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Rick Warren: AIDS too big for church alone

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of a three-part series based on an interview with Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in Southern California, which he and his wife of 30 years, Kay, founded in 1980 with one family. In part one, Warren responded to critics among his fellows evangelical travelers. In part two the senior pastor – called by Newsweek one of “15 People Who Make America Great” – discussed his fame, his unconventional approach to ministry and his visit last year with Syrian leader Bashar Assad. In part three today, he responds to concerns about the pitfalls of partnering with government and his massive AIDS initiative.

Kay Warren embraces HIV patient at conclusion of Saddleback Church’s ‘Global Summit on AIDS and the Church’ (WND photo)

LAKE FOREST, Calif. – When Rick Warren takes on a problem, the scale often seems limited only by the size of the planet. Five years ago, his wife, Kay, responded to a sobering magazine article about the plight of 12 million AIDS orphans in Africa, and now their 22,000-strong Saddleback Church in upscale Orange County, California, has completed its third annual “Global Summit on AIDS and the Church,” drawing figures such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, United Nations officials and President Bush’s global AIDS coordinator to unite against the pandemic.

Warren says the problem of AIDS, with an estimated 33 million infected with HIV, is too big for the church alone, and he advocates the building of a public, private and faith partnership.

The venture has created unusual alliances, underscoring the conflicting approaches to a problem inseparable from issues of sexual morality.

While the traditional teaching of Warren’s Southern Baptist heritage emphasizes abstinence outside of marriage, governments and other secular institutions generally have adopted what they consider a “pragmatic approach” that refrains from judgment and seeks simply to keep people alive based on the belief that youth inevitably will engage in sexual activity.

Pauline Muchina at Saddleback’s ‘Global Summit on AIDS and the Church’ (WND photo)

Speaker Pauline Muchina, senior women and AIDS advocacy officer with UNAIDS in Washington, D.C., told the summit AIDS must be challenged with a “comprehensive” program that includes condom promotion, and she condemned the traditional Christian teaching of male leadership in marriage as a major cause of violence against women.

Muchina, a native of Kenya’s Rift Valley, told WND, however, she has no problem working with the Warrens.

“I only get anxious when [evangelicals] start condemning people who are advocating for a comprehensive HIV prevention including the use of condoms,” she said, “and so far, Kay and Rick have both said to me, and to other people here at the conference, we have to have a comprehensive HIV prevention strategy.”

Asked to respond to Muchina’s remarks, Warren told WND he does support condom distribution for prostitutes in impoverished, high-risk AIDS regions such as Africa and India.

“I want to keep them alive long enough that I can win them to Christ,” he said. “If they’re dead, it’s too late. The good news is only good news if it gets there in time.”

Warren said that when his wife came back from a trip to India, she told him of visiting a red light district with an estimated 30,000 prostitutes. Most of the women, he said, were sold into the work by husbands, fathers or brothers.

Rick Warren with HIV patient at conclusion of his church’s ‘Global Summit on AIDS and the Church’ (WND photo)

“I’ve never met a prostitute who wanted to be a prostitute,” said Warren. “I’m sure there are some out there, but in all my travels around the world, every one of them said, ‘If I could make money in another way, I’d do it.'”

Warren said that’s why his church started a program in Kenya to teach sewing and haircutting, enabling 16 women to leave prostitution.

“It goes back to my fundamental value,” he said, “that there is something more important than keeping a rule – it’s winning people to Christ.”

Muchina, however, used the same argument for promoting condom use among unmarried people.

“If you want to continue preaching to people to live a different life, you have to keep them alive by giving them skills and adequate information for protecting themselves from HIV,” she said.

‘My job is to change behavior’

Asked if he specifically supported promoting condoms to unmarried people, Warren replied, “My personal thing is I’m not going to give a condom to a kid. I’m not going to do that.”

He said, however, he can partner with people who do believe that, pointing out, for example, he can work with Catholics who don’t even believe in condom use for married couples.

“What I try to do is work with people to the degree that I can without compromising my convictions,” he said.

“As a pastor, my job is to change behavior,” Warren emphasized. “Government cannot change behavior. So I don’t expect government to agree to my commitments. They’re going to go out there and they’re going to look for the easiest non-behavior-change ways to slow it. I don’t expect them, and I’m not going to spend all my time trying to change them. I’m going to be training pastors how to teach behavior change.”

