The church lady has HIV. After 12 years of painful silence, Kathi Winter is no longer afraid to let people know that her body carries the deadly virus that causes AIDS.
She's white, middle-aged, and a faithful churchgoer. She admits to looking a bit like the famed church lady, played by funny man Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live years ago. Winter doesn't fit the old stereotype that only gays, prostitutes, and drug abusers are at risk for HIV.
This week, Winter disclosed her HIV-positive status in a short video clip during the Disturbing Voices conference at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. As the video clip played on five jumbo TV screens before 1,690 mostly evangelical leaders, Winter sat in the audience fighting back the tears. She lost the fight, but Kay Warren, wife of Saddleback pastor Rick Warren, sat nearby. Afterward, they both admitted to reporters that they were "bawling their eyes out" as the video rolled.
Now in its third decade, AIDS has shown many faces. In 2005, its face increasingly is female. More than 50 percent of all people living with HIV worldwide are women. In addition, women without HIV carry a huge share of the burden in caring for family members living with HIV and for orphaned children who have lost parents due to the virus.
Tragically for Winter, the evangelical man who led her to new life in Christ also infected her with the virus. In the early 1990s, Winter had been in a relationship with the man, who became quite sick and was diagnosed with HIV. Winter knew she had to get tested. But her physician refused to administer an HIV test, since she did not fit the typical profile for someone at high risk for exposure to the virus. After testing positive, Winter said, "I went into a hole and I begged God to love me." As she fought for her life against HIV, she couldn't find a church or small group openly willing to accept her or anyone else with the virus.
About one year ago, she joined Saddleback Church, which has put new emphasis on HIV/AIDS ministry since 2003. Today, Saddleback is among the very few and quite possibly the only evangelical church in North America with a pastor focused full-time on HIV/AIDS outreach. Saddleback's new focus on HIV/AIDS began after Kay Warren read a newsmagazine article about AIDS orphans in Africa. Later, Warren himself was drawn into HIV/AIDS outreach after traveling with his wife to sub-Saharan Africa, which has the world's greatest concentration of people with HIV/AIDS.
At the Disturbing Voices conference, leaders from 37 states and 17 nations met for two days prior to participating in events linked to the annual World AIDS Day on December 1. Kay Warren said, "My intention for the conference was to be a wake-up call and a kick in the butt."
During World AIDS day, Warren was publicly given an HIV cheek-swab test at Saddleback. Such tests provide results in about 20 minutes. (He tested negative.) They detect antibodies to HIV-1 and HIV-2, the most common forms of the virus. They do not detect the virus itself. During the conference, more than 200 other people were administered the test at Saddleback for free.
Warren, speaking about the need for new local church engagement with HIV/AIDS outreach, said to the crowd, "Pastors, you cannot delegate this one to your staff. You take the lead. God is looking for someone to use. God is not looking for your ability, but for your availability."
The conference drew a broad cross-section of seasoned activists, volunteers, churchgoers, government officials, and megachurch pastors, including Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Kirbyjon Caldwell from Windsor Village United Methodist in Houston, and Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.
"Every local church should be engaged in the war against AIDS," Hybels said. "Some day, it will become normal." Like the Warrens, Hybels acknowledged that he didn't prioritize the HIV/AIDS pandemic until recently. His wife, Lynne, author of Nice Girls Don't Change the World, was also ahead of her husband on HIV/AIDS activism.
'Our Leadership's Dead'
Even ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) showed up at the event, but not to protest. David Miller, a member of the ACT UP's New York chapter, told Christianity Today that he met Warren for the first time in October at the Time Global Health Conference in New York City.
Miller said he told Warren, "Look, AIDS activists got big problems with the church." ACT UP is infamous for its aggressive civil disobedience campaigns to draw attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis. At times staging protests during church worship services, ACT UP has sharply criticized church leaders who oppose condom distribution as a means to stop the spread of HIV.
Miller, who is HIV positive, told CT his organization today is a shadow of its former self due to AIDS fatalities by the thousands among its supporters. "We were the front line," Miller said. "We were the storm troopers in this fight. We're sick. We're tired. Martin Luther King changed the course of the civil-rights movement. He was a pastor. We took our ideas from Dr. King's work.
"Our leadership's dead. Rick is stepping up, and he could be the next leader in the AIDS crisis. He's the best chance we got at this point. Kay could be the next leader. They've got a lot of work to do. I'm starting to trust them. For me to trust someone from their side of the house, it's taking a lot. But a lot's being given."
