Response to Rick Warren – Churches are helpful, but not a silver bullet for HIV

According to American Pastor Rick Warren, the church is the best conduit through which to fight against HIV/AIDS globally. Critics have charged Warren and his Ugandan counterpart – Martin Ssempa – with disrupting effective HIV/AIDS programs for abstinence-only evangelical-based approaches. In addition, the partnership between Warren and Ssempa has led to increased antipathy toward homosexuals in Uganda.

In yesterday’s CNN article, Warren writes,

“Though late to the fight, in 2003 Kay and I heard God calling us to care for those infected and affected, to raise our voices on their behalf, and to figure out practical ways for local churches to serve them.

We traveled to Africa, ground zero for this pandemic, and were brokenhearted by the pain and thrilled by the compassion we observed.

Out of the bubble that is American life, we sat with dying men and women, held newly orphaned babies in our arms, and cried with shattered family members.

In America, we’d heard public leaders, including pastors, make pronouncements about AIDS that implied that those infected were enemies, or at least deserved their illness.

But at the grassroots level we witnessed Christ-followers by the thousands opening their hearts, their homes, their wallets and their churches to fellow human beings in their suffering. Clearly, local churches were at the forefront of this battle in Africa.”

Evidently Warren travelled to Africa searching for a way that the church could help with the epidemic, only to find that local churches were already doing a good job in caring for the sick. Warren later writes in his article that this system inspired him to set up similar faith-based support networks in the US and globally.

At the same time that Warren was being inspired by African church-goers, Uganda was implementing its successful A.B.C. – Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condomize – campaign against HIV/AIDS. The country had one of the most progressive attitudes toward HIV/AIDS in the region, mostly as a result of President Museveni’s early efforts to combat the disease publically.

As Max Blumenthal of The Daily Beast writes,

“…an investigation into Warren’s involvement in Africa reveals a web of alliances with right-wing clergymen who have sidelined science-based approaches to combating AIDS in favor of abstinence-only education. More disturbingly, Warren’s allies have rolled back key elements of one of the continent’s most successful initiative, the so-called ABC program in Uganda. Stephen Lewis, the United Nations’ special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, told the New York Times their activism is “resulting in great damage and undoubtedly will cause significant numbers of infections which should never have occurred.”

Later, Warren was associated, through Ssempa, with the controversial “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda’s Parliament that would make homosexuality a capital offense. Despite threats that the bill would be revisited this session, the Uganda Parliament adjourned on 13 May without debating the bill. It remains tabled for the moment.

While Warren’s work in Africa is ineffectively (and ruinously) intertwined with his own personal mission against condom promotion and homosexuality, his base argument that the church is the best way to combat HIV/AIDS isn’t necessarily a bad one. As Warren himself admits, when he first traveled to Africa, he saw a system of faith-based care and prevention that was working. Since then, church-based HIV/AIDS programs have encountered problems because of Warren’s involvement and his perversion of their original approach.

As Warren and Ssempa have shown, hate rhetoric and narrow-mindedness is utterly ineffective in a country like Uganda. Their approach has not only led to local and international backlash, but also managed to undermine decades of effective behavior change promotion. For me, Warren’s article is a rare moment where I agree with the message but cannot bring myself to support the messenger.

Churches are a centerpiece of life for the majority of Africans. They can and do provide essential services to HIV/AIDS victims and in promoting healthy behavior that can prevent the spread of the disease. Warren is correct when he writes,

The church has the largest distribution network on the planet. There are more churches in the world than all the Wal-Marts, McDonald’s and Starbucks combined. The church was global 200 years before anyone else thought of globalization. We could take you to thousands of villages around the world where the only institution to speak of is a church.”

However, faith-based HIV/AIDS programs cannot provide a silver bullet solution to the HIV epidemic. Their efforts must be coupled with methods that are scientifically and culturally proven effective within the communities that they are implemented. Churches also need nurses and doctors to administer HIV testing and treatment. They need nutritionists to determine appropriate food intake for ART users. While we should not downplay or neglect the importance of the church as a support system and useful network through which to deliver treatment and prevention methods, HIV programs require a variety of organizations and government agencies working in concert.

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