Kay Warren has a confession to make. For a long time she thought AIDS was somebody else's problem. "It didn't have anything to do with me because it was a 'gay disease,' and I didn't have to care," says Warren, who co-founded Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, with her husband, Rick, in the early 1980s. That attitude is "not something I'm proud of," she admits.
Then, in 2003, Warren met Joana, an HIV-positive woman in Mozambique who was near death. Suddenly AIDS had a face and name. And Warren knew she couldn't pretend it was none of her business anymore. After returning from Africa, she set up an AIDS office at Saddleback and began running informational forums for church members. She also started attending AIDS conferences to find out how her church could best help people with AIDS.
Warren spied a familiar face at one of those conferences—her friend Lynne Hybels, co-founder (with husband Bill) of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. As Warren and Hybels talked, they realized they were involved in the same fight. Both were convinced the evangelical church had to respond—in a public and powerful way—to the AIDS pandemic. And both were committed to making it happen.
Since then, Warren and Hybels have become two of the most influential evangelicals in America. With their husbands (and a rock star named Bono), they've put AIDS and poverty at the top of American evangelicals' public agenda.
When it comes to U.S. megachurches, Willow Creek and Saddleback belong to the jumbo variety. They are two of the three largest churches in the United States, according to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, with weekly attendances of 20,000 and 22,000, respectively. First is Joel Olsteen's Lakewood Church, which draws 30,000 people each week.
But their influence reaches far beyond their congregations. Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life is the best-selling hardcover book in U.S. history, with more than 25 million copies sold. And in 2006, more than 80,000 pastors and church leaders attended Willow Creek's Leadership Summit, headlined by Bill Hybels.
When those two churches talk, people listen. And lately they've been talking a great deal about AIDS. In August, Willow Creek's Leadership Summit featured an interview via videocast with Bono, which focused almost entirely on AIDS and poverty. Meanwhile, hundreds flocked to Saddleback's AIDS summit last December.
The two congregations have also organized AIDS outreach programs. Small groups of Saddleback volunteers stock food pantry shelves at local AIDS agencies, while others drive AIDS patients to doctor's appointments or other errands. Both churches sponsor mission trips to work on AIDS relief in Africa; Willow Creek feeds and educates about 1,100 orphans in a village in Zambia—so that at least in that one place, "there are no AIDS orphans uncared for," Bill Hybels said at the Leadership Summit.
The churches also run educational programs. And on a Wednesday afternoon last October, Kay Warren arrived at Willow Creek to speak at one of them—a forum on AIDS and sexual violence. Her talk, aimed at getting women involved in AIDS ministry, drew several hundred church members.
A few hours before the session, Warren sat down for an interview in a back office. Dressed in blue jeans and a sweater, she says that for a long time she was caught up in the tunnel vision of a busy life. She raised her kids, helped out at church, and somehow lost sight of the world around her, at least where AIDS was concerned.
Not that she was completely unconcerned. Warren tithed at church, figuring that some of those contributions went to Southern Baptist missionaries and relief workers. It was their job to take care of people with AIDS, she believed.
Warren also thought people who contracted AIDS were at fault. Since "everyone knows how AIDS is transmitted," AIDS victims should have known better, she says. "And if people persisted in risky behavior and therefore got infected, then oh well, their fault, and that absolved me of having to care. I didn't have to care if it was somebody else's fault that they were sick."
By early 2003, Warren's life was beginning to slow down. Her kids were grown and didn't need her every minute. She began to think about what to do with the rest of her life.
She didn't have to wonder for long. One day she picked up a newsmagazine and was shocked to read there were more than 12 millions AIDS orphans in Africa.
"I don't know a single orphan," she recalls thinking. "How could there be 12 million children orphaned by AIDS?" As she saw the ravages of AIDS reflected on the magazine's pages, she covered her eyes and tried not to look. "I was reducing the horror to a size I could handle."
In that moment Warren experienced a "road to Damascus" conversion—what she called a "knock-me-off-the-donkey, rip-the-blindfold-off-my-eyes" moment. "I was heading in this direction, and suddenly there was this blinding light that showed me a completely different reality." Warren decided to visit Africa to see the AIDS pandemic firsthand, traveling with Debbie Dortzbach, World Relief's international HIV/AIDS director. It was Dortzbach who introduced Warren to Joana in Mozambique.
Joana's body was emaciated, almost shredded, says Warren, and she could hardly move. Even worse, she had been forced to leave her village when her neighbors found out she had AIDS. She moved in with a relative, but then had to flee when her home burned down. When Warren met her, Joana was living at the base of a tree, with few possessions other than the clothes on her back.
"She's in pain, she's in agony, she's hungry, she's alone, she's been burned out of one village, kicked out of another, no pain medication, no Pepto-Bismol, no nothing," says Warren. "She's just dying."
Even so, Joana still had her dignity. When Warren came to visit, Joana offered what little hospitality she could muster. With the help of her aunt, she spread a plastic mat on the ground in front of the tree. Then she tried to crawl over to greet Warren.
