Nothing in Rich Stearns's life had prepared him for the trip to Africa that brought his first close-up encounter with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
In the Rikai district of Uganda, he found himself in the homes of orphans living totally alone - child-headed households trying to fend for themselves. They were among 60,000 children in the district who had lost parents to AIDS - and 13 million on the continent.
"This was the greatest tragedy I had ever seen, of a scale that is unimaginable," Mr. Stearns says. "Back in the US, my question was, 'Why is no one talking about this?' " The former corporate executive had just taken the helm of World Vision, a global Christian relief and development agency.
This month World Vision launches a US campaign and 15-city tour to mobilize American support - particularly among evangelical churches - for those affected by the crisis. There's a new awakening within the church community to respond with greater empathy, vigor, and funding to help AIDS-beset African nations halt the still-climbing transmission rates and cope with the resulting humanitarian crisis.
Many Christian churches, particularly mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, have long been advocates for Africa on such issues as poverty, development, and debt relief. Some, too, have pushed for a greater US response to the AIDS crisis. But the response has been slow in coming.
A survey last year for World Vision to gauge US support for children orphaned by AIDS shows the size of the task ahead. Only 5 percent of the US public said they would "definitely" donate money. An analysis of Americans' willingness to help address HIV/AIDS in general showed 11 percent were supportive, 27 percent indifferent, and 40 percent unsupportive.
"Americans' awareness of the HIV/AIDS crisis is a mile wide, but their personal commitment to fixing it is an inch deep," says David Kinnaman of the Barna Research Group, which conducted the survey.
Evangelical Christians were even less likely to contribute to orphans - only 3 percent - and were among the groups least likely to support AIDS causes.
"In the church, the view has been almost judgmental, some even saying it was God's judgment - which is so erroneous - and it continues to paralyze the response," says Horace Smith, pastor of Apostolic Faith Church in Chicago, who is also a pediatrician. "It is wrong to think that to support people in need is to endorse certain lifestyles. Our call is to love people unconditionally."
A prominent minister whose thinking has been transformed is Bruce Wilkinson, author of the bestseller "Prayer of Jabez." "I had positioned the issue of AIDS in a little box to the side and didn't want to deal with it," he says. Now he has moved his family to South Africa, where he is working with local churches and pastors on their efforts to reverse the AIDS trend line. He's also challenging American evangelical pastors to get on a plane to Africa and form partnerships with local churches. He says some 1,600 are in the process of doing so.
Other voices - among them a rock star and the US president - have recently thrust the African crisis into the spotlight. In 2002, Bono, lead singer of the band U2, took his fight against AIDS to the White House and to the US heartland, meeting with President Bush and traveling by bus to urge churches and others to get involved.
Bono, whose songs often deal with spiritual themes, refuses to be labeled a "Christian" artist, but he didn't shy from challenging churchgoers on "the defining moral issue of our time." The church will be remembered in history, he said, for how it responds to this devastating epidemic.
In his State of the Union address, Mr. Bush announced an emergency plan for AIDS relief of $15 billion over five years for Africa and the Caribbean. Advocacy groups hailed the plan, but say the White House is now undermining its own initiative. It proposes only $1.6 billion for the first year and is giving short shrift to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS in favor of bilateral programs. It also plans to tie US abortion politics to the issue by prohibiting funds for any groups that perform abortions.
Some in Congress are pushing for more funding up front. Last week the House International Relations Committee proposed $3 billion in funding for fiscal 2004, with 10 percent for orphans and vulnerable children. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering the issue as well.
With its 15-city tour, World Vision hopes to spur churchgoers to contact their congressmen as well as get personally involved. Dr. Smith's church is supporting 280 orphans with $30 a month each, and members are planning two trips to Zambia this year to meet the children. "This will give them some hope and education so they can avoid cultural practices which put them at risk, such as girls being married off in preteen years," he says.
World Vision's projects in Zambia and Uganda are testing methods to train pastors and others to talk about AIDS prevention in their communities, including abstinence and faithfulness in sexual behavior. They also give orphans skills to organize their lives. The intent is to find methods that can be copied elsewhere.
Princess Zulu, who lost both parents to AIDS and is diagnosed as HIV positive, works in the Zambia program and hosts a radio program called "Positive Living." "If 20 percent of the people are HIV positive, there is still hope," she says, "because 80 percent are not."
The Church World Service of the National Council of Churches is also increasing its response to the AIDS situation. In Rwanda, for example, CWS works with the YWCA to teach children who are heads of households how to tend and provide for their siblings. It offers vocational training.
To Stearns, the pandemic is perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of all time. With programs in 92 countries, World Vision realized that "our work could be for nothing if the incidence rates continued to climb," he says. It decided to orient all its resources toward this issue, even launching the campaign in the middle of the Iraq war.
"I would argue that HIV/AIDS is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction at work in the world today," he says, "and the stakes are just too high" to wait.