Sponsored Ethiopian child, Alem (right), 10, and her half-sister Etalem, six, watch over their AIDS-ravaged mother, Tewabed. Two days after this photo was taken, the girls' mother died.
As a recent release of more daunting statistics by the World Health Organization and a United Nations program on HIV/AIDS illustrates, the pandemic continues to thrive, especially among the poorest and most marginalized people in the world. To see the full report, go to www.unaids.org.
Without faith it would be easy to give up or at least remain in blissful denial. As the worldwide numbers of dead top 3 million for yet another year and the number of newly infected grows to nearly 5 million, the ranks of those fighting the pandemic are increasingly coming from churches and religious communities.
Admittedly coming late to the cause, conservative churches are adding AIDS ministries to their outreach programs. Almost every Christian humanitarian group includes an HIV/AIDS component. But even with a growing effort, the story of David and Goliath seems a fitting metaphor for dealing with the now more than 40 million people worldwide living with HIV.
Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, known mostly as the author of The Purpose Driven Life, has been fueled by the passion of his wife, Kay, to mobilize a network of churches as well as some of the people who have read his book. The Warrens have mounted an ambitious program called the PEACE plan (the A is for AIDS) to link churches in the U.S. to churches in developing countries. So far, they are pleased by the response.
But the virus continues its diabolical attack, moving well beyond sub-Saharan Africa and establishing a presence in every country in the world. Its growth in countries like India, China and Russia has health experts warning that the numbers of infected could swell beyond all previous estimates.
And even though it claims more than 8,000 lives each day, HIV/AIDS rarely makes headlines or elicits the kind of interest given to last year's tsunami or the potential threat of bird flu. Those who fight against it are seldom called heroes. Instead, they are largely unsung and often burned out by the relentlessly uphill battle.
And that's why the faith component is so important in this fight. Without it, the odds are simply overwhelming and the payoff is rarely seen. It is a battle too big for an individual or community to undertake, especially knowing that year after year the statistics will paint a bleaker picture and progress will be reported mostly in anecdotes, not numbers. It's a war requiring the kind of people who believe that a humble offering of a few loaves and fishes could somehow feed 5,000.
The Bible says, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Fortunately, for the millions suffering around the world, faith has never been very good with math.