April 9th, 2011
12:01 AM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Washington (CNN) – They were left for dead in Africa. Gaunt, skin and bones; AIDS patients with hollow eyes. But a month later they are healthy, smiling and brimming with life after a series of pills that costs about 40 cents a day.
Doctors and relief workers call it "The Lazarus Effect," referring to the biblical miracle in the Gospel of John in which Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
It is also the title of a new documentary by director Lance Bangs that shows in vivid detail the radical transformation from near death to full life.
On Sunday, hundreds of churches around the country will be screening clips from Bangs' Lazarus documentary to raise awareness of a medical miracle their congregants can take part in.
The movement is called Lazarus Sunday and is spearheaded by ONE, an advocacy and campaigning group co-founded by Bono that fights against extreme poverty and HIV/AIDS in Africa.
"Churches across the country will be hearing the Lazarus story if they follow the lectionary, said the Rev Adam Phillips, referring to the list of biblical passages arranged in the calendar year many churches follow. Phillips is the faith relations manager at ONE and an ordained minister with the Evangelical Covenant Church.
For years there was a stigma in the church surrounding AIDS, but that has largely faded in the faith community, Phillips said. "I think the church kind of had a wake-up call in the late 1990s early 2000s. The church was really wrestling with what it meant to love our neighbor as ourselves, especially in the global village."
As a result, more and more churches got involved in the fight against AIDS, especially globally, he said. "It has been a sea change when you look at 2002 - 50,000 Africans were on these (antiretroviral) medicines. Through the efforts of President George W. Bush and the support of the faith community, that number is now up to 4 million Africans are on these life saving drugs."
Life for people in Africa before they have access to the medicine is grim.
"There are people who basically look like animated corpses. You can see their bones through their skin, they are listless and their eyes are glazed over. You just feel this great connection and empathy for what they must be feeling," Bangs said. "Once they begin receiving access to this medication, the treatment allows them to regain muscle strength and put on weight."
RED, a sister group to ONE, asked Bangs if he would be willing to document the Lazarus phenomena. Bangs is most widely known for directing the "Jackass" movie franchise, in which he can be seen vomiting on camera and otherwise involved in the Jackass group's off-color antics. But Bangs, who noted that he grew up in a Roman Catholic household, said there was a strong social justice component to the project that appealed to him.
He and his crew made three trips to Africa beginning in May of 2009. "I thought I was kind of prepared for that," he said of witnessing the transformation first hand, but "actually going and over the course of the year seeing what happens to people ... there are people who you wouldn't recognized their facial structure, it's such a radical difference."
The film was produced by RED and first aired on HBO (which is owned by Time Warner, the parent company of CNN).
Over 1,500 churches have signed up to participate in the movement this year and show part of the film.
"For a smaller congregation, it's really nice to be a part of something bigger," said Matt Staniz, the pastor of Temple Lutheran Church in Haverton, Pennsylvania. "We're not a huge group of people but by coming together with people locally and joining up with the ONE campaign ... it gives us a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves."
Staniz said his 250 members will be centering their worship service on themes of responding to the AIDS crisis in Africa.
"We're sort of figuring out our DNA as we go along," said Justin Fung, who is the leadership resident for the District Church in Washington, D.C., a new church plant that is less than a year old. "We definitely want to be focused on our neighborhood, but we also want to be focused on the world as well."
For the hundred or so members of the District Church, the message of Lazarus Sunday has a local resonance.
"D.C. has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the country, so we're very aware of the AIDS problem at home. But we also wanted to keep in perspective the global picture," Fung said. They will be showing clips from the film and then asking members to get involved with ONE and to reach out to their representatives to support sending U.S. tax dollars for foreign aid.
But reaching out to elected officials could be difficult for many of the churches that have signed on. Christian political action is sometimes viewed in churches as something to be avoided.
"We never have petitions in our courtyards against gay marriage or abortion," Ryan Townsend said, a pastor on staff at Northpark Community Church in Fresno, California. Each Sunday, Townsend said, about 700 people attend worship services there. The church, a part of the Assemblies of God denomination, has signed on for Lazarus Sunday.
Townsend said that in 1988 the church took a deliberate step away from politics. But the issue of HIV/AIDS seems to transcend politics at Northpark. "It's not a political agenda. It's a moral command to love our neighbor," he said.
One of Townsend's priorities as pastor has been to reach out to those who are suffering from HIV/AIDS. "For us, we've screened the film before on World AIDS Day," he said. "To be frank, we've had less-than-stellar attendance when we've done a film screening but we've had great participation when we do something in the service."
This Sunday they will detail how far contributions can go and encourage attendees to write or call their members of Congress to encourage them to support legislation and budget priorities that provide foreign aid.
Phillips said he hopes that as churches read the story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John they will see it as he does.
"You see a life transformed, and families reunited and hope springing again," he said. "The Lazarus effect is a modern-day miracle where lives and families are transformed."
He also hopes people in the pews will see the story and raise their voices.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.