Yesterday was an exciting day here in Washington DC. As the AIDS2012 mega-conference with its 20,000 participants continued in the city, I spoke at a side Summit on the role of the Christian faith in the fight against AIDS. I was thrilled to be on a panel with Rick Warren from Saddleback Church, Raj Shah, Administrator of USAID, Lois Quam of the US State Department and Bishop Banda from Zambia. The Summit also included presentations by two Senators, two Congressmen, a State Governor, a member of the British House of Lords, as well as videos presentations by Presidents Bush and Obama and Governor Romney. As the US President of Food for the Hungry and one of the four sponsors of the event, I felt heartened to hear feedback from many quarters stating that the event was a “breath of fresh air” for the AIDS conference events this week. (To view the Summit in its entirety, go to http://www.georgetown.edu/webcast/faith-aids-summit.html)
In my panel presentation, I focused on a Faith that Comforts, a Faith that Cares for, and a Faith that Catalyzes Change. Faith-based organizations like Food for the Hungry care for the whole person and Christian leaders have the ability to speak with authority into the lives of people. Churches and parachurch organizations are often found in the farthest corners of the world. And they have both a call and a mission to reach out with a message of hope.
In HIV and AIDS programs that Food for the Hungry has had the privilege to facilitate and participate in over the past decade, we have partnered with an army of church-based volunteers who visit the homes of those suffering from HIV/AIDS. They help carry water, wash clothes or bathe those in need. Counseling, prayer, and simply sitting with those affected has provided them with company and dignity so that they can overcome very serious battles with depression and even suicidal thinking. Many said that the visits “saved their lives”. In Kenya, we were able to successfully assist churches in forming support groups that has helped significantly reduce stigma. Church leaders now report that people are even able to publically talk about their status during church services.
Further, we are part of a faith tradition that cares for others who are infected or affected by HIV and AIDS. I have seen this firsthand in many countries where we work — a very selfless commitment to those affected by AIDS in the churches we are serving alongside. Church-based volunteers are providing much-needed services to orphans that include monitoring and contributing toward their personal hygiene, nutrition, and school attendance. Orphans benefit from psychosocial counseling, including grief counseling, which is usually unavailable to them in their community. Churches have been making valiant efforts both alongside and independently of our program staff, to provide care and support for orphans and vulnerable children. And what is amazing is that of the thousands of volunteers that we have trained over the last decade, more than 85% are active members of local churches. Further, ARV treatment and PMTCT are significant areas of care managed by faith-based organizations. In Kenya alone, it’s estimated that 50% of ARVs are provided through faith based institutions.
Finally, I was able to share a message that Faith Catalyzes Change. With the growth in importance of technical solutions to HIV and AIDS, certain parts of the “comprehensive” response to the pandemic have gotten lost. What I am going to say now may no longer be popular and in fact may even be ridiculed in parts of the AIDS community. In 2003, in the early stages of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), we founded an evangelical Christian HIV/AIDS alliance called AHA. And one of the pillars of that alliance was a focus on comprehensive prevention that included abstinence before marriage and faithfulness in marriage.
I’m proud to report that in our very large, five-year HIV prevention program in five countries, we reached over 1.5 million youth with HIV abstinence and faithfulness prevention messages, with over 100,000 receiving intensive training. Even more importantly, between 74% and 98% of these youth committed to primary or secondary abstinence. Of those that committed to primary or secondary abstinence, between 80% and 95% said they did not have sex in the last 12 months when measured 12 months after the program intervention. We also reached over 100,000 married or cohabitating people with faithfulness messages. As a result, the percentage of married or cohabiting youth and adults reporting sex with a non-marital or non-cohabiting partner decreased, on average, 43% in two out of the three countries where that behavior was measured.
Unfortunately, despite the legislative language in the PEPFAR reauthorization which continues to speak of the value of comprehensive prevention messaging, the vast majority of the behavior-change activities of the decade of the 00s has now given way to largely technical solutions to HIV prevention or simply treatment as prevention full stop. We believe it is absolutely critical for the Christian faith community to be able to continue to address these areas from their positions of strength in helping people to have the power to change. My hope is that our gathering yesterday at Georgetown University will help us to further that prophetic voice.
This blog post originally appeared on ChristianPost.com.