From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Rock star in the pulpit

Date 10 Dec 2002 16:01:25 -0500

Note #7538 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Rock star in the pulpit

Rock star in the pulpit

Bono strives to redeem 'the least of these' from the hell of AIDS

by John Filiatreau

LOUISVILLE - A wildfire in Africa is consuming people at the rate of 6,500 a
day - one every 11 seconds - and the West won't empower firefighters to put
it out because the water bill isn't paid.

That's why a famous singer and his entourage recently made a 10-day
barnstorming trip through the American heartland, yelling, "Fire!" about the
global scourge of AIDS.

"A rock star with a cause," Bono said apologetically Saturday afternoon. "I
wince, myself. ... This is not the cause du jour; please don't describe this
as a cause. It's not a cause, it's an emergency."

Bono, the lead singer of the rock group U2, accompanied by actor/comedian
Chris Tucker and Kentucky-born singer Wynona Judd, among others, stopped at
the Presbyterian Center over the weekend to take advantage of the
serendipitous presence of nearly all the moderators of presbyteries and
synods of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and to deliver the message: "The
thing that's shocking is that nobody is raising the alarm. Can't somebody
shout, 'Fire!'? ... Why are we not hearing about this on the nightly news?  

"Six thousand five-hundred people are dying every day, for the stupidest of
reasons - money," he said. "Two and a half million Africans will die next
year for lack of drugs we take for granted in Europe and America."

Standing at a pulpit in the Presbyterian Center's chapel ("Rock star gets
comfortable in pulpit - could be dangerous"), Bono cited Jesus's words from
Matthew 25:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to
drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me
clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited
me. ... Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my
family, you did it to me.

"Who are 'the least of these?'" he demanded, adding: "Sounds like I'm
preaching to the converted, really. I wish every church was feeling this

Bono had been preceded to the pulpit by several representatives of the
PC(USA) who talked about the denomination's involvement in mission in Africa,
among them Gary Cook, coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program; John
Chapman, coordinator for eastern and southern Africa in the Worldwide
Ministries Division (WMD); Dorothy Hansen, HIV/AIDS project manager in WMD;
and Melanie Hardison, a program assistant for social justice in the National
Ministries Division.

They pointed out that the PC(USA) has been engaged for a long time in efforts
to prevent the "diseases of poverty" - tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS - and
to treat their victims; and has been in the forefront of the Jubilee
movement, which advocates forgiveness of poor countries' debts.

The singer, who often resorts to self-deprecating humor ("I don't have any
letters after my name - I don't even have a name after my name") was careful
to disarm anyone who might be tempted to raise him up as a model Christian. 

"I'm  not a very good advertisement for God," he would later tell a much
larger crowd at Northeast Christian Church. "I don't wear that badge on my

Yet the message he had delivered, to audiences from Nebraska, through Iowa,
Illinois and Indiana to Kentucky, was a distinctly and unapologetically
Christian one.

He said he is determined to "turn around this supertanker of indifference,"
and won't stop until it's done: "I can tell you this: We are not going to

That AIDS was not the only matter at hand was clear from the name of the
tour's sponsoring organization, DATA: Debt. AIDS. Trade. Africa. Among the
most intractable problems related to the AIDS crisis are trade inequities
("The poorest of the poor cannot get their products on American shelves") and
onerous international debt ("African nations spend more than twice as much
for debt repayment as for health care"). 

The Presbyterian Center, where the moderators were meeting for their annual
conference, also was the venue for two private meetings with local AIDS
activists and community leaders on Saturday.

The tour's real headliners were the shocking numbers: 3.5 million Africans
will be infected by HIV next year; 6,500 will die of AIDS; 500,000 babies
will get the virus from their mothers; by 2010 the continent will be home to
25 million AIDS orphans.

Bono made his first trip to Africa in the early 1980s. He said he was
transformed by one experience in particular: "A woman asked me to please take
her child. 'If he stays with me, he will die,' she said, 'If he goes with you
I know he will live.'" 

