and tenets of faith. "We have the power and promises of God," Warren said. "That means we're not fighting this battle simply on human effort. We're not fighting this battle just on our own energy, our own creativity."

Byamugisha sparked applause when he told the crowd that, "The death and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is our guarantee that HIV and AIDS will not and do not have the final word in shaping our global future and destiny. Our God is more powerful than AIDS."