Ambassador Mark Dybul, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator (WND photo)

Another speaker at the AIDS summit, Mark Dybul, President Bush’s global AIDS coordinator, told WND the White House position is that “you need everything” to battle the pandemic.

“The most effective methods to avoid HIV/AIDS – our guidance is very clear on this – are to abstain from sexual activity or to be faithful to an HIV-negative partner,” Dybul said. “That’s 100 percent protection. Correct and consistent condemn use is not a 100 percent protection. But it’s a fact that people become sexually active, and so when they do, they need to make sure that they are protecting themselves and protecting others.”

Dybul explained the Bush administration “works with some groups that have certain views and others have other views, and then, put as a whole, you have the whole picture.”

“We respect the views and the values of everyone we work with, and we allow them to do what they do, and the success that they have in the populations they reach,” he said. “So we have a much broader view that includes all the approaches to tacking HIV/AIDS.”

Dybul emphasized, however, the goal of an “HIV-free generation” won’t be reached “until young people change the way they behave, and that means respecting themselves, respecting others. And when you do that, that means boys don’t abuse girls, that means that you refrain from sexual activity until you’ve found someone you love and are with and you remain faithful to that person.

“That’s how we are going to tackle this epidemic,” Dybul said, “and that’s why we need work with the churches, and that’s why we need to work with the traditional leaders.”

UNAIDS’ Muchina said it’s important that each side in the debate does not condemn the other.

“I don’t condemn them, they don’t condemn us,” she said. “We are all working on the same problem but working from different approaches, because this is a huge problem that has to be addressed from all levels.”

Muchina, nevertheless, found deficiencies in what she viewed as the conventional evangelical response.

“You don’t just tell them if you’re not married don’t do it,” she told WND. “What about the other side, that sex is a gift from God, and this is how it’s supposed to be done, and if you ever find yourself in a compromising situation, this is what you do to protect yourself from getting infected?

“That’s a moral obligation for us, for churches, for government, for families,” she said. “I want my children to be alive.”

‘Our processes are pretty bureaucratic’

At the conference, Kay Warren said her church is urging all of the presidential candidates to expand the Bush administration’s $30 million Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

But Rick Warren told WND he’s conscious of the control and coercion attached to government money and for that reason accepts no government funding.

“We work directly with private donors in the church,” he said. “Any time you have money involved there are going to be issues, so that’s just a very important concern.”

He conceded, however, that he believes government has a necessary role in paying for medications, such as anti-retrovirals used to treat AIDS that could cost $10,000 to $20,000 a year per person.

“The church is never going to have that,” Warren said. “Churches are poor around the world. But they have the people.

“We bring the manpower,” said Warren. “Even if you’ve got the meds, you can’t get them to the people unless you have a network.”

Mark Dybul speaking to AIDS conference at Saddleback Church (WND photo)

Dybul said he’s aware of the concerns churches and other private groups have in partnering with government – “that you can draw away from the mission of a lot of small organizations by building a bureaucracy.”

One approach the Bush administration is trying, he said, is to develop a consortium of faith-based organizations that designate one or two of the partners as the liaison with the government, “so that the rest of the partners can stick to their mission.”

But he conceded “our processes are pretty bureaucratic.”

“The fact of the matter is we have to be accountable to the taxpayer,” Dybul said. “So we need to know where the money went. Congress needs to know where it went.

“We’d like to streamline them as much as possible,” he continued. “But there is a real limit, just because of government rules.”

Dybul, who has been public about his homosexuality, said his personal life has no bearing on his job.

“My life actually is as a physician and researcher who has been doing global AIDS work for 20 years,” he said. “That’s what I bring for my expertise. I also bring a compassion and care for the young orphans, vulnerable children that are suffering from any disease, including HIV/AIDS.”

Rick Warren talks of Christ’s love for people suffering from AIDS in close of his church’s ‘Global Summit on AIDS and the Church’ (WND photo)

In the closing moments of the summit, before inviting HIV patients to the stage for prayer, Warren explained how he viewed the event and the massive effort that surrounded it.

“We didn’t do this for a cause,” he said. “We do this for a person. We do it for Jesus Christ. And if you want to know how much Jesus loves people with AIDS, you look at the cross, with arms outstretched and nail-pierced hands,” Warren said, stretching out his own arms.

“Jesus says, this much, this much, this is how much I love the world. This is how much I love people with AIDS. I love people so much it hurts. I’d rather die than live without these people. I want them to know me and my love for them.”


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