Kay Warren: From Behind the Donut Table to the Front Line for AIDS

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Kay Warren, wife of megapastor and bestselling author Rick Warren, isn’t the typical pastor’s wife. Coming out of years of traditional pastor’s wife work at Saddleback Church, home to some 21,000 attendants each weekend, Warren now finds herself at the forefront of a major evangelical push to fight AIDS and assist those affected, even if it means putting her own life on the line. And she's putting it in writing.

CP: As a pastor’s wife, you’re not doing the typical role that a pastor’s wife plays. What kind of response have you gotten from your church and has that changed over the last three years?

Warren: We’ve been here 26 years and 23 of those years I did just about everything. Over the years since we started Saddleback, I’ve done everything from stand behind the donut table to pass out bulletins to scrub toilets to taking care of the nursery, church secretary, church pianist, women’s ministry director … I’ve done all of those things that pastors’ wives are usually involved in in one way or another. It’s just in the last few years as God has shifted by focus, I’ve been doing probably a little more non-traditional pastor’s wife kind of things.

And so there’s been a little bit of adjustment. Some have adjusted very well, very easily and have been very supportive. Others have scratched their heads, like “What is she doing?” But I think overall, people are receptive.

CP: You said at a press briefing at the Global AIDS Summit that “people are bored talking about HIV.” Could you elaborate on that?

Warren: I think that people are pretty much one of three things: either they don’t know; they don’t care at all; or they’re just tired of talking about it. I know that Rick and I went to a meeting about two years ago with some high-powered media folks and it was a private meeting. We sat around and talked about world events, world happenings, very stimulating conversation. Then Rick sort of lobbed me a softball to talk about what we’re doing with AIDS. And I watched the room full of people, their eyes glaze over. And I said to him as soon as it was over: They don’t care. They just don’t care. They’re bored with it. That was something they talked about in the 80s when it was new, when there was no medication, when they were afraid that the United States was going to be decimated by this illness; they’ve just kind of moved on. There are other things to talk about.

CP: What was the cause of that?

Warren: With the discovery of medication here in the United States that could take AIDS from being a death sentence to a chronic illness, I think we’ve relaxed. We just kind of relaxed and put it in the category of diabetes, hypertension or even cancer. It’s something bad, but you’ve got some good chances you’ll be okay. So I think we’ve just wiped our brow figuratively and said “okay, dodged a big bullet there, what’s next?” And I think that then prevents us from getting the global picture.

It’s blessing to have the medication. I’m so grateful we have it. but in the developed world, I think that has allowed us to then forget about our brothers and sisters who don’t have the same opportunities or access to health care.

CP: The church response to AIDS has been slow, as you had said. So what is it that could break the Church to finally see the seriousness of this epidemic? Do they have to do go all the way to Africa to get it?

Warren: I wish that people could just read the Bible and catch it. I wish that they would just read through the grid of “How does God feel about sick people? How does God feel about those who are weak? How does he feel about the orphan and the widow?” And if you look at it, see, I read the Bible and read those verses, and somehow, I felt that those verses applied to 2,000 years ago. Like “Oh, man, it must’ve been really hard to be alive during that time,” not understanding that the Bible, really, accurately describes the life of billions of people everyday today. So because I wasn’t reading it through those eyes, I didn’t get it.

But if you read it through the eyes of “this may not describe my life,” but “it’s describing the life of billions, not millions, billions of people today alive in my world today,” that’s shocking. I think that’s truly the highest motivation, for people just to find it in the Word and to believe and to accept it and to begin to operate out of obedience based on what they’ve seen in the Word.

Probably for many like me, that didn’t happen. It actually took me, God hit me over the head with a hammer, it felt like, when I suddenly allowed the pain in. I think that’s the other thing. People were really good at changing the channel. If something comes on the TV that looks painful or it’s the suffering or it’s children with little bloated bellies or they show pictures of people climbing over garbage dumps in cities of the world trying to find something to eat, it’s just much easier to flip that channel to whatever football game is playing or the latest episode of your favorite TV show. It’s just so much easier and so much less painful to switch the channels.

So I think going back to the Word to see what the Bible says and then secondly, being willing to embrace pain that’s not your own. That requires unselfishness. And you shouldn’t have to go to Africa or Mexico or anywhere to see that. You ought to just, you and I ought to be able to just with our hearts tender toward the spirit, be willing to embrace another person’s pain. Because the truth is most people won’t be able to go to Africa or Asia or to the brothels of Cambodia. Most people aren’t going to be able to do that. It’s going to have to come from a connection with God and an obedience with Him that does not require an outside experience to make it real.

CP: Franklin Graham said at the Summit that AIDS is a “byproduct of sin.” Can you comment on that?

