HILLARY COURTS EVANGELICALS
Saddleback Church is gigantic. Its grounds are a sprawling collection of large, commercial structures, elaborate fountains, lawns, and walking paths for quiet contemplation. Four massive screens surround the stage, and two large television cameras are focused at all times on the stage-cum-pulpit. A full rock band pumps out hymnals.
With over 22,000 weekly congregants, it is in every sense a mega-church. “If Saddleback ministry was a business,” wrote Forbes magazine “Its influence would be compared with Dell, Google, or Starbucks.” It even has a café.
Saddleback’s founding pastor, Rick Warren author of America’s best-selling hardback in history “A Purpose Driven Life” has a persona and reputation to match his church. By the looks of the third annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church, he intends to make its size its greatest asset in fulfilling his “Purpose-Driven” teaching.
This isn’t just a sermon. It’s an industry and a way of life, but that’s the idea. “Ordinary people empowered by mankind making a difference wherever they are,” is what Warren says is the underlying idea behind the global plan.
“The church is no doubt called to lead the fight against HIV/AIDS, Logan Muchow, 19, undecided said. “It is doing a good job at it in a lot of places because it is one of the few places of refuge for so many people infected.”
This year, along with a host of religious and political leaders from all over the world, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke for a half an hour at the main event.
She took the opportunity to explain her faith and unveil her plan for fighting the AIDS pandemic.
“AIDS is not just an African, Asian, or American problem,” the Senator said. “It’s a problem of our common humanity.”
Likewise, President Bush’s daughter, Jenna spoke at the Youth Summit of World AIDS Day about her experience in Latin America with UNICEF recording the stories of those afflicted with HIV/AIDS and about her book “Ana’s Story.”
“She [Ana] wanted me to tell you that if you know someone, a child, facing similar hardships that Ana faces, you should tell them they are not alone and it is okay to get the help they need to keep themselves safe,” Ms. Bush said.
Even rock star super-philanthropist Bono, a friend of Rick and wife Kay Warren, addressed the nearly 1,000 attendees and viewers at the 200 simulcast locations in 35 states in the U.S. and Canada where the youth summit was being broadcast.
“I think it’s important to stop and take a minute to look back at how far we’ve come,” said Bono. “But then we’ve got to get back to work — it’s not a cause, it’s an emergency.”
Addressing the emergency is a mammoth task, but one that the church is best suited to take on.
“God gets the most glory when he tackles the biggest problems,” Warren said, addressing the thousands in attendance for the plenary session of global leaders. “The church has the widest distribution in the world.”
After visiting Africa himself, seeing the impact that small, local churches had on sufferers of AIDS, he decided something had to change.
This year, he called for a “reformation of the church.” The goal: to attract one billion people to tackle the five biggest global problems in the next 50 years.
Warren’s ambitious goals for chance are a sign of an important turn around for the church, which through leaders like him, is changing its view of the once stigmatized “gay plague.”
“The face of AIDS used to be a gay, white man,” said Warren. “The face of AIDS today is a black or brown woman.”
Many congregants felt that this was a long time coming.
“This disease went ignored and minimized by the church for the first 20 years after it was discovered,” said Jessica Shea, 19, undecided,who attended the conference as well as the youth summit. “That is inexcusable.”
Hearing stories from Christians living with AIDS, some were shocked at the way members of their faith were treated by other Christians.
“I heard stories at the conference of people being infected by rape or by mother to child transmission and they were kicked out of their churches,” Muchow said. “The church is called to love and accept, not to dissociate and discriminate.”
Acknowledging past mistakes, speakers and churchgoers seemed determined to leave their troubled relationship with the illness in the past and mobilize their faith for good.
“We can’t go back,” Shea said. “We can only learn from our mistakes. There is still a lot of work to be done, and so many local churches are still silent on this issue.”
Over and over again, one verse continued to show up in the talks of speakers and religious leaders. The verse was James 2:20, “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead.”
For the 33 million people around the world with the di-sease, action and compassion are what the church hopes to provide.
“Don’t even pray,” said Warren, echoing the verse from James. “Just go.”