Rick Warren, PEPFAR, and Me

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs has scheduled a markup hearing on February 14th at 9:30 am for Chairman Lantos’ bill reauthorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Members of the committee, who are content with the current policies – including the requirement that 1/3rd of our HIV prevention funding to be spent on abstinence-until-marriage programs – hosted a press conference yesterday on the steps of the Cannon House Office Building. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and minister of Saddleback Church in Southern California, flew into DC and spoke at the press conference.

Pastor Warren has been one of the few evangelicals to actively work to end the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. With HIV/AIDS being stigmatized for so long, Pastor Warren’s leadership on this issue has been crucial to opening up the minds and hearts of so many Americans to the suffering this pandemic causes. For three years he has held a Global Summit on AIDS at his church. In 2007 he invited six leading presidential candidates to participate, and Senator Clinton accepted.

Because HIV/AIDS and sexuality can not be separated, Sen. Clinton’s participation resulted in a lot of criticism from pro-life activists who are highly critical of her pro-choice and pro-comprehensive prevention beliefs. Pastor Warren responded by saying, “When millions are dying each year, we’re interested in lives, not labels. We want everyone to become concerned about the AIDS pandemic.”

At yesterday’s press conference, Pastor Warren praised Congress and the current administration for the last five years of unprecedented commitment to ending the spread of HIV/AIDS. He called out for an even broader commitment in the reauthorization of PEPFAR. His message was in the middle of the aisle.

His remarks were preceded and followed by Republicans on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who claimed that Chairman Lantos’ draft PEPFAR reauthorization bill had been “hijacked by the radical abortion lobby.” [listen to their remarks here]

While I was not officially invited to join the press conference, I made my way down to the Hill and sauntered up behind Representative Pitts (who originally inserted the abstinence earmark into PEPFAR), Pastor Warren and others as they shared their views on how to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS. As I stood behind those prominent speakers holding a sign that read, “Prevention based on evidence, not ideology,” I was struck by how often they accused our movement to remove the abstinence-until-marriage earmark of being fueled by our own ideology.

To back up our ideology, we have reports from the Government Accountability Office and the Institute of Medicine showing that abstinence-until-marriage programs do not change behavior and do not stop the spread of HIV.

To back up their ideology they have the truthiness that if you tell somebody not to have sex and they do not have sex they probably will not contract HIV.

Along with hundreds of committed activists, I have worked for years to remove the abstinence earmark and open the doors to prevention programs that provide women and youth with accurate information that could save their lives. I am hopeful that Congress will soon reauthorize PEPFAR and remove the earmark and I plan on standing strong (with signs in hand) until this comes to be.

Feeling compelled to find our common ground, I walked up to Pastor Warren after the press conference, still holding my sign, and thanked him for his work to end HIV/AIDS. He smiled and gave me a hug.

With Pastor Warren standing next to Rep. Pitts yesterday and Sen. Clinton two months ago, I suspect that we share one of my deepest convictions: In my journey towards justice, I am convinced that it does not matter which person of power I am standing next to, as long as I am always standing with those millions who are dying each year.

Have We Won Yet?

My original intention was to name this blog post, We Have Won The War: Now, Let’s Finish The Job. But I know it is dangerous to be declaring “Mission Accomplished” too soon. And what I really mean is this: the anti-war movement has done an amazing job. And we might as well call this one a success.

But…wait! What do I mean by calling the movement a success? The war is still raging. Troops are still on the ground. The budget for the battles is skyrocketing. The death toll is high. And there is no end in sight. How could it be that we have succeeded?

And you are right on all those points. Time wise, we have put our troops in harm’s way somewhere between the active combat eras of World War II and Viet Nam. We still have troops in Korea, stationed on the Demilitarized Zone—that place between North and South Korea where American Troops keep patrol, fifty years later. Talk of another “Surge” strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is frightening because, just like Korea, there seems to be no way out.

People turn to me and ask: What is wrong with Your generation? Why aren’t they out in the streets like Viet Nam?

