(Photo: Saddleback Church / Deb Griffith)
Christians from more than 1,500 churches across the United States will join in prayer for eradicating HIV/AIDS, particularly in Africa, on Sunday.
The movement is being spearheaded by ONE, an organization engaged in global grassroots advocacy and campaigning to fight extreme poverty and preventable diseases in developing nations. Notably, one of the founders of ONE campaign includes Bono from the popular Irish rock band U2.
Lazarus Sunday, as the event is dubbed, is held on April 10 to raise awareness for both the disease and the Lazarus Effect. The Lazarus Effect is a term used by medical professionals and government officials to refer to the condition that HIV/AIDS sufferers experience after receiving inexpensive anti-retroviral (ARV) treatments that cost about 40 cents a day and produce results within 40 days.
Though the treatment is not a cure, it does reverse symptoms in HIV/AIDS victims and improves their quality of life. Doctors and relief workers describe this phenomenon as the Lazarus Effect in reference to the miracle in the Gospel of John where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
"Two ARV pills a day can literally restore life in a dying person," said the Rev . Adam Phillips, ONE's faith relations manager. "In America, HIV/AIDS is a manageable disease because ARVs are readily available and affordable, but to an African who lives on less than $1.25 a day, it can be a tragically different story."
In 2002, only 50,000 people on the continent of Africa had access to ARVs. That number has jumped to nearly 4 million due to investments in programs such as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Former President George W. Bush was instrumental in the creation of PEPFAR , which works with faith-based groups to supply medicine to HIV-infected people mostly in Africa. The U.S. itself has directly supported treatment for more than 3.2 million of these men, women and children.
The initiative is one of many signs indicating changing attitudes among Christians towards HIV/AIDS, which has long been strongly stigmatized by the faith community.
Among the leading churches in caring for those infected with HIV/AIDS is Saddleback Church in Southern California. Kay Warren, executive director of the HIV/AIDS Initiative at Saddleback and wife of Senior Pastor Rick Warren, said the HIV/AIDS pandemic weighs heavily on her daily in a December 2010 video for World AIDS Day.
Since 2005, Saddleback has held an annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church on its campus where thousands of church leaders attend to learn how the church can help in what has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
"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," Phillips said in a Saturday interview on CNN.
A key component to the movement is a 30-minute film produced by RED, sister organization to ONE. The film was directed by Lance Bangs, who is known for directing the Jack movie franchise that has long been criticized by the faith community.
However, Bangs agreed to work on the film due to his Roman Catholic upbringing and the strong social justice message of the project. Bangs and his team made three visits to Africa in May 2009, where he witnessed the transformation ARV pills had on AIDS patients.
"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 on the CNN Belief Blog. "Once they begin receiving access to this medication, the treatment allows them to regain muscle strength and put on weight."
The Lazarus Effect film can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the following link: http://www.youtube.com/joinred
Churches wishing to the join the April 10 event can sign up on the Lazarus Sunday website: http://www.one.org/faith