And he said he will never get over the shock of seeing people in African
refugee camps "queuing up to die, three to a bed." 

Bono and his wife, Ali, have four children.

The singer told reporters that the Midwest was chosen for the Heart of
America Tour because "there's a certain kind of decency here. ... We think
you people have a sense of what's right and wrong."

He clearly was energized by the "sense of moral outrage" he said he'd
inherited from his Irish father: "We can get cold fizzy drinks to the
farthest reaches of Africa," he said, "but we can't get life-saving medicines
to the people who need it - medicines that are very cheap for us to make."

Asked during a press conference whether he thought race was a factor in the
West's indifference about AIDS in Africa, he replied, "If one-third of Paris
was going to die, they'd get the drugs." He added that, if the world is going
to address the AIDS problem effectively, "We have to accept that our brothers
and sisters who live in Africa are equal to us - equal before God's eyes,"
which implies a responsibility to see that they have "equal access to just
some of the world's resources."

It was Bono's celebrity that drew about 1,100 people to Northeast Christian
for the Saturday evening event, but it was a quiet African woman, Agnes
Nyamayarwo, who grabbed their hearts.

"I am from Uganda. I am blessed to be here with you tonight," she began. "I
once had 10 children ... and we were very happy..."

Her family's happiness was shattered when her husband - a migrant worker -
tested HIV-positive, and Agnes couldn't afford the medicines necessary to
keep him alive. "We bought it until we couldn't buy it any more," she said,
"and then we watched him die, without treatment."

She learned that she also was infected. She said she was "one of the lucky
ones" who had access to the anti-retroviral medicines that can keep AIDS in
check. But her youngest child also got AIDS.

"Now I get a very other big problem," she said. "He's innocent, and he got
the HIV from me. It was very difficult to me, but I tried to gain courage,
and I prayed my Lord."

Agnes, who now works as an AIDS educator and activist, concluded: "Now I have
a vision, a dream. And I can see it coming near ... because of the response
of the people. I feel one day my dream will come true - my dream of a world
without AIDS."

The crowd at Northeast Christian also enjoyed a more upbeat experience, a
rollicking singing-and-dancing performance by a group of young Africans, the
Gateway Ambassadors, as well as a closing song - "My American Dream" - from
Bono, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar.

"Let me say this in the house of God," he said near the end of his visit. "If
there is anyone here who wants to pass judgment on a woman like Agnes, and
indeed her husband, then maybe they should leave now. Because God will be the

He had said several times earlier in the day that the gospels contain "2,013
references to the poor, but Jesus mentions judgment only once."

He mentioned it more often himself.

"History will judge our whole age" by our response to the AIDS crisis, he
said, and "our grandchildren will be asking how we let a whole continent
burst into flame."

Bono said multi-billionaire Warren Buffet, who attended one of the tour
events in Nebraska, gave him some advice that he had taken to heart: "Don't
appeal to the conscience of America; appeal to the greatness of America."

Judd, who described herself as "a believer in miracles," was standing in for
her sister, Ashley, who had traveled with Bono for most of the tour. "We're a
very passionate family," she said, "and we want Washington to know that
Kentucky is interested in this. ... When I read the statistics (on AIDS in
Africa), I wept, to think that mothers are watching their children die, when
all it takes to save them is a single shot."

Tucker, who accompanied Bono on one of his recent visits to Africa, said he
is "blessed to be hanging out with someone as cool and smart as him," and
described the trip as "the greatest experience, and the saddest experience,"
of his life. 

"As an African-American, I was shook, to see all those people who reminded me
of my people back home, my nephews and cousins and uncles and brothers," he
said, adding: "I know God is using us, using all of us, to save lives."

Bono and the others on the tour had visited churches, universities, city
halls, factories, union halls and cultural centers in Nebraska, Iowa,
Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, and were to end their trip with two days in
Nashville, TN.

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