Creating an AIDS-Free World

January 7th, 2011

God calls the church of Jesus Christ to join in partnership with persons around the world to work for an AIDS-free world. God is already at work in the world seeking with scientists to find a vaccine, a cure, and various treatments. God is seeking to comfort the infected and the affected. Every new infection brings a tear to God's eyes and every death is like a new nail being pounded into Christ's hands. God calls every Christian to move from condemnation to compassion, stigmatization to liberation, and apathy to action.

Daily more than 8,000 persons die from AIDS in the world and another 11,780 people become infected with HIV. In 2006, an estimated 4.3 million adults and children were newly infected by HIV, and 3 million persons died of AIDS. But honestly does the church really care?

When tsunamis or terrorists strike, the church holds candlelight vigils and quickly raises millions of dollars for relief and medical efforts. When hurricanes wreck havoc, we organize innumerable volunteer mission trips and gather food, clothing, and money to bring help and hope.

But when a terrorist virus like HIV sweeps the earth, we would prefer to ignore rather than confront the world's worst health crisis in 700 years. As preachers and pastors, we would rather talk about almost anything else than to deal with the complexities posed by this dreadful and dangerous disease. We watch the equivalent of 75 jumbo jets crashing every day and yet most of us rarely mutter a word!

Year after year, the pandemic escalates, with over 40 million infected and over 25 million persons dead, but most Christians in the pew never hear a sermon from the pulpit about education, prevention, care, or treatment. The silence is deafening.

Feeling the Facts

Around the world the poorest of the poor are most impacted, with Africa and Asia suffering the largest number of infections and deaths. No cure exists and vaccines for prevention remain distant scientific dreams.

Two-thirds of all persons globally living with HIV, and three-quarters of all AIDS deaths, are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Life expectancy in these countries has dropped dramatically. Now, however, the country with the highest number of infections is India, with at least 5.7 million.

Globally, more women than ever before have become infected, ranging from 26 percent in North America to 59 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Women comprise about 50 percent of all persons infected worldwide.

About 18 million children have been orphaned and their numbers are growing.[1] Every minute of every day a child dies of AIDS. Only 5 percent—1 in 20—of those children infected with HIV/AIDS in the world have access to life-sustaining drugs. The world has medicine, but instead of saying, “Come unto me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you health,” we instead have said “Go away, we don't think you are worth the cost of this medicine and care.”

In the United States the disease has dropped from the headlines and our consciousness, thanks to new anti-retro-viral drugs that extend life. More than one million Americans are infected and nearly one-third do not know it. Prevention messages are failing, however, to reach racial and ethnic minority communities, and the rates of new infections among African-Americans are especially alarming.

The longest human journey is from the mind to the heart. I believe that once people begin to feel the facts of the global AIDS pandemic—once numbers have names and statistics have faces—then churches and individuals will respond generously and joyfully to opportunities to share in God's great mission and ministry of healing and hope.

Focusing on Faces

All these statistics quickly become a blur in our minds and generally don't impact our hearts or our feelings. For, as the Africans say, “statistics are numbers without tears.” It is only when we get up close and personal and meet the people living with HIV/AIDS that we usually feel the impact and hear their cries for assistance. When I think of the global AIDS pandemic, I don't respond to abstract figures but to human faces.

Last year, for example, I journeyed to India, where I lectured and preached at colleges and seminaries. What I most remember, however, are the faces:

  • Sobbing mothers and wives who embraced me in sorrow at an AIDS hospital,

  • Precious little children who were dying of AIDS because the world refuses to provide them medicine,

  • Anxious prisoners with AIDS kneeling in front of me, begging that we pray together.

Hearing God's Voice

In recent years, as I witnessed a woman dying in the garbage heaps of Thailand, heard the cries of South African children, touched the broken bodies of men in India, saw a dead woman lying unattended in a Kenya hospital, and experienced the new HIV “killing fields” of Cambodia, I repeatedly have heard God's voice calling.

