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by Craig Greenfield

Apparently I am in the place where Gandhi took off his clothes.  Local legend has it that it was right here in Madurai, South India that Gandhi first shed his street clothes and stripped down to a loin cloth.  Perhaps it was also here that he uttered his now infamous proclamation that he would surely have embraced Christianity if it weren't for the Christians.

At times I am sorely tempted to agree with him.  For I confess that many of us who love the church have episodes of deep despair.  We weep over what we see as utter apathy and a yawning lack of compassion.  We long to see Christians wake up and respond to the call to minister Jesus' love to their neighbors: the poor, the sick, the orphans and the widows.

Nowhere is this task more pressing than in the great nation of India, where one out of every five people in the world live.  In this place, a child is born every 2 seconds and of those who survive, half will be malnourished.  There are 88 million urban poor eking out an existence in the world's largest and most desperate slums.  AIDS is stalking the nation, felling the drug users and commercial sex workers first and now spreading into the general population.

I am in Madurai for one week, not far from where my grandparents served as missionaries for 25 years, leading a group of people who know intimately what this is all about, because they work on the frontlines of the battle against AIDS every day in the villages and slums of India's mega-cities.  They represent Christian organizations from all over India who are working at the coalface of this challenge.

Each of us has come to this place for one reason: to figure out how to wake up the church.

We are hosted by Paulus Samuel of Center for Aids Rehab and Education (CARE) Madurai.  Paulus says tough things in a gentle way, and at one point I feel so convicted by his words that I grab an imaginary dagger, twist it into my heart and only half-jokingly beg him to stop.  But it's not just what he says.  Paulus brings us to meet pastors and Christians who are so fired up to visit and minister to people with AIDS that they are literally jumping out of their seats to tell us about their passion.

Then he introduces us to people living with AIDS whose stories will make a hardened grassroots AIDS worker weep.  But the tears that roll down my cheeks are not tears of despair but hope, because each of these people have been touched by the gospel and they speak with quiet confidence of the peace that God has given them in the face of death.

As a group we spend long hours discussing why this is working.  How did the church here, a tiny minority, get woken up to the plight of their neighbors living with HIV/AIDS?  The principles we have come up with represent the combined experience of decades of hard slogging in the slums all over India and as far away as Cambodia where I have worked for the past several years.

These are not techniques that can be reduced mechanically to a logical framework or a set of outputs and activities.  The main reason for this is that NOT ONE OF US is capable of sparking the God-movement that is needed to wake the church.  The catalyst for all that we long to see will only be borne out of prayer, because God is the author, the source and the power behind such a movement.

"If my people would only humble themselves and pray then I would heal their land!"

Our theme this week has emerged unmistakably as prayer.  Without prayer we realize we will continue to bang our heads and get nowhere.  Without prayer we will be left with dry-bones community development programs that look impressive but reflect nothing of Christ's spirit.

Paulus tells us how he approaches a new church.  With a big grin he says, "We're not asking for your time or even your money!  We just ask for your prayers."  As an aside, he shares with us that he has learnt that if people will truly commit to pray they will soon be offering their time and their money too.  Paulus makes that prayer specific by giving each willing church member a prayer card with the name of an HIV positive person to pray for.

The effectiveness of his approach is borne out by the evidence.  As we grill a bunch of evangelical pastors who are excited about their new ministry amongst people living with AIDS, they explain that they began simply as a prayer group who eventually were challenged by the call to visit orphans and widows as they read James 1:27.  The classic dictum "move from the known to the unknown" springs to mind.  Church folks can handle a call to prayer, whereas holding the bony hand of a dying man may take some getting used to.

Paulus says that in time he has come to see that his target population is not the people living with AIDS themselves, but rather the church, and that the role of his organization must be care 'facilitators' rather than care 'providers'.  "Don't snuff out the initiative of the church by moving in too quickly to solve problems and provide care!" he warns. "This has to be the role of the church."  His voice trembles as he describes some of the tough choices that result from this stance.  Resistance, endurance and frustration are the lot of the organization that takes this path.  But ultimately a role as care 'facilitators' will see a church that is engaged sustainably with its community, rather than abdicating to the NGO.  "It is us, the NGO's, who block the movement of the Spirit.  If only we could let go and stand behind."

But a role as care facilitators should not mean sitting back and doing nothing.  "Let the church see the face of AIDS one on one," says Paulus.  After all, how will they know what they are not doing unless they are shown the need?  He calls local pastors to pray for patients near their churches on their deathbed.  What pastor would refuse that request?  Pastor Rama shares, "My friend died of AIDS.  I got the burden after the death of my friend."  Other pastors also explain that they "got the burden" after meeting people with full-blown AIDS.

Paulus does his best to introduce pastors and church members to people living with HIV/AIDS.  He convinces churches to give their church grounds for one day a month so that local people with AIDS can come and collect their medicines, meet in support groups and receive counseling.  The church pastors and members themselves end up taking part, offering themselves as counselors and support group facilitators.  Paulus teases uninvolved churches into getting involved by telling them success stories from other, often small, independent churches.

Some churches have now taken on complete responsibility for these monthly meetings, even providing their own doctors and medicines from within the congregation.  Always, there is a strong emphasis on evangelism.  Being willing to relinquish control and allow churches to do things their own way is one of the keys.  "How often do we use the church members to do all the doggy work, while we get all the credit?" Paulus asks me gently. "We usher in the donors and show them round 'our' ministry, when really this should belong to the church, the people who do the work."

I leave feeling convicted but with a profound sense of hope that the church can take its rightful place.  If we are willing to cry out to God in prayer, set aside our own agendas and control, he will surely hear and heal the land.

Perhaps even Gandhi would have been touched by what's happening here, amongst the Christians of South India.

Craig Greenfield is acting international coordinator for Servants to Asia's Urban Poor – 

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