Keep Fighting the Good Fight Against HIV/AIDS

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More funding from the U.S. government calls attention to the effectiveness of church-based efforts.

Deborah Dortzbach | posted 6/08/2007 09:27AM

Hats off to President Bush for continuing to rally the nation against the most unrelenting global disaster of our times: the AIDS pandemic. In 2003, Bush introduced his five-year President's Emergency Plan on AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)—the largest commitment by any nation in history to fight a single disease. Last week, the President asked the U.S. Congress to continue and to expand AIDS funding by granting an additional $30 billion to the cause. We at World Relief salute this bold action, not only for the very necessary funds, but also for the clear message America is giving our world about its compassionate commitment to help millions in need.

Christian non-governmental organizations and their faith-based partners in the developing world have played an important role in the PEPFAR initiative. My organization, World Relief, was one of the first to receive funding. We have invested the millions of dollars we received from the federal government into mobilizing and equipping thousands of churches across Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa. These churches are now taking the lead in their communities by developing youth prevention clubs and caregiving ministries for orphans, vulnerable children, and people living with HIV/AIDS.

Under the PEPFAR expansion plan, which would double the current government funding, faith-based organizations could continue to have great impact. The new plan significantly increases the number of people targeted by prevention programs and earmarks funds for orphans and vulnerable children, both groups to whom faith-based organizations can contribute deep, sustained commitment. The plan also calls for building the capacity of local AIDS relief partners, marking a continued departure from a donor-recipient mentality to one of transformational development.

World Relief received a PEPFAR grant for Mozambique in 2004, nearly a decade after we entered the country in the wake of a long civil war. Many local churches at the time felt they had little to offer their war-torn communities. World Relief started building up the churches' confidence by training them in practical skills to combat childhood diseases, natural disasters and poverty. Despite our progress in these areas, local church leaders were skeptical when we introduced the HIV/AIDS programs. They just didn't see how a topic that brings into the open human sexuality, the exploitation of women and girls, and other related cultural issues could be addressed within the walls of church.

Many congregations were like Igreja Emanuel Redentor Church in Maputo, Mozambique, where members refused to talk about AIDS. Those who showed signs of sickness were asked to sit away from the others. This attitude nourished cultures of denial, silence, and inaction.

As pastors and church members learned the facts through training and ongoing program guidance and came face to face with people devastated by AIDS, there was a revolution in thinking and behavior. Today, the members of Igrega Emanuel Redentor visit those living with AIDS and encourage and care for the orphans in their communities, regularly walking them home to protect them from harm. Pastor Luisa Ernest Vilanculos talks about AIDS from the pulpit and accompanies people to HIV testing.

World Relief has seen thousands of church leaders across Mozambique come together to serve their communities in similar ways. Many of them have organized cross-denominational teams of 100, drawn from as many as 20 different churches. These networks care for thousands of orphans and people living with HIV/AIDS by distributing food aid, enabling access to medications when possible, sharing chores and responsibilities, and protecting the rights of vulnerable boys and girls. Churches with almost no resources have committed themselves to support every orphan in their communities in some way. The growth we have seen in service and activism has coincided with the growth of the Mozambican church itself, which has more than doubled in size since religious freedom was declared in 1998.

There is a growing understanding of the value that faith-based organizations bring to the fight against AIDS. A recent report by the World Health Organization, entitled "Appreciating Assets: Mapping, Understanding, Translating and Engaging Religious Health Assets in Zambia and Lesotho," found that faith-based organizations make up 30% to 70% of the health infrastructure across sub-Saharan Africa. It also reported a growing consensus among U.S. government officials, international medical societies, and multilateral agencies that they would ignore the unique contributions of faith-based organization at their own loss.

Despite this growing support, the global Christian community has a long way to go. We might take a page from the President's plan and emphasize partnership as we examine our own long-term strategies.

Of utmost importance are partnerships between North American churches and churches across the world strapped by the AIDS crisis in their communities. HIV/AIDS is never an isolated problem. It is present in contexts long prepared to nurture its spread, such as poverty, gender inequality, conflict, and fatalistic thinking. At the same time, African communities are resilient and sacrificial in caring for one another. As our North American church partners enter with us into the suffering of people living with HIV/AIDS, they come to understand both these realities.

AIDS is the lens through which they can understand the disease's spread and how to reverse its impact.

As the global church, our mandate is to relieve the burden of AIDS by living lives of purity, caring for orphans and widows, and providing acceptance and love to all in our communities. The next time we awaken to a major announcement for increased AIDS funding, perhaps it should be the church that is leading the way.

Deborah Dortzbach is the international director of HIV/AIDS programs at World Relief and co-author of The AIDS Crisis: What We Can Do (IVP, 2006)

Related Elsewhere:

Deborah Dortzbach is co-author of >> The AIDS Crisis: What We Can Do , which Christianity Today >> reviewed .

Christianity Today interviews with Dortzbach include a >> Q&A and >> "'Sexual Revolution,' AIDS, and the African Church." She wrote >> "Speaking with Action Against AIDS" and >> "The Spirit of Faithfulness."

>> The Billy Graham Archives has a section on the papers of Dortzbach, including >> biographical information, and >> transcripts of >> extensive interviews.

The >> PEPFAR website provides more information about the >> request for more funding and the work currently being done.

>> World Relief has information about its >> AIDS programs.