April 9th, 2011
12:01 AM ET

Churches tackle AIDS for 'Lazarus Sunday'

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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Africa • Belief • Christianity • Church • Movies • United States

soundoff (232 Responses)
  1. Chynab Cicalesen

    I was studying some of your articles on this internet site and I think this site is rattling informative! Keep posting.

    August 1, 2012 at 1:31 am |
  2. Greg

    I'm sorry but I find this offensive...It's like churches want to hijack the benefits science has brought to the healing of AIDS patients as a miracle of their god. Why didn't their god proclaim in the old testament that Monkey meat was uncl...ean like he said pork was? Any time religion is involved in anything you can be sure they will try take credit and or will create hate or confusion.Science and the minds of men are the hero's here!

    April 16, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  3. Joe Redbear

    You know what? THis is very entertaining. Got one person showing us he knows scriptures of the book. Another speaking of science facts. What about commen sense? And we all came from Africa? Really? A book tell you that? @ capnmike...Like what you said. Someone else said that we are all related, just different skin..... Very true. We all bleed red people. One nation under god. You folks want fact's? Look around you...open your eye's, and stop beleiving everything you read. Just because it is something printed that say's Holy Bible...and someone tell's you this is God's word's? Does'nt mean it's true. We all have a mind of our own.....how and what you choose to beleive is ...your choice. I choose to beleive what is in my heart, and what i see. It's right infront of me, and all around me..... Blessings..... Mitakuye oyasin, We are all Related.

    April 13, 2011 at 6:26 am |


    April 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  5. gregg55

    thought the story was good but 40 cents a day, when right here we have people who can't get those drugs because of a waiting list of more than 7000 people because the goverment didn't put enough in the budget for the drugs. And for the people who say oh well, don't forget if we don't take care of each other don't think HIV won't affect you it will. We have a oppotunityu to make life better for each other but we wont because everyone one wants to play politic's.

    April 11, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  6. David Johnson

    @just a guy

    You asked: "Then why aren't we all black?"

    Dude! We are all pink on the inside! All brothers and sisters!

    Our skin color and features depend on the area of the planet our ancestors inhabited. We develop features that help us survive in our environment. Environment influences the direction evolution will take.

    Read Dawkin's latest book, "Greatest Show On Earth". It is spellbinding.


    April 11, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  7. alex

    I say we let biology work its wonders for Africa. Why should we pay for a dead man to keep living? That's what this is. Shoot them up with some morphine and give them some food and water and tell them "Should of worn a condom you dumb catholic animal."
    Let the Law of the Land take over this mess. Euthanasia would be both economically feasible and humane.

    April 10, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      (12) There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof {are} the ways of death.

      Proverbs 14:12


      April 14, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  8. NormalGuy

    The girl in this picture freaks me out!

    April 10, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  9. Joe Christianson

    How about the fact that it costs thousands of U.S. dollars for this same treatment regimen in the U.S. ? All due to the crappy U.S. healthcare system we have here that is squeezing every last dollar from the middle class.

    April 10, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  10. Thade

    Wherei does the Catholic Church stance on the use of condoms?

    April 10, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  11. Aliesh

    Why is medicine available for 40 cents a day in Africa and you can't even buy a medicine bottle for 40 cents a day in America. Are these drug companies selling the medicine at cost to other countries and ripping off everyone else?

    April 10, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  12. David Jeffrey

    minor edit: "hallow" should be "hollow"

    April 10, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  13. stonedwhitetrash

    Aids can not even slow down the constant over population that's driving the planet earth's humanity to its final demise

    April 10, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Mojo

      so true, yet people are still popping out babies like its a great thing. look at India. they are going to learn the hard way.

      April 10, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  14. JPS

    The racism displayed here is beyond horrific. I am currently on a combination of Combivir and Kaletra. The retail cost of these medications runs at about 2400/month. It is true that pharm companies are making HUGE adjustmens to the pricing of these drugs when being sold and distributed to people here. One has to honestly recognize that they are sure to not be taking a LOSS when shipping anf distributing these meds to Sub Saharan Africa. Whle their contribution to helping these people should not be completely discounted, I find this questionable I do ot expect that pharm comanies do all of their work as "charity" but, I find it offensive that they consistently align themselves with lobgbyists and politicians who are would rather cut funding for programs like ADAP here in the US. George W Bush was one off those politicians. Is this all a great PR stunt on their part? Perhaps. I do know that every month, my insurance says that is "saved" me $2350 for my meds....or was I overcharged by $10?

    April 10, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  15. Kwame

    Africa is not a country but a continent. The writer and producers should stick to which countries they visited.
    There is too much ignorance in this part of the world.

    April 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • indi

      the footage was not of africa but of one country and town in africa... zambia, lusaka. Kwame you are so right.....

      April 10, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  16. robert

    so, the woman in the photograph is simply a prop for the 'blog' ... ? save it for the dr oz show – at least he's obvious about the fact the show is about him and the audience is a prop for his show & demonstrations.

    April 10, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  17. hhindu


    That was the root of all problems on Earth.
    The Creation against the Creator.
    The Creation only wins in terms of PRIDE!
    ...against the HUMBLE Jesus.
    Glory to the King Jesus!

    April 10, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  18. capnmike

    Humans are strange. Why is it necessary to base an act of goodwill on a story that is such an obvious lie?

    April 10, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • David

      So... you're implying that you aren't human? And what's so bad about doing a good deed based on something from the Bible? Religion (unless you use it like the Crusaders, Nazis or terrorists) can actually do some good for people. When they've got nothing left, it's nice to have something to believe in. When you're on your deathbed, we'll see if you stick to your belief that it's all a lie. And no, I'm not a right-wing Christian, I'm just a regular guy.

      April 10, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  19. Cavemen Amongus

    I think Jesus must have had a bunch of those newfangled HIV pills stashed somewhere, because that's really the only way you can raise someone from the almost dead.

    April 10, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  20. hhindu

    Lord Jesus, a lots of blasphemeous words toward You had been recorded here. I beg that You forgive all those blasphemer, may Your light shine upon all of them and the Holy Spirit lead them to Your Truth, In Jesus' holy name I pray; AMEN!

    April 10, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Cavemen Amongus


      April 10, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • STUART

      Amen!! hhindu

      I hope you have read my posts (pages 1 and 3). I am glad we are coming together under god and not having these people change our hearts and minds about our faiths in God. We know when the day comes where we will be spending eternity...

      April 10, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • rjo3491


      April 10, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • Reality

      I would say your bigger issue is your inability to separate your love of Jesus from your appretiation of the church. They're NOT the same. The church regularly deviates from some very Christ-like ideas for its own means...
      I'll quote Ghandi... "I like your Christ. I do not like your christians... your christians are so unlike your Christ"

      April 10, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Watnen

      LOL, Crazy people are funny....

      April 10, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Reality

      The comments from Reality are not from the original Reality. Unfortunately, the blog moderators still have not figured out how to restrict commentators' names to one no matter what the email address is. This is strange because such restrictions are in place on most blogs.

      April 10, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • rahul kalra

      Watch This Full News With VIDEO :–http://bit.ly/fwiyvH

      April 10, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Bogotabye

      Thanx and amen.

      April 10, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Realitycheck

      check page one... I was commenting before you... but to make you feel better I changed the name. I'd hate to step on your internet-toes

      April 10, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.