My Take: Church is world’s most powerful weapon against AIDS
Rick Warren in Rwanda in 2008.
July 3rd, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: Church is world’s most powerful weapon against AIDS

Editor's Note: Rick Warren is the founder and pastor at Saddleback Church and the author of The Purpose Driven Life.

By Rick Warren, Special to CNN

On June 5, 1981, my wife Kay was late into her second pregnancy, just weeks away from giving birth. Absorbed in caring for our 2-year-old and preparing for a newborn, the farthest thing on our minds was news that day of a cluster of men in Los Angeles with a mysterious, devastating disease.

But what began in Africa and was first observed in this small California group became an epidemic, then swelled to a pandemic - touching lives in every country on every continent

Though late to the fight, in 2003 Kay and I heard God calling us to care for those infected and affected, to raise our voices on their behalf, and to figure out practical ways for local churches to serve them.

Timeline: 30 years of AIDS moments

We traveled to Africa, ground zero for this pandemic, and were brokenhearted by the pain and thrilled by the compassion we observed.

Out of the bubble that is American life, we sat with dying men and women, held newly orphaned babies in our arms, and cried with shattered family members.

In America, we’d heard public leaders, including pastors, make pronouncements about AIDS that implied that those infected were enemies, or at least deserved their illness.

But at the grassroots level we witnessed Christ-followers by the thousands opening their hearts, their homes, their wallets and their churches to fellow human beings in their suffering. Clearly, local churches were at the forefront of this battle in Africa.

Kay Warren folding bandages in Rwanda in 2007.

We returned home determined to model our church’s response to HIV and AIDS after the African church’s response. We began by inviting a member of our church – Saddleback, in Southern California - who was HIV positive to tell his story publicly for the first time.

Our members responded with overwhelming love. And once people realized our church was a safe place, other HIV positive people began attending and opening up about their status. To help remove the stigma, I was publicly tested for HIV with network TV cameras rolling.

We began support groups for anyone infected or affected; trained church members to be part of personalized teams for an infected individual; brought in experts in the field to educate our congregation; and hosted three “Global Summits on AIDS and the Church” to showcase the latest scientific, behavioral and psycho-social aspects of the disease.

We reached out to local, regional, national and international organizations, offering our manpower and networks in the fight against AIDS.

One of the great lessons of this fight is that the single fastest way to mobilize at the grassroots level around the world is through local congregations. Nothing comes close to the size and scope of this pool of compassionate volunteers.

The church has the largest distribution network on the planet. There are more churches in the world than all the Wal-Marts, McDonald’s and Starbucks combined. The church was global 200 years before anyone else thought of globalization. We could take you to thousands of villages around the world where the only institution to speak of is a church.

Plus, the Christian church is the only organization growing faster than the new infection rate: while 7,000 people are newly infected globally every day, and church growth experts estimate that the church is adding 35,000 converts daily in China alone.

These church members have a non-profit motivation to serve. We are commanded by Jesus Christ to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Our church sent 14,869 of our members to all 195 nations in the world to beta-test a local church humanitarian program based on the model of Jesus.

Called the P.E.A.C.E. Plan, volunteers Plant churches that promote reconciliation, Equip servant leaders, Assist the poor, Care for the sick and Educate the next generation.

We’ve learned that any church can provide six essential services in the fight against HIV/AIDS, easily remembered by the acronym CHURCH:

–Care for and support the sick. Caring requires no money, just a willingness to offer compassion and kindness.

–Handle HIV testing. At the least, churches can encourage members to get tested, with the pastor leading the way. Everyone should know their HIV status.

–Unleash volunteers. There will never be enough professionals to fix all that is wrong in our world. The Christian church claims 2.3 billion followers worldwide. If only half could be mobilized to care for those with HIV and AIDS, the fight would look very different

–Remove the stigma. It is not a sin to be sick. Jesus never asked a sick person, “How did you get sick?” He asked, “How can I help you?”

–Champion healthy behavior. HIV is almost completely preventable. While new reports suggest that accessing HIV treatment at an earlier stage of the illness is a vital way to prevent transmission, the cost may be an impediment. Behavior change will continue to be the most effective way to cut down on new infections.