"But she couldn't even walk—[she had] a little skeletal body, a bag of bones, and she tried to crawl and fell," says Warren. Finally Joana's aunt picked her up and set her by Warren.
Not knowing what else to do, Warren wrapped her arms around Joana and wept. They prayed together, and for a few moments Warren told Joana she wasn't alone.
Later she met Flora, who at least had a home but was also dying of AIDS. On top of that, she had to share the house with her husband and his mistress. Somewhere in his infidelities, Flora's husband had been infected with AIDS, and he brought the disease into their home. Now she was dying, and no one could save her.
When Warren asked what she could do to help, Flora asked her to pray for her children. "Who will care for my children when I am gone?" she asked Warren. "Because no one is going to want to care for my children when they know that I had AIDS."
LYNNE HYBELS HEARD the same question over and over again during her travels among AIDS victims in Africa. She also visited in 2003 and came home wanting to respond.
"I don't know what we should do," she told a Willow Creek audience on World AIDS Day, "but here is what I saw. I don't have a plan, I don't know what we are going to do, but we are going to do something."
Like Warren, Hybels found that organizing women in her church was one way to move forward. "Watching one of your own children die is horrible, and many people in Africa have experienced that," she said during a telephone interview. "Equal to that is knowing you are going to die and not being able to care for your children. This is why women in the U.S. are getting so involved in AIDS. We can look at women in Africa and realize they are just like us. They love their children just like we do, and they are as grieved and fearful as we would be in their shoes."
Becoming a new grandmother strengthened that resolve. "I was holding my grandson; he was six weeks old, and his belly was full, and his cheeks were getting chubby because he is well-fed. He is loved and cared for. And it hit me—this is what every baby deserves. This should be the reality for every child on earth."
The AIDS pandemic is far more complex than she ever realized, Hybels said. One of the AIDS victims she met was a young widow who had turned to prostitution to feed her children. "I talked to her pastor, and he said, 'I can't say anything to her because I don't have anything else to offer. I can't offer her a job, I can't feed her children,'" Hybels says. "This was obviously a woman who did not want to be doing this, but she was acting in a desperate situation."
Because of the overwhelming scale of the crisis, Hybels says evangelicals need to work with people with whom they might otherwise disagree. "We need to pay more attention to the things we agree on. We all agree that people need medicine, orphans need to be taken care of, and hungry people need to be fed. This is a crisis—we don't have time to waste on a lot of talking."
That message was echoed by Rick Warren after several high-profile conservatives criticized Sen. Barack Obama's appearance at Saddleback's AIDS conference last December. "We do not expect all participants in the Summit discussion to agree with all of our evangelical beliefs," he said in a statement. "However, the HIV/AIDS pandemic cannot be fought by evangelicals alone. It will take the cooperation of all—government, business, NGOs, and the church. That is the purpose of this Summit—to marshal the policy of the government; the finances of business; the expertise of the health organizations; and the compassion, volunteerism, and reach of the church in order to care for the sick and save lives."
Hybels also believes evangelicals and other Christian groups have to realize the AIDS pandemic can't be solved without addressing sexual violence against women. "It's easy to come up with a set of opinions or perceptions that are simple and not the true facts of the issue," she says. "AIDS is closely related to sexual violence against women. To tell a woman to be faithful, that's great. But in many contexts, women do not have control over their sexual behavior."
Churches, especially in Africa, have to become safe places for women. "That's especially important in cultures where this attitude toward women is very accepted, where, in essence, men own the women," she says. "That's never said out loud, but that's how things operate."
Still, what strikes her most is the incredible courage and love of churches in Africa. People suffering from AIDS in Africa are not victims who need to be saved by Westerners. They are heroes.
"What has impressed me most is the compassion of lay people in rural African churches, who go into the homes of people with AIDS, bathe them, clean their homes, and take care of their children," she says. "That level of day in, day out compassion they show is heroic. Whenever we go to Africa or meet with one of our partners, and they thank us for the funds we give, we say, 'Are you kidding? What we are doing is so small compared to what you are doing. Thank you for giving us the privilege of being involved in what you do.'"
How would Hybels describe the change in how evangelicals are responding to AIDS, and related issues such as poverty and hunger?
"In the second half of the 20th century, a lot of churches were asking, 'Can we figure out a way to communicate the verbal message of the gospel to the world?' In the 21st century, the question is, 'Can we live out this gospel compassionately in the world?' I hope we can. I think a lot of people are hearing that call." She adds, "To be engaged with people who are oppressed, who are sick, who are hungry—this should be normal Christian behavior."
Warren says being involved with AIDS relief has transformed the way she reads the Bible; on every page God talks about the sick and the poor, the widows and the orphans. "You just want to knock yourself upside the head and say, 'How did I miss those?'" Warren says. "It's not optional. It's not an add-on—if you've got time, if you've got space—to care for the weak, the sick, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the marginalized. It's just plain old scripture."
Bob Smietana was features editor of the Covenant Companion magazine and co-author of G.P. Taylor: Sin, Salvation, and Shadowmancer (Zondervan) when this article appeared.