Speaking about the conference attendees, many of whom came from prosperous Orange County, Miller said, "I've never seen this many people who are HIV negative listening and talking about AIDS. If [Warren] can do that, that changes the possibilities. Right now, we need to change the possibilities because we're losing." The number of people with HIV has increased yearly for more than 20 years. The global total now exceeds 40 million and may be as high as 80 million.
Many evangelicals are finding new potential for activism is a less-judgmental approach toward homosexuality and condom use. There's new emphasis on both compassionate care for people with HIV/AIDS and also strong endorsement of the so-called A-B-C model (abstain, be faithful, or use a condom.) "It isn't a sin to be sick," Warren said.
Many conference speakers stayed on message that condom use is okay for married couples when one spouse is HIV positive and also permissible for high-risk groups. None of the speakers endorsed the condoms-driven strategy that nations such as Thailand have followed. New field research is further eroding the belief that new HIV infections can most effectively be prevented by making condoms widely available at low cost. Edward Greene, a leading researcher on HIV/AIDS in Uganda, told CT that increased condom use is strongly correlated worldwide with increased rates of HIV infection. He said secular aid agencies typically refuse to fund abstinence and fidelity programs, cornerstone efforts by Christians. But less than 10 percent of people use condoms correctly and consistently in many parts of Africa with high rates of HIV infection, according to his analysis.
Martin Ssempa, a university pastor from Kampala, Uganda, told attendees that abstinence needs to be "de-stigmatized." Martin has become highly controversial for his role in publicly burning defective condoms. Millions of poor-quality condoms were exported into Uganda with donor funds. To prevent their distribution nationwide, they needed to be destroyed.
Ssempa hopes Christians worldwide will hold "Abstinence Pride" marches in coming years so parents can lend public support to their children who have signed pledges to be sexually abstinent until marriage.
'Leprosy of the 21st Century'
On Wednesday, Warren, an inveterate lover of mnemonic devices, unveiled two new ones: CHURCH (a means for local church involvement) and AIDS (a list of harmful attitudes). They join his growing signature collection of ministry acronyms and acrostics.
He uses the CHURCH to embody how Christians should engage in HIV/AIDS outreach through local churches: Care and comfort. Handle testing and counseling. Unleash a volunteer force of compassion. Remove the stigma. Champion healthy behavior. Help with nutrition and medication.
He said the Gospels tell of how Jesus cared for the sick and despised: "He hung out with lepers. Jesus modeled compassion. AIDS is the leprosy of the 21st century."
Warren called HIV an "evil virus" that gives rise to four "evil attitudes," including: Avoidance of HIV/AIDS discussion. Intolerance of people with the virus. Distancing one's self from HIV/AIDS outreach. Superstition concerning the fear of the disease.
Warren advised church leaders to be known for what they support not what they oppose. "Don't just say abstain. I'm for great sex among married people."
For Kathi Winter, Saddleback's leadership on HIV/AIDS has emboldened her own efforts to advocate for change in churches. "HIV is absolutely not a respecter of persons. Look at me. I look like you." Winter has created a new outreach, called B.E. HIV Ministries (Believing Education for HIV), to help Christian leaders devise new ways to reach out to ordinary people who are living with HIV/AIDSand looking for a healthy church.
"The church is changing," Winter said.
Nationally, evangelicals took part in World AIDS Day in significant numbers. Austin Gutwein, an 11-year-old youth in suburban Phoenix, enlisted about 1,000 children to "shoot hoops for hope." By shooting 1,000 free throws, they will raise money to be used through World Vision to care for HIV/AIDS orphans.
On more than 35 campuses of Christian colleges, students held rallies and fanned out into their communities to provide care for people living with HIV/AIDS.
Timothy C. Morgan is deputy managing editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today earlier this year chronicled Warren's efforts to combat AIDS and other ills in Rwanda.