–Help with antiretroviral drugs for HIV patients. The simplest way to cut down on new infections, to help infected individuals live longer, and to prevent children from becoming orphans, is to create accountability with medication compliance. Church volunteers can make daily visits or phone calls, reminding individuals to take their medication.

This strategy has been enormously successful in the Karongi District of the Western Province of Rwanda, where Saddleback Church, the government of Rwanda and local churches established a pilot program to train community health workers.

Started in 2008, more than 2,800 community volunteers have been trained through the churches to take on a caseload of 26,000 homes in the rural district where there is one hospital for 300,000 residents.

These volunteers provide access to basic healthcare information and are addressing preventable and opportunistic diseases – the big killers of those living with the virus. The lives of 120,000 children and 50,000 adults are being positively impacted.

Thirty years have passed since HIV was first recognized. In that time, millions have lost their lives and millions of children have been orphaned. Millions more are living with the virus today.

But if the church and other faith communities will step up to the table, and as governments and other health organizations welcome their assistance, the future can be brighter.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rick Warren.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Africa • Christianity • Church • Health care

soundoff (1,336 Responses)
  1. finance

    Excellent site. Plenty of helpful information here. I am sending it to a few pals ans also sharing in delicious. And naturally, thanks for your effort!

    June 4, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  2. kevin

    I very much appreciate the churches mobilization to help people in need, but this is an appalling display of ignorance. The most powerful weapon against HIV is CLEARLY science, and medical research. The reason that HIV is no longer a death sentence in many parts of the world is because of science, not because of the church. It isn't even CLOSE. Maybe if the church was a chief sponsor of HIV/AIDS research, I would give them significant credit; HOWEVER,I find it profoundly ironic that Rick gives the church credit for the distribution of retro-viral drugs when so many people are infected because of the churches backwards policy on condom usage.

    July 8, 2011 at 3:14 am |
    • R

      "...so many people are infected because of the churches backwards policy on condom usage."

      When you say "the church," I think you mean the Catholic Church. When Rick Warren says "the church" in this article, he is referring to power of a small group of dedicated and faithful people, and the organization of a lot of those little groups all over the world. There's no irony.

      August 11, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  3. derp

    "Church is worlds most powerful weapon against hivaids"

    es of course, the magical sky fairy and his wonder son have proven to be far more effective at preventing aids than those silly condoms.


    July 6, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  4. Sasha

    It's quite simple: regardless of the topic, you have the right to your own opinions, but you do NOT have the right to your own set of facts!!!! The "church" has no right to or business in the affairs of my bedroom!

    July 5, 2011 at 7:55 am |
    • Odessa

      God's opinion counts for every human. The Church educates people just as good schools do. Kids need to learn, whether they like studying or not.

      July 5, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • fred

      This article has nothing to do with the church in your bedroom. The "church" as you like call it is helping hands on in a hard area. What does that have to do with your bedroom? God knows what your doing in there, the church cannot get in your bedroom. We as individuals are held accountable for our actions not the church.

      July 5, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  5. Odessa

    The Church brings to the world the salvation news and everything true, vital, worthy, beautiful, creative, deep, meaningful and strong through the power of God's Spirit.

    July 5, 2011 at 1:55 am |
  6. EdA

    It IS undeniably true that many church members in countries around the world have extended themselves dramatically to help victims of HIV/AIDS.

    It is, however, ALSO undeniably true that through their insistence on "abstinence-only education," and through their insistence on diverting scarce funds from meaningful prevention education, various Christian churches - fundamentalist as well as the Roman Catholic church - have gone out of their way to ensure that more and more people fall victim to AIDS. And this affects Americans as much as it does people in "developing" countries."

    How many innocent wives and girlfriends of straying men have been infected because the Catholic Church has attacked the use of condoms to prevent transmission? And how many teenagers and other men and women have ended up with unrecognized STDs because of abstinence-only disinformation?

