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AIDS deaths & orphans beckon pastor to ‘Stand for Africa’

PHILADELPHIA (BP)–In the United States, the AIDS death rate is down, and the quality and length of life for AIDS/HIV patients is up. Many Americans have been lulled into complacency about the disease, various reports indicate.

It’s a different story in Africa.

According to statistics from the United Nations, nearly 29 million people in Africa have died from AIDS-related causes since 1981, when the disease was first recognized, compared to about 501,000 people in the United States -– including about 3.1 million deaths in Africa in 2004 versus 15,000 in the States.

And while no figures seem to be available for the number of American children orphaned by AIDS, in Africa, it’s at least 13 million and is expected to rise to perhaps 40 million by 2010.

“It’s an epidemic of cataclysmic proportions,” said Herb Lusk, pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, where about 2,000 people attend Sunday morning worship.

Too many children in Africa are growing up without parents, education, direction, moral constraints or love, Lusk said.

“This is a continent in so much trouble they’re losing the battle,” Lusk said. “I talked with a scientist in Africa and those are his words: ‘Africa is losing the battle.’”

Lusk has channeled his passionate convictions into Stand for Africa, a movement he began two years ago that now is spreading across the nation.

His vision is that an ever-widening circle of evangelical Christians in the United States will provide resources for evangelical Christians in Africa who are already doing what they can to make a difference. A video and other information about the Stand for Africa initiative can be obtained at www.standforafrica.org.

When Lusk first became aware of the number of AIDS orphans in Africa, in 2003, he led Greater Exodus to give $250,000 to reputable churches in Africa with ongoing ministries to AIDS orphans.

“We think the African people have the solutions to their own problems,” Lusk said. “If you can find an African working hard -– committed to their country and their people -– that person is a better investment than anything you could transport over there from America….

“There are so many needs,” Lusk noted. “You can’t stop with just providing orphanages or medical facilities. Some of the resources have to go for drilling wells. I saw kids dipping ladles in mud holes to get something to drink.”

Clean water, shelter, food, medicine, education, moral direction, spiritual guidance -– it’s “a huge task, a God-sized task,” Lusk acknowledged.

“I don’t think it’s possible to turn it around without the church coming together,” he continued. “It’s going to take the whole church, all of us, and if we come together across denominational lines and color and race and creed lines and reach critical mass, I think it can be our salvation.

“The thing that frightens me the most,” said Lusk, a former running back for the Philadelphia Eagles, “is not what is going on in Africa, as bad as it is. It’s what will happen if the American church doesn’t respond.”

World Aids Day is Dec. 1. Less than a month after last year’s awareness-building events, a horrific tsunami in Asia diverted people’s attention. In the months since, there have been devastating hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, mudslides, terrorist attacks across the globe and ongoing strife in the Middle East.

All the while, though, the AIDS-related death rate in Africa has continued to mount.

“It’s like a tsunami of death rolling over Africa every six months –- 7,000 people a day die from AIDS in Africa,” Lusk said. “Too often what happens is that Africa gets pushed aside because these other horrific things come up.” But, he said, “We can’t do that anymore. We’re committed to not lay down our fervor or commitment to Africa.”

Stand for Africa has raised more than $350,000 since November 2003 –- in fundraising and awareness-building that goes on “24/7,” Lusk said.

Lusk has a reputation for successfully tackling big projects. When he was called as pastor of the downtown Greater Exodus Baptist Church in 1982, he had a 17-member congregation and a $1 million debt.

He led the congregation to pay off that debt and $3.5 million more in renovations, and in 1989 established People For People as the community development outreach arm of the church.

People For People includes a charter school, banquet facility, Welfare-to Work transition program, a $7.5 million investment in computerized office skills training programs, a state-of-the-art youth entertainment center, an after-school program, small business development, community banking and finance, summer reading and banking programs, an early childhood development center and a credit union. Its next project: a moderate-density affordable housing initiative.

Lusk also is chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Healthy Marriage Coalition and a faith-based initiatives adviser to George W. Bush. The president visited the church in June 2004 to deliver a major address on U.S. initiatives to combat the global AIDS/HIV crisis.

“Herb is a social entrepreneur who can make things happen,” Bush told the audience at Greater Exodus Baptist Church. “He believes, as I do, in the power of faith to touch every heart and to change every life…. Herb Lusk is a general in the army of compassion.”

Reflecting back on his time with the Philadelphia Eagles, Lusk said, “The discipline that it took to become a professional football player is very similar to the discipline it takes to build a successful ministry in inner-city Philadelphia. It requires that kind of intensity, that kind of detail.”

He’s carrying that intensity to other cities where people are catching a vision for Stand for Africa, such as Indianapolis, where he recently spoke to 400 people who are planning a rally next fall similar to the recent Philadelphia rally that raised more than $100,000 for African orphans. New York City is in the early stages of a plan, as are Baltimore, Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles.

“Pastor Herb Lusk is a dynamic, determined, compassionate focused champion of the cause for the least and the lost,” said Gary Frost, director of missions for the Metro New York Baptist Association. “He’s a man of action. A lot of preachers talk about the HIV/AIDS cause, but Herb has sacrificially taken action to make a difference.”

Pressing toward a time when evangelical Christians everywhere will catch a vision for the benefit of working together to help African orphans, Lusk acknowledged, “What we’re doing is just a drop in the bucket.

“But the more drops we get, the quicker we can fill the bucket.”