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Winter 2003 | Volume 26, Number 1

The Faces of AIDS

Men, women and children with AIDS endure a devastating disease and its social stigma. How should Christians respond to their plight?

In 1959, one man in Africa’s Congo died of AIDS, a then-unknown autoimmune disease. In 2002, the disease killed 3.1 million people around the globe — roughly the population of Oregon.

In Honduras, an estimated 16,000 people are HIVpositive, including this woman, whose health has steadily declined, even after being admitted to the Catarino Rivas Hospital in San Pedro Sula.  

Although the World Health Organization, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and other agencies can’t pinpoint the numbers, they know HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — and AIDS are cutting a swath across the world.

Approximately 1 million U.S. citizens have HIV/AIDS, but the disease is crushing sub-Saharan Africa, where more than half of the world’s estimated 40 million HIV carriers live. An estimated 7 million HIV carriers live in Eurasia; India alone has at least 4 million people with HIV/AIDS, and UNAIDS warns that number could balloon to 25 million by 2010.

As the pandemic rages, countries are losing a generation of citizens and becoming ripe for famine and economic and political instability — even in nuclear-capable nations. What should God’s people do about this disaster and the millions who suffer?

SPU’s AIDS Symposium
In November, Seattle Pacific hosted sociologist and nationally acclaimed speaker Tony Campolo and REACH Ministries for an HIV/AIDS symposium. Members of the greater Seattle community heard about the incurable disease that some liken to the bubonic plague. And they were called to action, whether at home or abroad.

Campolo opened the symposium in a chapel service dedicated to today’s most poignant outcasts: children with HIV/ AIDS. “This is an opportunity for Christians to show off what the love of God can do for people who suffer,” he exhorted.

He next joined a panel including Tim Dearborn, dean of the chapel at Seattle Pacific; Robert Beilke, director of the pediatric psychology service at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital; Mary Fairchok, chief of pediatric infectious disease at Madigan Army Medical Center; and Pam Wenz, REACH director of youth services. That evening, Campolo again spoke on campus at a citywide fund-raiser to support REACH’s ministry to children in the Northwest.

A local Christian organization begun in 1995, REACH serves children and families living with HIV/AIDS through a mentor program, summer camp and worldwide prayer network. “It was an honor to come to SPU to discuss HIV/AIDS,” says REACH Executive Director Susan Slonaker. “The topic is controversial in many arenas, and I think evangelicals — and I am one — don’t always know how to wrap their compassion around it.”

When Dearborn learned the organization needed a venue, however, he quickly invited them to campus. “This is exactly the kind of thing that we believe we are here to address,” he says.

During the symposium, 73 students volunteered to become mentors for children living with HIV/AIDS in the Northwest. “Several students came to me in tears, thanking us for putting this event on,” says Dearborn. “AIDS had been a deep concern for them, but they hadn’t found the place on campus to express it.”

Some First Reactions to AIDS
AIDS first hit the American consciousness largely because thousands of gay men were dying. As the disease exploded across the United States, those infected were often ostracized — even disowned by families and fired from jobs. Many Christians felt sympathy, but considered the illness remote, touching only homosexuals. Some churches preached sermons about God’s judgment on gays. “But the majority of illnesses Americans experience are lifestyle-generated,” says Dearborn. “Do we want to say God custom-designed lung cancer as a judgment on smokers?”

Most HIV/AIDS cases still occur through sexual contact, but the disease infects all ages, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual. It can also be spread through reused needles, in utero when a mother has AIDS and, in some parts of the world, through tainted blood transfusions. Regardless of its origin, those infected feel an enormous stigma, often refusing to tell family, friends or church about their fight for survival.

And American Christians, like others, still show responses toward people with HIV/AIDS that range from compassion to indifference to judgment. “No one wants to touch them,” said Campolo at SPU. “They are the contemporary lepers.”

Adds Richard Stearns, president of the well-known Christian relief organization World Vision, “Nearly 2,000 years after Jesus gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan, we are still asking the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ And we’re still getting the answer wrong. This simple, yet most profound, parable speaks to the AIDS epidemic. Today, it should challenge ... an American church that largely is ignoring the AIDS pandemic.”

Bringing the Disease Home
In 1991, Dearborn’s friends, Martin and Kristi French, adopted a 1-year-old Romanian boy who had been abandoned at birth outside a bleak hospital nine hours from Bucharest. Once home with their new son, whom they named Jacob, the family began regular trips to Seattle’s Children’s Hospital and Medical Center to evaluate the child’s poor physical condition.

Soon they learned the unthinkable: Jacob was HIV-positive. “I just crumbled — physically and emotionally,” Martin French remembers. Doctors predicted Jacob would die within two years, but with medication and love, he thrived. The reaction of the church, however, was unexpected.

During the next 18 months, the Frenches visited several churches, seeking a congregation to join. In each case, they explained Jacob’s background and disease to the pastors. Repeatedly, they were turned away. “Initially, we were somewhat shocked,” says French. “People had a tenseness and a fear. They didn’t know how to deal with it.”

Finally, a church cautiously opened its doors to the family — and soon loved the little boy. “It was no longer a disease they were trying to figure out,” he says. “It was Jacob, a member of the body.”

Today, Jacob is 12 years old, skilled at Tae Kwon Do and an accomplished musician. “AIDS is awful,” says his father. “It stinks, and no one wants to be a part of it. But either Jesus is big enough to handle it — or he’s walked away from it, too.”

Other families have also brought the AIDS crisis into the pews. “I saw the reactions of many who were near my brother,” says LeRoy Hubbert, facilities manager of SPU’s Blakely Island campus. “The worst and best were from within the church.”

Hubbert didn’t learn of his brother Bobby’s illness until 1994, nearly 10 years after he became HIV-positive. Bobby hid the virus from his family, speculating that he’d become infected during a medical procedure in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when nonsexual transmission of AIDS was poorly understood.

When LeRoy Hubbert learned Bobby was dying, he moved across country to help care for him. There Hubbert witnessed firsthand the church’s responses to his brother. Although church leaders didn’t acknowledge Bobby’s need, he says, the laypeople in the church “came through with flying colors.”

On the SPU campus, others have replaced fears with human faces as well. Melody Rivera, a junior majoring in theology and educational ministries, traveled to South Africa two years ago. “It was life-changing to meet people with the disease and to see the extent of the AIDS tragedy,” she says. Before Autumn Quarter began, Rivera helped organize the annual CityQuest, which dispatches new students into the city for a day of service. She sent groups to three Seattle AIDS ministries.

Rivera also used a recent class assignment to address the AIDS calamity. In the style of Old Testament prophets, she and classmates were asked to write modern-day prophecies. Through her paper, Rivera voiced a message from God:

“Woe to you whose heart is not broken and contrite before your Maker, who ignore the plight of the innocents of AIDS. ‘Are they not also created in my image?’ asks the Lord your God.”


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