    July 4, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
    • dwech

      EdA: well put. The most satisfying 'statistic' to Rick Warren's way of thinking, was the 35,000 converts he claims each day in China. Pity he couldn't lay claim to actually doing something helpful to prevent AIDS - just crying and praying with people. And Rick Warren has made no apologies about abandoning gays...

      July 4, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
  7. Rachel Carper

    Pretty sure modern medicine is a stronger weapon against AIDS

    July 4, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  8. Halbur

    Pope Benedict told Africans that their AIDS epidemic "cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem." Tell me again how the Church is the "world's most powerful weapons against AIDS."

    July 4, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • KeninTexas

      If you'd do a little bit of studying, you'll find the pope is right in discouraging condom use. It has been found that condom use encourages risky s_ex that increases the risks of catching AIDS. Along with his also advocating being married to your spouse and not having multiple partners, the spread of AIDS would just about be stopped. Although there remains the risk with blood transfusions, accidental contact, etc, this would stop the vast majority of transmission.

      July 4, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Popes IsA Jerk

      The popes an idiot. The catholic church is one filth pit anyways.

      Condoms and education shoudl have began a long time ago. THAT makes sense. Of course the popes foolish twisted arguments reach the level of a third grader at best, he makes stuff up. He and the caytholic church have zero concept of humanity. They ought to stick to their voodoo invisible magic, and keep it to themselves.

      All those lives are on his shoulders. Wish the world would put a fence around the vatican and lock them out of the world. What the pope wants is more converts with his nonsese. We need to be acrtive on forums with those countries to help them understand the corruption in the RCC.

      July 4, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • myweightinwords


      Condom use does not encourage risky behavior, and even if it DID, it would still prevent the STDs associated with said risky behavior, because used properly, a condom prevents the transmission of bodily fluids, which is the manner in which STDs spread.

      July 5, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Popes IsA Jerk

      myweightinwords, He won't agree with you. He needs to make up excuses for the pope idiotic statements.

      July 5, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Concerned Reader


      Do you really believe that to be true? Condoms do not promote risky behavior, they do nothing, except block the passage of bodily fluids from one person to another. Here is a link http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1615376/
      II don't know what planet you live on, but here on Earth, a vast majority of the populations has s-e-x with other people, some strangers, some in relationships, and some even cheat and lie to do it. Even if you're married, you can get an STD, so the least a cheating person can do is protect the one they're hurting from catching a disease.I have no idea what the heck you mean by risky s-e-x, because the only thing risky about it to me, is not using a condom. That's like saying don't wear a seat belt because it promotes speeding. And don't give me that "there are other things you can do speech", because you're defending the pope, ie, the Catholic Church, who condemns masturbation.

      July 12, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  9. Reality

    Using Guttmacher Inst-itute data on birth control method failure rates, one is able to calculate the number of unplanned pregnancies resulting from the current use of male condoms. It is an horrific number of 1.2 million/yr. Even perfect use of would result in 138,000 unplanned pregnancies.-------------------------

    (And what is the abortion rate in the USA? ~1,000,000/yr CDC data.)-----–

    And B16 expects male condoms to prevent contracting AIDs?

    Conclusion: currently, a perfect birth control/disease barrier system does not exist. Time to develop one. In the meantime, mono-masturbation or mutual masturbation for heterose-xuals are highly recommended for those at risk. Abstinence is the another best-solution but obviously the se-x drive typically vitiates this option although being biological would it not be able to develop a drug to temporarily eliminate said drive?

    July 4, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Halbur

      That's some real lowlife s*** to say, you're risking people's lives here. What if some unfortunate soul actually believed what you said? Proper condom use has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to greatly reduce the risk of contraction of HIV/AIDS, end of story. I hate when people fabricate facts because of their own insecurities.

      July 4, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Julia

      "...a perfect birth control/disease barrier system does not exist." For you the only acceptable solution is one that is "perfect?" Shaking my head in utter disbelief in what I just read.
      Then it gets even more absurd: "Abstinence is the another best-solution but obviously the se-x drive typically vitiates this option although being biological would it not be able to develop a drug to temporarily eliminate said drive?" How would you propose to force this anti-s-e-x drive pill into these people? Voluntarily taking it would not happen.

