Last Wednesday evening, while at a Christian College in rural Ohio that I was visiting for the first time, I experienced a surreal sense of déjà vu. Nearly a decade ago now, as a freshman at Wheaton College, I was present for what some would argue was the most exciting event that ever happened to our small evangelical liberal arts school: Bono came to town.
Bono, the lead singer for U2, not only came through Wheaton, Illinois, but he came to the Wheaton College campus. He spoke in Edman Chapel and did something that most of us young evangelical students did not expect from a rock star: he led us in a Bible study. He read Matthew 25—where Christ says that whenever we feed, clothe, welcome, and heal the “least of these,” we do so unto Jesus himself—and told us that “the least of these” meant, amongst others, the millions of children in sub-Saharan Africa who had been orphaned by a pandemic of HIV-AIDS.
Back in 2002, as obvious as it may seem now, it was a radical idea that American Christians should care for those suffering from AIDS. A Barna Research survey of American evangelicals commissioned by World Vision that year found just 3% expressing a desire to help AIDS orphans. Some considered AIDS to be God’s judgment on gay people; many others—myself included—had simply never thought much about AIDS or considered that it had anything to do with their Christian faith.
As Bono spoke in Edman Chapel, though, my heart was stirred. I was convicted: how had I missed the many Scriptural injunctions commanding me to care for the widow and the orphan? How had I allowed a cultural narrative about HIV/AIDS to supplant a biblically-grounded response?
I was not alone: the morning after Bono’s visit to our campus, a few dozen Wheaton students met to figure out how we, as students, could respond. That morning, the Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC) at Wheaton College was born. We were the first evangelical Christian campus to join a national movement. We learned a great deal from our secular peers about how to do political advocacy: over time, we engaged politically in creative ways, carrying cell phones around the cafeteria and asking friends to call their legislators on behalf of funding for global health initiatives, organizing a friendly competition with rival Christian colleges to see which campus could generate more hand-written letters to lawmakers, and setting up a meeting with our local Member of Congress, Henry Hyde, the late, staunchly conservative representative for Illinois’ 6th Congressional District. Our faculty got involved, too: the Political Science Department drafted a letter to Wheaton alumnus Michael Gerson, at that time a key advisor to President Bush, asking him to use his position of influence to advocate for those suffering from AIDS.
Our SGAC chapter went well beyond political advocacy, though, in ways that distinguished us from our secular peers. We formed a team focused specifically and intensively on prayer. Another team focused on educating local churches about the AIDS pandemic. Yet another focused on raising awareness on campus. We even partnered with a local ministry to provide ESL instruction to HIV-positive immigrants in our own community. Eventually, we planned a large conference that attracted more than 300 students from Christian colleges around the country: many returned, energized and inspired, to their campuses and began groups of their own to educate, advocate, pray, and serve.
I do not want to overstate the importance of students in the changes that happened in American evangelicalism as it relates to AIDS; as we were awakening to this issue on Wheaton’s campus, so were many others around the country, including influential evangelical leaders like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, as well as less-famous pastors, teachers, and even “soccer moms” like my friend Shayne Moore. But, as God’s Spirit worked in various places and various believers heeded divine whispers, things did change, rather dramatically. Churches across the country began to focus resources on ministering to those affected by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. I personally felt convicted that, though I doubted he would be interested in listening to a college student, I should raise the question with the pastor of my home church in Wisconsin. They were more than receptive: they ultimately decided to focus a Sunday service on the topic and then raised tens of thousands of dollars to care for AIDS orphans in Zambia.
The shift in evangelical attitudes had a measurable political effect as well: Michael Gerson became the leading voice within the White House to influence President Bush to introduce his President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a $15 billion initiative that, within its first five years, had already saved 1.2 million lives, and which many consider to be the greatest legacy of the Bush Administration; the Republican cosponsor of the legislation in the House of Representatives was Wheaton’s representative, Henry Hyde. Nearly a decade later, evangelicals continue to be strong advocates for global health initiatives, with groups like the National Association of Evangelicals, World Vision, World Relief, and Bono’s ONE Campaign continuing to insist that Congress not neglect care for those suffering from AIDS and other diseases in their worthy quest for fiscal responsibility.
It was because so much developed out of that first meeting in a Wheaton College classroom where our Student Global AIDS Campaign chapter was born that I was filled with anticipation as a similar group gathered last Wednesday evening. My coauthor Jenny and I are certainly not Bono (in fact, we could use a rock star speaking on the immigration issue, actually, if any are reading this), but after our talk on the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger at Cedarville University last week, a few dozen students gathered together in the front of the chapel for an unplanned time of prayer and strategy. Together, we wondered and prayed: how could this generation of students respond to God’s call to care, not just for the orphan and widow, but for the third part of the triad of the vulnerable that we find throughout the Old Testament: the immigrant.
It is too soon to say what will develop from this eager group of students at Cedarville University, but I sense (and pray) that it may be the beginning of another movement of God’s Spirit. Cedarville’s students are already forming a student group and divvying up responsibilities: some will pray, others can extend hospitality to the immigrant agricultural workers in their community, others might educate churches or advocate for legislative change.
If you’re a college student, in particular, I want to challenge you to follow the example of these students at Cedarville and get involved, beginning a similar group on your campus. Our day is perhaps not too unlike the time of Ezekiel: “The people of the land… oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice. I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap” (Ezek 22:29-30). Could you be one of those God is calling to stand in the gap? College is a time of preparation, to be sure, but it’s not too soon to be a part of God’s work, and we should take to heart God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah: “Do not say, ‘I am too young,’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you” (Jer. 1:7). We need a new generation of young people who will boldly respond, like Isaiah, “Here I am. Send me!” (Isa. 6:8).
If you’re ready to go, we at World Relief would love to know about it and to help in any way that we can: email me at [email protected].
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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