Other news coverage of the Disturbing Voices coverage includes:
'Purpose Driven Life' author takes on AIDS fight | Influential pastor says evangelicals need to do more (World News Tonight, ABC)
Saddleback makes AIDS a mission | Lake Forest church rallies smaller congregations long silent on the disease (Los Angeles Times)
O.C. steps up for AIDS Day | Saddleback Church conference on AIDS wins praise from those who took part (The Orange County Register)
Suburban pastor sees devastation of AIDS in Africa | "Some have criticized evangelical megachurches for all but ignoring AIDS in America. That's why Willow Creek co-sponsored a California conference of 2,000 pastors on how to best battle AIDS here at home (WBBM, Chicago)
Fighting to halt AIDS | Evangelism joins the cause with nearly 1,700 church leaders gathering at Saddleback Church for a faith-based drive (The Orange County Register)
Evangelicals venture into AIDS activism | Nearly 2,000 pastors have traveled to Orange County's Saddleback Church for a national conference that coincides with World AIDS Day on Thursday. On the agenda: How to start local AIDS ministries and free HIV testing in churches (Associated Press)
Earlier Christianity Today articles on AIDS include:
Raising the Compassion Bar | How 575 suburban teens underwrote a medical clinic, schoolhouse, and a year's supply of food for a village in Zambiawith money to spare (Aug. 10, 2005)
Jesus at G8 | Christian advocacy for Africa gains notice at top meetings (Jul. 6, 2005)
Why We're Losing the War Against HIV/AIDS | Harvard's Edward C. Green says health officials undermine abstinence and fidelity programs in Africa (Mar. 7, 2005)
The Church Awakens | Christians make AIDS fight a high priority (Dec. 14, 2004)
Q&A: Deborah Dortzbach | The international director of HIV/AIDS programs at World Relief talks on our progress, and regress, with AIDS. (Aug. 16, 2004)
Cry, the Beloved Continent | Don't let AIDS steal African children's future. (March 04, 2004)
Confronting Moral Horror | It's a witness even the most jaded find impressive. (Feb. 04, 2004)
As Complicated as ABC | Condoms and abstinence can both play a role in AIDS prevention. (Feb. 04, 2004)
Beyond Condoms | To alleviate AIDS, we must sharpen our moral vision. (June 10, 2003)
A Strategy for Progress | Unless prevention of HIV/AIDS becomes a clear priority, things are only going to get worse. (May 2, 2003)
Civics for Gay Activists | We may see more die from HIV/AIDS because gay activists are intolerant. (April 10, 2003)
ABC vs. HIV | Christians back abstinence-fidelity plan against deadly virus. (March 10, 2003)
Jerry Thacker: Politics Muddies Fight Against AIDS | The politics of homosexuality has made it easier to battle the disease in foreign countries than domestically, says a former nominee to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS. (Feb. 07, 2003)
Bono's American Prayer | The world's biggest rock star tours the heartland, talking more openly about his faith as he recruits Christians in the fight against AIDS in Africa. (Feb. 21, 2003)
Killing a Pandemic | The church may be best equipped to deal HIV/AIDS a crippling blow. (Nov. 18, 2002)
AIDS 'Apathy' Campaign Debuts | Yet Christian leaders say stigma, not neglect, is the bigger problem. (Aug. 28, 2002)
U.S. Blacks Preach Abstinence Gospel | Mission workers testify that Christ helps control sexual urges. (March 27, 2002)
Mercy Impaired | Let's shock the world by reversing our apathy toward African sufferers. (September 27, 2001)
Kenyan President Suggests Hanging for 'Knowingly' Infecting Others with AIDS | Church organizations criticize use of capital punishment as solution to epidemic. (July 19, 2001)
Dying Alone | Baptist women seek out and care for ashamed, abandoned AIDS patients. (June 15, 2001)
Few to Receive Generic AIDS Medicines | Pharmaceutical companies drop suit against South Africa, but problems remain. (May 18, 2001)
Zambia's Churches Win Fight Against Anti-AIDS Ads | Church leaders are concerned that condom promotion encourages promiscuity. (Jan. 12, 2001)
Mandela, De Klerk, and Tutu Join to Fight AIDS | South Africa's men of peace call for end of silence and stigmatization. (Dec. 14, 2000)
Speaking with Action Against AIDS | A report from the Thirteenth International AIDS Conference. (July 19, 2000)
'Have We Become Too Busy With Death?' | As 4,900 people die each day from AIDS, African Christians are faced with the question. (Feb. 4, 2000)
'Sexual Revolution' Speeds Spread of HIV Among Africans | An interview with World Relief's Debbie Dortzbach. (Feb. 4, 2000)
Books & Culture Corner: An Open Letter to the U. S. Black Religious, Intellectual, and Political Leadership Regarding AIDS and the Sexual Holocaust in Africa (Jan. 24, 2000)