As the organizer and host of CitiHope’s PACCT program, I offered the following Big Picture perspective on the Global AIDS Pandemic:

AIDS as we know it is 25 years old.

When I was a pastor in San Francisco in the early 1980’s, we began hearing about a strange new form of cancer among gay males in San Francisco and New York City. The medical establishment called it “GRID” (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). By 1984, HIV was identified and the disease became known as AIDS.

Patient Zero was identified and designated by the CDC as the first carrier of the deadly virus in America in 1981 and the disease spread rapidly among the homosexual community. Earlier stands of HIV and related viruses are now believed to have originated in Africa, first in monkeys and then in humans, and the original viruses continue to undergo transmutations as the disease evolves.

In 1983, Malcolm, the first person I knew who was living with AIDS, came to my house church in San Francisco. Born and raised in the Church of the Nazarene, he wanted to reconnect with the church he left because he was gay. I remember church members being afraid of drinking from a common cup at communion for fear of catching the AIDS virus in human saliva. Malcolm thus stayed away from worship services, preferring personal counseling to corporate worship. When he died, his mother and his partner requested that the funeral take place in a Nazarene Church, which it did and served to change many attitudes toward gay persons with AIDS.

In 1986 I performed my first AIDS funeral for an IV drug user. Charles was a homeless street person in the city, and the church I pastored the only place he could call home. I remember claiming his ashes at the city morgue, and burying him in the side yard of our urban house church near Golden Gate Park.

In 1987, one of our Sunday School kids, Joey, at eight years of age, got AIDS from a blood transfusion when he was born. After bringing much joy into our church community, Joey died at 13 years of age. (He was pretty special to me.)

There are many stories behind the statistics of AIDS. By 1988, the number of AIDS cases in America reported to the CDC totaled 55,000. By 1991, a year after I had left my church to become Director of the United Methodist AIDS Project in San Francisco, the cumulative number of AIDS infections in America had reached 270,000—most of whom had or would eventually die. The disease had doubled, and would continue doubling, every 18 months.

Today, 25 years after, we no longer speak of AIDS as a “gay cancer” or an American disease. The AIDS pandemic has spread to every corner of the world. Over 25 million people have lost their lives to the disease and over 40 million people today are living with HIV. While the disease has lost some of its original stigma, AIDS still is interpreted apocalyptically by many as a specific form of divine judgment, especially in Africa.

The face of HIV/AIDS today is that of a young woman, between 15-24, living in sub-Sahara Africa or Asia. Here are the alarming numbers behind the new face:

Of the 40 million people have HIV/AIDS worldwide, 63% of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. 20% of them live in Asia—where new cases of HIV/AIDS are on the rise.

Five people die of AIDS every minute

In the same amount of time, nine more people are infected with HIV

About 25 million people have died of AIDS 1981

The same number who are now infected in sub-Sahara Africa: 25 million!

Half of those living with HIV in Africa are orphaned or abandoned children. The common estimate is about 12 million kids whose lives have been impacted by AIDS.

Malawi is particularly vulnerable to famine and disease, and suffers disproportionately from extreme poverty and AIDS.

Currently, AIDS infects 14% of the population and accounts for over 85,000 deaths per year, leaving 950,000 AIDS –affected orphans.

In addition to AIDS, there are other killers in Malawi: TB, malaria, dysentery and cholera from contaminated water supply contributes to infant mortality and accounts for why 1 out of 5 children die before reaching 5 years of age.

PACCT is surely needed for such a time as this!

PACCT is one of many faith-based responses to the AIDS pandemic in Malawi, and you who are participating this week in this workshop are contributing to the training manual that will be used to mobilize community volunteers to take on the issues around HIV/AIDS in the church and community.

In behalf of CitiHope International, I want to thank you for your commitment to this work, and for participating in this training program.