The Prescription for Hope Conference in Washington, D.C., drew church leaders, Christian activists and many who work every day in trying to alleviate the suffering caused by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Many good things had happened during the international conference sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse. The highlights for many were the superb videos of those who were actually working with HIV/AIDS sufferers in many different countries around the world.
Conference attendees were intrigued by the special guest at the final luncheon. Many had assumed it would be President Bush, but he was in China.
My table stirred when one or two spotted the dignitary at one of the front tables. I overheard one guest, who had earlier been a plenary presenter, say to his wife that if that person were going to speak, he would leave!
The special guest was introduced—Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C—and I understood why this Baptist brother was causing such a stir. From his influential position as chair of the Senate Relations Committee, he had probably done more harm than anyone to international relations and global initiatives.
Helms was actually quite humorous, if somewhat lacking in cultural awareness before such an international audience, which included the first lady of Uganda. Much of what he said was anecdotal, but he also spoke of his friendship with Bono, the Irish rock star, who is active in global debt and HIV/AIDS issues.
Where politicians and professional lobbyists had failed to move Helms, Bono had!
Helms announced he was making a commitment to do all that he could, before he retires later this year, to increase the U.S. government’s spending on the HIV/AIDS pandemic. He called for an additional $500 million.
That may be easy to say at a conference, but would he follow through?
He is following through on his commitment and therefore deserves thanks. An additional $500 million is at least a start. Much of it may go through USAid to non-governmental organizations, with some going through Christian and other faith-based charities, and perhaps some of it through Baptist World Aid.
It took backbone for the senator to change his mind and publicly commit to fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The challenge remains, however, for the Christian church to step up and reflect on the needs at home and abroad, and to make a solid promise to join the battle against HIV/AIDS.
In many parts of Africa in particular, the pandemic is devastating families, communities, church fellowships and the economy. One pastor recently told me that he could attend the funeral of a family member, church member, friend or colleague every morning, afternoon and evening.
The pandemic may not be as bad here, but we still need to consider how we do or will react to HIV/AIDS in our own families, churches, communities and friendship groups.
And we need to commit ourselves to supporting and working with our sisters and brothers around the world as they minister to HIV/AIDS sufferers and their families.
Paul Montacute has been director of Baptist World Aid, the relief and development arm of the Baptist World Alliance, since 1990.