For me, it has been like the vision of St. Paul, when one night, he saw a man of Macedonia standing before him and pleading, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (Acts 16:9) This experience for Paul and his companions was a turning point in their mission and ministry. “Immediately” they sought to get to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called them.

In the history of the Christian church, Paul's hearing the cry, “Come over … and help me” became the hallmark of mission and ministry, responding to human need whenever and wherever it appears.

This visionary motif led Christians around the world to share the gospel, building churches, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and a variety of other ministries, all designed to show the healing inclusive love of God in Jesus Christ.

Now more than twenty-five years into the global AIDS pandemic, I believe God is calling Christians in every place to respond to the cry of all those in need around the world who are asking “Come over … and help me.”

Too often the church in the past has looked at persons suffering with HIV/AIDS and shunned and stigmatized them. Too often the church has pretended that the crisis was not so severe, and in the process we have allowed a genocide of indifference to prevail, especially in Africa. Too often the church has become so preoccupied with its own concerns for institutional maintenance and management that we have hoarded our resources and failed to share our knowledge, our compassion, and our love for other members of God's family.

When you preach about stewardship, will you lift up all that the church is doing in the world. Include the AIDS orphans when you talk about seeing Jesus in the world. Include all the persons living with HIV/AIDS when you pray for those who are poor and sick. When you plan your Advent sermon series, will you help your congregation see that the babe in the manger came to save not only their own children but the children of Africa who are living (and dying) with AIDS?

And like St. Paul, let us catch the vision of mission and respond to the cry: “Come over … and help us.”

Seeing Hope on the Horizon

All is not doom and gloom. Hope is on the horizon, with possibilities for providing persons with education about prevention, care and treatment. None of us can do everything, but that does not mean we cannot do something.

In the spirit of Mother Teresa, who realized she alone could not change the world but could make a difference in the lives of individuals and communities, we work “one by one by one” with others of compassion and commitment.

The good news is that at least two million people globally now receive anti-retroviral treatment, and prevention education programs are helping to curb the growth of new infections. The bad news is that globally programs of prevention and treatment fall far short of human need.

The large AIDS and tuberculosis hospital in Tambaram, India, where I go each year to deliver Christmas gifts, used to be simply a warehouse without hope for the dying. Now people get assistance, and over 4,000 people are receiving outpatient anti-retroviral treatment.

Increasingly Christians are seeing the relationship of AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. These three killers interact, as persons weakened by malaria are more susceptible to AIDS and vice versa. Tuberculosis threatens everyone, with drug-resistant TB increasing in various parts of the world.

Responding to God's Call: What Can I Do?

Christians convinced that God is calling them to join in the Divine initiatives of hope and healing, often ask, “What can I do?”

First, and foremost, we can identify and repent of the sins of stigmatization and discrimination. Christians can respond to God's call to combat stigmatization and discrimination in the church and society by offering love, acceptance, forgiveness, and healing, not judgment and prejudice. It does not cost any money to teach in our classrooms and to preach Sunday after Sunday that stigmatization and discrimination are sins, contrary to the loving will and way of God.

Second, we need to confess our complicity in the silence that promotes the pandemic and encourages the spread of the disease. If Christians are to be effective agents in the battle against AIDS, we have to find ways of embracing all humankind. We must come to understand that “we all have AIDS” and that the “Body of Christ has AIDS"; otherwise we will continue to dance away from constructive engagement by pretending we are somehow “better,” “more holy,” or “morally upstanding,” when, in reality, we all know we are sinners standing in the need of God's grace. At the foot of the Cross the ground is always level.[2]

Third, we can reject the twisted theology claiming that “AIDS is the punishment of God.” This has prompted people to embrace a theology of condemnation rather than compassion, indifference rather than involvement, stigmatization rather than liberation. Instead of offering a theology of hope and health, faith-based groups sometimes have become missionaries of death, not life.

