The head of Christian development agency Tearfund, Matthew Frost, told evangelicals at a fringe meeting of the World Evangelical Alliance on Saturday that integral mission and local churches were crucial to tackling HIV on a global scale.
Just back from a visit to Cambodia, Frost said that the church’s work there to eradicate HIV and care for sufferers was bringing people to Christ, with 25 churches planted and 443 Christians baptised last month alone, he said.
“The most inspiring work I’ve seen is little local congregations of believers that have grasped an integral understanding of mission – word, deed and the power of the Spirit to go and love the world.
“I am convinced that the local church and evangelical local congregations around the world have an absolutely enormous role to play in tackling the pandemic and stopping Aids. Indeed I wonder whether we will even be able to tackle and confront the pandemic until the evangelical churches engage.”
Joel Edwards, who was commissioned on Sunday as the new director of Micah Challenge International, called on Christians to work as “critical partners” with governments to tackle HIV.
“Can you imagine the impact on one of the greatest scourges to face our planet in modern times if we worked together strategically?” he said.
He pointed to Micah Challenge, the global movement of thousands of Christians calling on governments to ensure the Millennium Development Goals to halve global poverty do not become forgotten promises.
“Micah Challenge is our opportunity to stand in critical partnership and critical support with our governments as we commit ourselves to deepen our commitment to the cause of poverty and the poor and to hold our governments to account,” he said.
The meeting was joined by Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga, a UNAIDS representative from Bolivia.
She told evangelicals there that demonstrating God’s grace and mercy was as much part of an effective evangelical response to HIV and Aids as practical action.
Citing the story of the prodigal son who receives his father’s forgiveness despite squandering his wealth, she told of how she had been received again by God and her physical father, a church elder, after discovering she had HIV.
“God was not waiting for me with a list of questions - ‘oh, why did you do this?’ or ‘I told you this was going to happen’. He came to me and He held me and He helped me walk all the rest of the way until I got home again. And so did my father.
“That is grace. Is the church doing this now? That is my question to you, because I can tell you that the experiences of most people living with HIV with the evangelical church in particular is not so like the prodigal son.
Quiroga urged evangelicals to demonstrate greater compassion towards HIV sufferers and address difficult issues like sex and drug use.
“We can leave [difficult issues] to God because He will judge that anyway but I think it is our calling to practise grace when it comes to working on HIV and Aids,” she said.
Also at the meeting was Sally Smith, a civil society partnerships adviser for UNAIDS who served as a BMS medical missionary in Nepal for 16 years.
She said that HIV and Aids work had transformed the church’s image at the international level.
“The Aids pandemic has changed the perception of the global community about the churches and faith response and they have had to sit up and take notice that we provide 40, 50, 60, perhaps 70 per cent of the healthcare in some African countries. They can’t ignore that any longer.”
Smith echoed the concerns of Quiroga, noting that evangelicals needed to start confronting issues that evangelicals have traditionally been avoided.
“We’re taken seriously in the other work we do, like for malaria or tuberculosis, but if we want that to be taken seriously with our work in HIV and Aids, it is easy to give out bed nets through churches but it isn’t so easy to talk about men having sex with men and needle exchange between the local drug using community.”
She called on evangelicals to broaden their response to HIV and Aids to take into account vulnerable women beyond the reaches of an abstinence or monogamy-based approach.
“I am talking about the choice of a young woman of 15 in Asia, the Middle East, or Africa, in an arranged marriage with a man maybe 10 or 15 years older than her.
“She has no choice about the marriage and on the first night in bed, she has no choice about whether she has sex with that man or not. Abstinence is a total waste of time to her and if she knows that he is not faithful she cannot ask him to use a condom.
“The church is pushing abstinence and faithfulness and resisting condoms, but all three have failed that 15-year-old girl because she has no choices at all.”