By Kathy L. Gilbert
United Methodist News Service
FORT WORTH, Texas -- When it comes to solving the global AIDS/HIV crisis it is time to "pray and pay," said the Rev. Donald Messer, author of Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence--Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis.
Messer shared the sobering statistics of the virus during the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee's "Lighten the Burden II" event at First United Methodist Church, Fort Worth, April 22.
On the eve of the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination has only raised $2.5 million of an $8 million commitment made in 2004 to help put a stop to the world's greatest health crisis, according to the executive director of an ecumenical global AIDS action network.
The $8 million goal established by the 2004 General Conference represented a $1 commitment from every United Methodist in the United States. Messer, executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, reported as of 2008, 32 of 63 United Methodist annual conferences in the United States have not contributed anything to the fund. Bishop Hope Morgan Ward has designated the 2008 Annual Conference mission offering for the UM Global AIDS Fund.
Messer said raising funds has been hampered by fear, theological taboos and stigma surrounding the epidemic.
Pauline Muchina, United Nations AIDS facilitator, asked participants in a workshop, "How many times have you heard a pastor talk about AIDS? How many United Methodist bishops have condemned child marriage?"
Muchina said religious leaders must be willing to talk openly about sex and violence against women.
Diseases of poverty
Bishop Joao Somane Machado, episcopal leader of the Mozambique Annual Conference, told seminar participants he lives with the consequences of the diseases of poverty -- AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis and malaria -- every day.
In Mozambique, the epidemic has reduced life expectancy from 41 years in 1999 to 38.1 years in 2004. Millions of children are orphans because one or both of their parents have died from the virus.
"Millions of people have nothing to eat," he said. "They can't take medicine when they have nothing to eat because it becomes a poison." The drugs used to treat AIDS/HIV are harsh on a person's system and cannot be taken on an empty stomach.
Living with AIDS
The Rev. Shane Stanford of Hattiesburg, Miss., told the gathering his first-hand experiences as a "person living with AIDS." Stanford, a hemophiliac, got AIDS from a blood transfusion when he was 16. When his doctor told him he was HIV positive he said he had to make a choice to live or die.
"I decided to fight."
Stanford has faced many obstacles because of his disease. A Mississippi church rejected him as their pastor when they learned that he was HIV positive. That congregation later apologized for its action.
He is the teaching pastor for Main Street United Methodist Church and is host for The United Methodist Hour and for Time That Makes the Difference, a television program airing in more than 5 million homes weekly.
"We all deal with some condition, we all have broken edges," said Stanford. "We can't do everything but everyone can do something."
Kay Warren, an author and AIDS activist, told participants, "God has a plan, and God intends the church to be the answer" to the AIDS/HIV crisis.
"The church is the missing link and must take a seat at the table to solve the problem," she said.
Warren started the HIV/AIDS Initiative at Saddleback Church, a Lake Forest, Calif., church where weekly attendance exceeds 22,000. She began the initiative after she read an article describing the effects of AIDS and how 12 million children had been orphaned by the crisis. "I wondered what was wrong with my faith when so many were suffering and I didn't know anyone with HIV/AIDS."
"Six years ago, I didn't care about HIV/AIDS," she said. "I thought it was a gay man's disease and therefore I didn't have to care. I am embarrassed to admit that."
She said she became a "gloriously ruined woman" when she learned about the millions who are suffering and dying.
"I hope that shatters you, too," she said. "We have to be seriously disturbed before we are compelled to do anything."
Warren outlined how every local church can get involved and "crawl, walk or run" to stop the HIV/AIDS virus from killing millions more.
Warren said it is within everyone's grasp to save lives and make sure children are not left orphans.
"You can ask infected persons if they are taking their medicine every day," she said. "It is that simple."
"We want to change the hearts of every United Methodist," Messer said. He and other members and friends of the global AIDS fund will carry on a "thank you" campaign during the 2008 General Conference to draw attention to what has been done and what is yet to be done.