      July 4, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • Reality

      From the Gutt-macher Inst-itute:


      Percentage of women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy

      Method........... Typical

      Pill (combined) 8.7

      Tubal ste-rilization 0.7

      Male con-dom 17.4

      Vase-ctomy 0.2

      Periodic abstinence 25.3

      Calendar 9.0

      Ovu-lation Method 3.0

      Sympto-thermal 2.0

      Post-ovulation 1.0

      No method 85.0"

      (Abstinence) 0

      (Mastu-rbation) 0

      The failure of the Pill as noted above results in one million unplanned pregnancies every year because women basically fail to take it once a day as prescribed. Is there a literacy problem that Planned Parenthood fails to recognize?

      The failure of the male con-dom results in another one million unplanned pregnancies every year basically because many men, as per Gutt-macher, fail to use them even though they have them in their pockets or billfolds. Maybe we should have Planned Parenthood in our bedrooms to ensure proper use of their condoms?

      Said failure to use con-doms also results in what would call self-inflicted S-TDs.

      Then there are these additional facts:

      from the CDC-2006

      "Se-xually transmitted diseases (S-TDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psychological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with S-TDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars."

      Conclusion: currently, a perfect birth control/disease-prevention barrier system does not exist. Time to develop one. In the meantime, mono-mas-turbation or mutual mas-turbation for heterose-xuals are highly recommended for those at risk. Abstinence is the another best-solution but obviously the se-x drive typically vitiates this option although being biological would it not be able to develop a drug to temporarily eliminate said drive? And no one to my knowledge forces anyone to take a pill for any reason.

      July 4, 2011 at 11:39 pm |
  10. Tony

    Bane, your problem is not with the HIV/AIDS issue. Your problem is your failure to understand why people love God and want to love and serve others (with various degrees of failure and success, but hey, trying anyhow!). You are content to take the second-storey position that insincere atheists take and and massage your superiority complex. By the way if by free thinking you mean open minded and all that, think of a flag..so free it is blown to whichever direction the wind blows; if open minded, think of the mouth; never open for nothing. It closes whenever something is put in it.

    July 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • bane

      Tony, you are wrong in saying that my issue isnt with aids. It is a large part of it. The perpetuation of ignorance by religious people at the hands of an ancient and outdated book are not only out of control but entirely in the way of the human race making any progress and it is obvious in the way that they handle aids relief. It isnt relief it is perpetuation. Condoms dont just decrease the risk of contracting aids, but it also helps prevent unwanted or uneeded pregnancy. In acountry with little or no infrastructure they are all one issue. Misinformation by the religious sect is shameful. If you pick and chose the pastrs of that great book that suit you in this day then you have just set your own moral base. You didnt need that book to begin with.

      July 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • bane

      by the way that is the most lame analogy i have ever heard put to use for free thinking.

      July 4, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  11. Tony

    Bane...some of the highest STD rates are in the western world where condoms are available for use by anyone (just do some research). Some of the most successful strategies against these diseases involved little or no condom use. Only short sighted people see condom use as the only solution to STD and AIDS infections. People's irresponsibility is the cause of the spread. Most people learn to be responsible by following God's teaching about love for self and for others... a love that, before doing anything pauses to ask "why am I doing this? what will result from this? would I want this done to me?"... One day you will meet such love.

    ...and you are free to curse the Bible as much as you want if it makes you feel better.

    July 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • bane


      The southern tip of South Africa alone has 5 times more aids infected people than the US. Maybe you should do some research. It isn't about herpes and genitals warts. It's about aids! Oddly enough sub-saharan africa is also the most christian. Go figure.

      July 4, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  12. Aurora: New Beginnings


    July 4, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  13. missfigge

    Atheist_Free_Thinker, you're a moron. Not ONE Of Rick Warren's 6 points did he say that they just pray... or that they pray at all with these people. They're doing a heck of a lot more than you've ever done. They are erasing the stigma (If you read the article, you'd see that), and helping these people live as long as they possibly can. If you were TRULY a free thinker, you would be tolerant and would accept people and their beliefs instead of striking them down. I accept you as an atheist. There may be people who would say to you, "You're going to hell because you are an atheist," but Saddleback Church is NOT that kind of Church. That is why it is so popular. Saddleback is not Westboro Baptist, so stop treating every Church that way. If anyone is Westboro, it's YOU, as you are intolerant of other people's beliefs and choose to broadcast to the world exactly how you feel. You are so narrow minded and hypocritical. People like YOU will be the end of mankind.