Massive rallies and protests like we saw in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s are important and crucial tactics necessary to the success of a movement. But they are not the movement. Being wed to a tactic is counterintuitive and counterproductive to the growth of a movement. Without lobbying, creating new alternatives for social structures and international relations, gathering research and support, or working with changing landscapes, a movement will become mired in a crisis mode. No sustainable growth can come out of that.

Being stuck in one strategy creates room for dangerous tactics. Movements begin to find themselves panicking with the fear that nothing is happening. That the cause is dying and that we need one last radical—and often violent—grasp at success. But destructive tactics often alienate and burn out people who are loyal to the movement, thus causing more harm than good. Power holders know this and know how to capitalize on opponents’ radical tactics to help discredit the people’s movement.

While it is extremely important to keep focused on all our goals, ignoring our success in this struggle is deadly for the success of the movement. People’s movements take time. They work to create the small changes that make up the big changes. We cannot expect a few protests and rallies to change things overnight. As Mr. Rogers once said, “All things that are worthwhile surely do take a while.”

What if a five-year-old just completes Hop on Pop by herself for the first time? Do you hand her Proust next? What if your seven-year-old takes the training wheels off his bike? Do you send him to the Tour Du France? Sustainable social change takes time.

Rather, at this time when it looks like movement is coming to an end, we must reject nihilistic strategies and count our successes. Giving up due to an apparent “failure” will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. But counting our successes gives us the spiritual recharge necessary to counteract the feelings of burnout.

So what exactly have we done in less than five years? The successes are many. They include but are not limited to:

Participation rates of national protests may have slipped but local, grassroots efforts have increased. Organizations like Iraq Veterans Against War, Women Against Military Madness, and Military Families Speak Out have started. And older organizations like War Resistors League, American Friends Service Committee, and The School of Americas Watch have all seen increased participation. All of these organizations are working hard to create sustainable, lasting social change. This war has left an extremely bitter taste in our mouths. Real change to prevent future wars is done by institutions and individuals utilizing a plethora of techniques and tactics.

Do not be disappointed by the lack of success the movement has seen. Be proud of all the things we have done! As a movement, we have repeatedly countered the tactics of the power holders. We have stood up for real American values. We have put pressure on our government to end this war and bring every one home safely. And while there is much to do, so much has already been completed. Be proud of your anti-war movement; have faith in it.

World AIDS Day 2007: Truth Telling

Last Saturday marked my second World AIDS Day with the UUA. Last year, Rev. William G. Sinkford, President of the UUA, came to DC and we held a “For Whom the Bell Tolls, Resounding Vigil”, he also spoke at a UNAIDS event, and conducted a couple of lobby visits. This year, Rev. Sinkford met with the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator (OGAC), rallied outside of OGAC, and spoke at a Rally in front of the White House.

Both this year and last, Rev. Sinkford has come to D.C. and taken every opportunity presented to him to practice truth telling. He speaks with conviction about our moral obligation to confront the spread of HIV/AIDS with honesty and with sound science. His unwavering support for using evidence-based, comprehensive information about sexuality to save lives is crucially important when confronting a political establishment too easily swayed by ideological insistence on the use of ineffective abstinence-until-marriage programs.

While Unitarian Universalism has never purported to have the “truth”, we are committed to use our best reasoning abilities to help us sort through the mysteries of life. We do not rely on revelation to find our truth. World AIDS Day is a day when an undesirable and downright shameful truth must be told: so many are suffering needlessly. My work has been driven by the truth that HIV/AIDS is 100% preventable. My work has been targeted at the truth that the United States’ steps towards preventing HIV/AIDS have fallen far short of that truth.

It has been an honor to work for the UUA and to see Rev. Sinkford lead this journey towards truth. While there are many religious advocates for health care workers, health infrastructure, and anti-retroviral drugs, few have tackled the complexities of sexuality and spoken the truth as Rev. Sinkford has. Hopefully this courageous moral leadership will inspire others to passionately confront the reality that abstinence-until-marriage programs fail to protect vulnerable people around the world, and they bring us no closer to the end of HIV/AIDS.

Next year the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is due for reauthorization. The UUA Washington Office for Advocacy will be working to ensure that the harmful abstinence-until-marriage funding restrictions currently attached to PEPFAR will be removed. Please join us in advocating for this crucial change in U.S. policy.