This week the International Aids Conference hits Washington, D.C., and brings together some of the most prominent U.S. and world leaders. Many will use their influence to stir up conversation about this disease and encourage all those who will listen to "turn the tide together" -- the theme of the conference. But what is this tide, what does it mean, and how do we implement this call to action by some of the world's most revered voices?
In the simplest of examples, this conference is about Mweni -- the quiet three-year-old child of mother Ruth who was dying of AIDS when I first met her in Kenya in 1993. Thinking the exposure to a dying mother would be too difficult for Mweni, her aunts usually kept her away from her sick mother. But Ruth begged for her daughter to come every day to see her so that she could pray for her.
Today, I wonder how theses prayers were answered. What was Mweni's orphaned life like? Did she finish school? Did she avoid HIV herself? Is she now married and raising a family of her own?
Nearly 20 years have passed since Ruth died of AIDS, and according to UNAIDS, nearly 34 million people now live with HIV, and 30 million have already died. Today, we have effective medications that have turned the tide of this illness from snatching a life prematurely to making AIDS a chronic illness -- but only eight million people have access this medicine-for-life. So how do we maintain hope?
Beyond advocacy, we must continue to empower those who are implementing change on the grassroots level -- and from our experience, the local church is a big player in grassroots influence. In the past the Church has unfortunately missed many opportunities to reach out in compassion to those living with HIV/AIDS. But now that is changing; the Church is accepting and loving them and using their local organizational influence to make a difference. Here are some lessons we believe the Church has learned and is applying so that more children do not become part of yet another orphaned generation:
We, the Church, are vulnerable.
Though many continue to point fingers at high risk populations, the facts are that we all are vulnerable to sexual situations fueling this epidemic unless our hearts, minds, and bodies are constantly guarded and our environments made accountable to one another. Recognizing this changes everything, including one of the most lingering barriers to changing the tide -- stigma. Honesty leaves little room for pride and finger-pointing.
We, the Church, can change -- ourselves and our cultures.
The mobilized Church has overcome self-righteous attitudes, protected life, cared for the dying, and persevered to advocate for the most vulnerable. Widespread, unfounded fear of people with AIDS has been changed to embracing people living with HIV and AIDS. A young Khmer girl in Cambodia attending an all-girl group on empowering girls to make wise sexual choices was asked about the kind of man she wanted to marry. Without hesitation she blurted out, "A man who will be faithful to me all my life."
We, the Church, are equipped to continue.
The 2012 International AIDS Conference will make appeal after appeal for more funds, resources, research, and commitment. The church leads the global pack in sustainable and renewable interventions with resources that will never dry up -- passion for the poor, shared households and physical goods, the truth and knowledge of God for everyday living, and the experience of forgiveness, healing, peace, and unconditional love.
The work of World Relief and other organizations through partner churches is turning the tide in the sea of HIV and AIDS. As pills to protect and sustain life are dispensed by ministries of health, the church is extending skills to change behaviors and promoting wise choices regarding sexuality and marriage. As the Global Fund for HIV, AIDS, and TB seeks funds for coffers to prevent and care for persons with AIDS, the Church opens its vast volunteer base to provide home care. As rock stars like Bono lend their influence to advocate for millions of orphans and youth affected by AIDS, peer youth educators in grass-thatched churches use music and games to build life skills that encourage delaying sex until marriage.
The Church is an indispensable grassroots movement for global good and an influential catalyst to turning the tide against HIV/AIDS in this generation.
Co-authored with Debbie Dortzbach.
Don Golden and Debbie Dortzbach are respectively church engagement and HIV/AIDS program executives with Baltimore-based Christian aid agency World Relief. Since 1992, World Relief has been working to address AIDS in Africa, Asia and the Americas. The organization offers prevention education, care for people living with HIV, support for orphans, and economic strengthening for families affected by HIV and AIDS. For more information, visit www.worldrelief.org.