ASSIST News Service

He’s the pastor of Saddleback Church, one of America’s largest churches, and the author of the runaway best-seller The Purpose Driven Life, but now Rick Warren his turned his purpose to waking up the church to become more involved in helping with the AIDS pandemic.

A CHALLENGING MESSAGE: Dr Rick Warren of Saddleback Church speaks during the closing session of the Ecumenical AIDS Pre-Conference, an event which preceded the 16th International World AIDS Conference in Toronto. PICTURE: Melissa Engle/EAA

 

"The number one killer of people 60 years and younger of age is now AIDS, and I believe that the church should not just be at the table but taking the lead in it," says Rick Warren.

During an interview at the recent 16th International World AIDS Conference in Toronto, Canada, Dr Warren criticises those in the church who had pointed fingers at those with HIV/AIDS and said that they deserved to have the deadly virus because of their behavior.

But he begins by explaining why he and his wife, Kay, were at the conference.

“We’re here for two different reasons,” he says . “First we think the church should be at the table for the greatest health crisis in history. The number one killer of people 60 years and younger of age is now AIDS, and I believe that the church should not just be at the table but taking the lead in it.

“So we wanted to show up and say that it’s not just governments and businesses that are involved, but faith-based organizations; particularly the church, because we have three things that government will never have. We have the widest distribution network. There are churches in every village around the world. We have the most volunteers. You know there are 2.3 billion people who are claiming to be followers of Christ. That’s bigger than China or even the United Nations and we speak more languages than the United Nations.

“Then we have local credibility, where pastors in a village are respected and credible; much more than any government or any business because they’ve been caring for people in the tough times of life, the highs and the lows, the good and the bad. They marry and they bury and they’re there in every season of life.

“So the second reason that I feel that this pandemic can't be stopped without the Church is that the church has the moral authority. We have the longest record of caring for people in sickness. A lot of people don’t know that 95 per cent of all the hospitals in the world were started by Christians and also 95 per cent of all the schools in the world were also started by Christians. Usually the first hospital or the first school in a nation was started by Christian missionaries." 

Dr Warren says it's "not a sin to be sick".

"We want to show people that it’s not a sin to be sick. Of course a sin can cause sickness. I mean, if I overeat and get a heart attack then that’s my fault. But it’s not a sin to be sick.

“And when somebody’s dying on the side of the road and they’re bleeding to death, do you go to them and ask, ‘How did you get sick?’ No, you just help them, and that’s what we want to do here.”

“(W)hen somebody’s dying on the side of the road and they’re bleeding to death, do you go to them and ask, ‘How did you get sick?’ " asks Dr Warren. "No, you just help them, and that’s what we want to do here.”

Dr Warren believes the AIDS pandemic has shifted and is now primarily a women’s disease.

“Sixty percent plus of the people who have HIV/AIDS are women,” he stated. “But it is driven by male behavior, and so the number-one way people get it today is through heterosexual sex. Then the second way is through drug IV use. The third is other needles that are infected. Really only about five percent of AIDS infections today around the world total are from gay relationships. So there are a lot of myths that need to be corrected about HIV/AIDS.”

Dr Warren surprised a many people by getting publicly tested for HIV during an HIV/AIDS conference at Saddleback Church last year. (He was found to be HIV-negative.)

“I did that to remove the stigma of testing,” he said. “You see, until you’ve been tested, you’re in the dark; you’re in denial; you don’t really know your status. One of my goals is that churches around the world become testing centers because there are millions of villages where the only thing there is a church. They don’t have a clinic and never will. They don’t have a school or a hospital and so the church has to become a place of not just testing, but eventually treatment where they can hand out medications.

“So I got tested because I wanted to remove the stigma and we invited the press in and TV people like ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS all showed up while I got tested for AIDS. I wanted to show them how easy it is. You don’t even have to give blood. I mean they just swabbed the inside of my mouth and twenty minutes later I had the result.”

Dr Warren says that while he didn't find the World AIDS conference 'shocking', some of the things said at the event "just don't make sense".

“They’re not logical," he says. "You know morality often dictates theology and it often dictates strategy. In other words if I want do something then I’ll figure out a way to justify it.

“There is a sense of spiritual darkness in many of the sessions because they’re saying right is wrong and wrong is right and yet I believe that this is where we ought to be. It’s kind of like if Christians ought to be anywhere they ought to be in the market place of ideas where, if we’re not speaking up here, well then who is?

“If Jesus were here today, He would be at this convention." says Dr Warren. "No doubt about it. He would be hanging out with people who have HIV/AIDS; who have been stigmatised and ostracised and who’ve been made fearful."

“In the last few days, I have spoken three or four times and my wife Kay has also spoken a couple times. We had the opportunity to share the Christian perspective and also to share what we call the church strategy - C H U R C H - that is, any church can care and comfort. Any church can help with testing and can unleash an army of volunteers. Any church can help remove the stigma because if the church says you’re ok then you’re ok. Any church can champion healthy behavior, and they can also hand out meds and nutrition.

“In America, we can’t hand out meds but they can in many other countries, and we certainly can hand out nutrition. A lot of people they get their antiretroviral drugs from the government, but they have no food. So if you have medicine that’ll keep you alive for five years but you’re going to die in a month for lack of food, well it doesn’t do any good. So you need both.”

Asked what his message was to the church around the world and especially those who have said that AIDS is God’s judgment on those that have acquired the HIV virus, Dr Warren says "the first thing I’d say is that we need to repent of that very attitude."

“If Jesus were alive today, he would be hanging out with people who have HIV/AIDS. You see the AIDS of the first century was called leprosy," he says. "It was a disease that nobody understood and everybody was afraid of. It was quite stigmatised and people were kept as outcasts. Where did Jesus go when He was here on earth? He hung out with lepers; with people that society was afraid of.

“If Jesus were here today, He would be at this convention. No doubt about it. He would be hanging out with people who have HIV/AIDS; who have been stigmatised and ostracised and who’ve been made fearful. Not everybody got this disease because of some sin. I mean, maybe it was the sin of somebody else. For instance, there are men who go off to work in the mines in South Africa and they’re away from their wives for 10 months and they have sex with some street walker and then they come home and give it to their wife; and their wife is dying of AIDS. She’s been faithful her entire life. She abstained until marriage; she was faithful in their marriage and she still got AIDS.

“So it’s not as simple as some people think. But regardless of how people got it, we must love them and care for them the way Jesus would.”