Warren: I think we had people at the Summit speakers from the very conservative to the more liberal and we said as we started we’re not going to agree with everyone at the Summit. Everything you hear, you’re not going to agree with. And I don’t necessarily agree with that statement. I think it’s not helpful to put people in categories of “well, you’re sick because of sin” and “you’re sick, you’re an innocent victim.” I think that that kind of conversation leads people to categorizing those who are sick. And anymore than if I were to walk down to my local hospital here and walk up and down the wards and peak into rooms and say, “Okay, you’re here because of sin. You ate too many cheeseburgers and that’s why you’re in the hospital with a heart attack.” And then you walk down to the next row and say, “Oh, you were hit by a car. You have my sympathy.”

I think that kind of conversation does not help us as we try to care for people who are sick.

CP: You’re willing to become infected with the virus yourself if that would help progress the AIDS fight. That reminded me of Apostle Paul who said he would become poor for the sake of saving the poor, or a Jew to save the Jews, etc. Is that where you got your inspiration of where did you get your inspiration?

Warren: I’d love to be able to say that was where I got it, but maybe subconsciously I was thinking those kinds of values that you see from Jesus and Paul and the other great men and women of faith in the Bible, but I think there just was within me the knowledge that love is sacrifice, that you can’t really love somebody without in some way sacrificing something. If it’s your time, your money, your energy, your own agenda in a particular moment, to love someone else involves something sacrificial. And that’s just the definition.

So I think as God began to fill my heart with his love for people who are sick, people who were suffering, I have just had an increasing willingness to pay whatever it costs to be his hands and feet and his arms in this world. And I think that actually the pages of history are full of people who have said I will pay whatever price it takes to serve Jesus Christ. And for me, that is just part of serving Jesus – that willingness to lay down my life for him and if that’s what he asks, then that’s what I’ll do.

CP: There’s still a lot of controversy about Pastor Rick Warren having invited Senator Obama to the Summit? I wanted to get your comments on this. How did the invitation happen?

Warren: It was very simple, actually. We were in a hotel room in August at a staff retreat. And I was getting ready and had the TV on and saw that Barack Obama was in Kenya and he had just taken an HIV test as he visited his father’s village in Kenya. And I’m brushing my teeth and I just kind of stopped in my tracks and said, “That is so cool.” An American politician of some renown who’s willing to publicly identify with HIV and people with HIV to take an HIV test publicly to bring awareness to that. I just had not seen any other, ANY other American politician in 25 years that I can think who has done that, and that intrigued me. Because of our beliefs that government has to do something and businesses have to do something, and we really do believe that, then it does require people taking a stand, or people being public, or people even having conversation about HIV. So there was an American politician who spoke about HIV, not just talked about “you should do that, or you should do this,” but there was a politician who took an HIV test. So the invitation truly came about, as I’m brushing my teeth in a hotel room.

And then as we talked to Sam Brownback and knew he very much cares about Darfur, about Sudan for a long time, trafficking, AIDS. Those were things he was already concerned about. Well, we thought we really do want to have a balanced approach. Its’ not about the right, it’s not about the left. It’s really about what can our government do for people with HIV.

It had very innocent beginnings. We’re certainly not trying to be ravel rousers.

When we talked to Sam about coming, and we said last year Rick was tested for HIV and we’d like to do that again. Would you be willing to do that. and very quickly he came back with an “absolutely.” So he was very enthusiastic and very willing to do that same kind of public bringing awareness to the American public about HIV and how simple the tests are.

CP: Pastor Rick has gained great success in this last decade with his church and his book. But it’s you who is actually the main driving force behind this new evangelical movement in the fight against AIDS. So how are you managing all of this and what’s your next step?

Warren: Well, the next step is to follow up with the churches and the pastors and the Christians who came to the Summit, to try to come alongside of them and offer them support, encouragement, resources, help to actually begin HIV ministries in their own churches. I consider that very important to monitor, to evaluate, to follow up with the churches that were there and to learn from them those who are already doing something. We have a website, the HIV caring community. We want to continue to develop that and make that a place for people involved in HIV ministry. We’re hoping to within the next year develop a pastor’s forum or forum for those involved in HIV ministry where they can have a live dialogue. Within our own church, it is to continue to expand our ministry, take care of more and more people in our community who are HIV positive and to support the broader community of Christians who, in particular, came to our summit, and to broaden our website to make it a very effective tool for people to come to.

For me, personally, I’m hoping to go to both China and Russia and perhaps India this year. And I’m writing. I’m writing in January to March. It’s a book on surrender and talking about HIV/AIDS is exhibit A to my own personal journey of surrender.