Fourth, we need to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and the people God has entrusted to our care in the church, by ensuring everyone knows how to avoid HIV infection. Failure to share life-saving information about “safer sex” is to contribute to the AIDS pandemic and to endanger countless persons.

Fifth, we can move beyond indifference to involvement. John Wesley was appalled that the rich in his society were so unconcerned about the horrendous health conditions of the poor. Further, Wesley was adamant that visiting and caring for the sick was of the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his famous sermon “On Visiting the Sick,” he declared such works of mercy were “a means of grace” and “necessary to salvation.” Persons struggling with HIV/AIDS look to faith communities to offer prayer and care, hope and health, and spiritual strength.

Sixth, we can be advocates for persons living with HIV and AIDS around the world. John Wesley championed social justice, but did not wait for the political authorities to act. He likely would have campaigned for governments to give 10 billion dollars to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis. Simultaneously, he would have been a tireless advocate for raising $8 million through the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, believing as he did that ministering to the poor and sick was included in the job description of every Methodist.

Seventh, each of us can do something specific to help bring hope and health to persons living with HIV and AIDS. Find a way to be involved in service and invite others to join you and your church. Don't wait until you know everything about this global crisis. Contribute generously of your time, talent, and treasures.

Get involved locally and globally. If you and your congregation find it too difficult to talk about condoms, then focus on the needs of orphans! Better yet, however, is to promote prevention and encourage treatment, so HIV parents can stay alive and take care of their own children.

You may be late getting involved, now is better than never. As an African proverb suggests, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is today.”

How Your Dollars Make a Difference

“In the face of the massive global AIDS crisis, how much good can a dollar do?”

By itself, not much, but when eight million United Methodists contribute at least a dollar, the impact can be tremendous. A dollar is a marvelous thing—it can go where we cannot go. It can be transformed into medicine for a mother that stops the transmission of HIV from mother to child. It can be changed into food for AIDS orphans in Africa. It can open doors for care-givers in an urban slum, teach illiterate rural villagers how to protect themselves from HIV, and turn dusty truck stops into AIDS testing centers. Dollars can metastasize into messages of hope, health, and help.

We cannot all go to Asia, South America or Africa, but together we can make a difference.

A six-year-old child with AIDS now can see because an eye camp at the AIDS Pediatric Center in rural south India, has provided her glasses. “Generic anti-retroviral medicine keeps this little girl alive,” says N. M. Samuel, M.D., “but like Jesus in Bible times, United Methodists are helping the blind to see.”

Farther north, near Agra, India, a United Methodist missionary from Norway, labors in the hot, humid, dirty “dhabhas” where thousands of truck drivers from around the country congregate. Away from home for months at a time, these men often contract HIV and then unknowingly infect their wives when they return to their communities. Convinced the truckers would not drive up to her hospital, she regularly goes to 25 truck stops to teach prevention and to test whether persons are HIV positive. 

In Freetown, Sierra Leone at the Kissy Hospital, funds are being used to combat the disease. Many women come for counseling and health care, having become infected after being raped by soldiers during their brutal civil war.

AIDS ravages sub-Saharan Africa. Food for some of the 800,000 AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe is being provided. In rural Meru, Kenya, United Methodist funds are supporting a program that provides health education in 176 small villages. Fighting stigma, church people gather together for worship services. At a special Easter service, the presiding bishop welcomed persons living with HIV and AIDS, with special greetings, denouncing the sins of discrimination and “affirming God's love for all people.”

What is startling is not how much a dollar can do, but how many churches have not yet asked their members to give even this small amount. Imagine what could be done if we all respond with at least one dollar to Christ's call, "I was sick, and you cared for me."


Donald E. Messer, Executive Director, Center for the Church and Global AIDS (, is President Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Practical Theology at The Iliff School of Theology. He is author of Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis.

[1] For updating statistics, see:

[2] See Donald E. Messer, Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).

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