    July 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • bane

      Tolerant at what cost? We should all stand by while people spread their opinions in poor areas of the world and tell them they are facts. You should be ashamed of yourself.

      July 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  14. Tony

    Can someone please tell me what "atheist-free-thinker' means? What exact does free-thinking mean? I guess it is looking around and declaring anyone that we do not agree with a moron...free thinking indeed!

    July 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • bane

      It means making a desicion based on your own research and facts. Not from what a minister is paid to tell you or brainwash you into feeling. For everyone who "feels" their relationship with jesus I recommend you think about how close you would be to him if you were raised in Tibet, Thailand, or Palestine. You might have a warming in your heart for yet another "god".

      July 4, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Odessa

      Atheists are the brainwashed people by some sci-fi writers. Most nations where Christians are not traditionally the majority have no freedom of conscience.

      July 5, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  15. bane

    Church is the ones preaching against condom use you idiot! How in the hell is that helpful?

    July 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • John Maximer

      That's pretty much only the Catholic church, not most other churches

      July 4, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • bane

      Well regarding their billions of dollars in anti-condom efforts I will lump them all together. Same stupid book. Same stupid effect.

      July 4, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • missfigge

      Do you know ANYTHING about Saddleback Church?

      July 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • bane

      Do you know anything about comparative religious studies? Wake up!

      July 4, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • bane

      I know that he is quoted as equating the effects of Mao and Stalin on atheism, but doesn't want to talk about the catholic church celebrating hitlers birthday or that they preached anti-semitism until 1963. Or that the good ol' god fearing christians had no problem cleansing the infidels during the inquisition or the extermination of the almalakites or the support of slavery or the conflicts in serbia or the conflicts in south america, rwanda, and dafur. All christian conflicts.

      July 4, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
  16. Jeus Is Lord

    Jesus is the answer. He is the ONLY way to the Father in Heaven. Repent, believe and be saved!

    July 4, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • floyd

      Jesus (the proper spelling) has new AIDS drugs? Cool.

      July 4, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • albert f. maas

      If Jesus is the answer how freaking dumb was the question?

      July 4, 2011 at 9:29 pm |
    • Ernest Smith

      What a crock of BS. You radical Catholics and Christians are no better than the radical islamists who take the lives of innocent people. the Church has been responsible for so much wrongdoing and still iditiots like you blindly commit to some higher power? get an education.

      July 5, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  17. Atheist_Free_Thinker

    So what is the moron plan on doing? Hitting people with that fairy tale book called the bible in the hope that he can smash the AIDS out of people? He can't actually believe that 'praying' will get rid of AIDS. Just ask all those amputees that prayed to get their lost limbs back and never did.

    Religion will be the end of mankind.

    July 4, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      For someone who is a "Free Thinker" you show little ability to reason or even to read. Perhaps if you had actually read what Mr. Warren had written, you would see that Christianity's response to crisis is about more than simply praying. He actually suggests HIV testing, improve access to medicine and behavior modification as ways to help.

      July 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • John Maximer

      Dear Atheist Free Thinker, any explanation of reality, including every conceived of atheist one, is "fairy tale". That the bible offers one does not invalidate it. Regarding "healings"- not all people who asked for healing get healed. What's new? That's even alluded to in the New Testament. That some lots have happened is miraculous in itself though- I've seen it with my own eyes. "religion will be the end of mankind". Perhaps, but, if its Christianity you are referring to, didn't Christ come to end with religion? John

      July 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Juanita

      And what are you doing to help?

      July 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Popes IsA Jerk

      Freethinker, yes, they will pray it away..

      If he's going to help,, I sure hopes he keeps his religion in a closet. No need to polute these people.

      July 5, 2011 at 7:25 am |
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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.