An Opportunity for an Historic Witness
Emmanuel is 8 years old with no childhood left. His father and younger brother both died from HIV/AIDS, so he is left to take care of himself and his dying mother, who is only 26 years old. He often goes days without food, and his "adult" responsibilities are a full-time job. Emmanuel is among 12 million children orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Every minute of the day, four more African children become orphans due to AIDS, many having to survive without either parent. It is estimated that the number of these African AIDS orphans will reach over 20 million by the year 2010. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is the most devastating humanitarian disaster of our generation, taking its greatest toll on parts of Africa where it is combined with extreme poverty.
Eight years ago I took on the rather lonely job of advocating for those suffering as a result of a brutal rebel war in Sierra Leone, a place where my wife and I served as missionaries years earlier. The widespread cutting off of limbs, the forcing of young children to kill their parents to become obedient child soldiers, and the systematic rape of young women were all taking place in this small West African nation. Although Sierra Leone had significant historical connections to our own nation, few people in the United States were paying attention. The media rarely covered it and politicians didn't spend any capital on it. Yet, by simple actions we could have disrupted the "blood diamond" trade providing weapons to the rebels. Today people are learning about the horrors of the Sierra Leone war as Kanye West's "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" has moved to the top of the hip hop music charts and movie theaters are showing Nicholas Cage in LORD OF WAR. I now hear people saying that they want to do something, but I have to tell them that that war ended four years ago.
The French theologian and social scientist Jacques Ellul warned that Christians tend to " do their thinking, become worked up, and fluctuate in accordance with the latest news" (FALSE PRESENCE OF THE KINGDOM, 1972). He points out that we Christians are all too often conformed to the world in the way we respond to issues based on what the secular media chooses to highlight. We then tend to limit ourselves to accepting or rejecting the options laid out by politicians and secular activists. Christians fail to be light and salt in the world when our thoughts and actions are caught up in the "feeding frenzies" of the press and the left vs. right responses of political leaders. We end up following the ways of the world rather than the ways of God's kingdom. Our churches need to be liberated to demonstrate uniquely Christian social actions.
I saw many Christians fall into the trap of a limited perspective as I advocated for Sierra Leone. I see it again now as I advocate on behalf of AIDS and indescribable poverty in Africa. At the end of 2002, I felt a call to leave the homeless rehabilitation program I had directed for nearly 14 years and move out in faith. A few months later, with great support from my wife, I began the Hope Africa Project New York without any funding or organizational backing. Last year, I became a part-time consultant for World Vision's Hope Initiative with the aim of raising awareness of this African crisis among churches in the New York City area. I have always struggled with the questions "Where was the church during slavery?" and "Where was the German church as Hitler rose to power and eliminated 6 million Jews?" Some of us see what is happening today with AIDS and poverty in Africa as one of those "historic" challenges.
A number of Christian leaders have recently received a call to make AIDS and poverty in Africa a major priority. Among these are Rick and Kay Warren (Saddleback Church), Bishop Charles Blake, Sr. (West Angeles Church, Los Angeles), and Bruce Wilkerson (author of THE PRAYER OF JABEZ). Rev. Dr. Mac Pier, president of Concerts of Prayer of Greater New York, and Bishop Roderick Caesar of Bethel Gospel Tabernacle are two local leaders also moved to place a high priority on what is happening in Africa. Rev. Pier has teamed up with World Vision to bring the concern of the AIDS pandemic to the many churches in his prayer network. In May of 2005, he convened a meeting where leaders of diverse churches in the New York City area signed on to the Hope Church Alliance. Churches large and small are committing themselves to making a "historic" difference in three affected nations û Uganda, the Dominican Republic, and Rwanda. Recovering from the genocide of 1994 and now greatly impacted by HIV/AIDS, Rwanda today has the highest rate of orphans of any nation in the entire world.
I am very thankful for the opportunity God has given me to serve with World Vision. Their Hope Initiative is an unprecedented campaign committed to bringing hope to children, families and communities whose lives have been devastated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa and around the world. Among other things, World Vision makes it possible for Christians to make an impact on the life of an AIDS orphan through sponsorships costing less than $1 per day (www.worldvision.org/hope). I've seen poor single mothers in the South Bronx take on such sponsorships although they themselves struggle with so many pressing personal and financial problems.
Through my work with World Vision, I've had the privilege of meeting people such as Princess Zulu of Zambia. An extraordinary young woman of faith, a tireless advocate and a mother of two, she herself is HIV positive. In her presentations she tells people, "I don't cry for myself, nor for my children; but the first time I left Africa and traveled to the United States, I cried. I couldn't believe that this other world existed, a world where people were always throwing food in the bin, where special outfits were designed for dogs, a world capable of doing something about the AIDS pandemic but in which many decide not to."
Allowing ourselves to be influenced by the ways of our culture, we make the "least of these" the least of our priorities. Pondering the tragedy of the recent hurricanes, we realize that part of what was ruined and lost in the Gulf region were things that people had stored up from excess and over-consumption. The winds, the flooding, and even the looting exposed our need to begin storing our riches in a different place. Even a tiny percentage of the many billions of dollars in things now lost (or the billions now committed to replacing those things), could have made a vast difference to those struggling everyday without the basic necessities of food, clean water, rudimentary medicine, and safe shelter. In faith, we can respond to both the hurricanes and the extreme poverty outside our nation as we take on a lifestyle that stores up "treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matt. 6:20). God's kingdom, when fully manifested, will indeed "make poverty history." Through this humanitarian disaster of HIV/AIDS and poverty, God has given his church an opportunity to be a historic witness of love and compassion.
Ron Mitchell is an advocate for Africa. He is the author of ORGANIC FAITH [Cornerstone Press, 1998] and leader of the TransJazz smooth jazz gospel band [their TRANSITIONS CD was released by EBL Records in 2004.