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AIDS workers: USAID starting to see value of abstinence

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In sub-Sahara Africa, more than 6,000 AIDS victims die each day and more than 8,700 new infections occur each month, underscoring the tremendous need to implement effective prevention methods among those who are still healthy.

International Mission Board workers Larry and Sharon Pumpelly believe that despite resistance by government entities and cultures, they are seeing progress in the acceptance of abstinence and faithfulness promotion in the fight against AIDS.

Sharon said government organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development are progressively more open to funding faith-based organizations that promote abstinence over condoms in AIDS prevention.

“There are still people in those organizations who will probably never see that abstinence is a strong viable choice, but there are others who will look at the facts even from their own research and say abstinence is at least one good choice and would be very much in favor of giving support to faith-based organizations,” Sharon told Baptist Press.

The Pumpellys began serving as IMB missionaries in Uganda in the mid-80s when some people were suffering from AIDS but did not know what it was. By the early ’90s, they knew they would have to implement a strong AIDS prevention program because about 30 percent of the sexually active population in Uganda was infected with the deadly disease.

Sharon worked with a team of Ugandans to develop a verbal-based program designed specifically for the local culture to promote abstinence before marriage and then got permission to use the True Love Waits abstinence program name in Uganda.

By the turn of the 21st century, the AIDS rate in Uganda had dropped to just 6 percent.


Despite a general disagreement between faith-based groups and government-based agencies over whether abstinence or condoms are more responsible for the drop, the Baptist AIDS Response Agency — a branch of the Kenya Baptist Convention — is receiving funding from the U.S. government and working closely with USAID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

BARA has set up voluntary counseling and testing centers in Baptist churches where members of the congregations serve as counselors to people at risk for AIDS, Sharon said.

“I think you will still have outspoken people who will just say we probably shouldn’t go that direction, but I think it’s much different than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” she said.

The effort to change mindsets about preventing AIDS is broader than government organizations, Sharon noted. Most Africans simply don’t believe it’s possible for a person to wait until marriage to have sex, and many Americans share that view as well.

“When you have a culture — American or African — that tells you it’s impossible, you look for a response based on the fact that you think it’s impossible,” she said, referring to why so much focus is on condoms.

Larry, now the IMB’s Richmond, Va., associate for Central, Eastern and Southern Africa, said believing abstinence is possible requires a certain amount of faith that many people have not yet acquired. USAID generally has tended to focus more on condoms and has been reluctant to promote abstinence and faithfulness because they haven’t utilized the faith to believe it can work, he said.

“They just don’t believe that a young man or a young woman can go from being an adolescent to married and be abstinent. So they just say, ‘That’s impossible, so we’ve got to preach condoms,'” he said.

“[We’re] dealing with a fallen world and a bunch of people that don’t believe faith really has anything to do with life. And see, Africans do,” he added. “For Africans, the spiritual side of things has everything to do with life. Whether they’re Christians or they’re still dealing with their traditional religions, the spirit world affects everything that they do. If it’s a sore toe or a bad crop or infertility in marriage, it all has to do with something spiritual for them. And America doesn’t know how to deal with that in other cultures. They’re just too scientific for their own good.”


Sharon told of training a group of Massai pastors on how to take True Love Waits back to their people who typically don’t limit sex to marriage.

“I asked, ‘Do you think it’s possible for a boy with God’s help to grow up and not have sex with anyone until he has sex with his wife in marriage?’ That room was quieter than the proverbial pin drop,” she said. “Eventually this old man got up and answered in his native tongue, ‘If he did, everyone would know he’s a Christian.’

“I really believe we’re missing an incredible witness of who Christ is and His power by not telling young people worldwide that with God’s help they really can not have sex until they’re married and receive all that God has for them,” she said.

Sharon found the youth of Uganda very receptive to the abstinence message of True Love Waits, which culminates in signing a commitment card pledging to be sexually abstinent until marriage. The Pumpellys made signing the card difficult so that the youth would take it more seriously. For instance, after presenting the True Love Waits message, they would dismiss everyone and ask only those willing to make the abstinence commitment to stay and sign the card.

“We saw such a hunger in the youth,” she said. “One of the pictures that I think I’ll always keep in my mind is of a young man who was sitting in a mix of boys who were sitting in the back and they were all trying to be rowdy and distract everybody. And then I noticed him right in the middle of them just hanging on every word. Then when I gave the opportunity to make a commitment, all his friends were picking their chairs up and walking out. But he made a beeline to the front because that’s what he wanted. He wanted so badly to make a different choice than what they were making.”

Just like in any culture, Sharon said, myths about sex abound in Uganda and push young people into early sexual activity. African cultures have a system of passing on sexual mores to the next generation, she said, but with urbanization and the staggering number of deaths from AIDS, that system has broken down and the next generation is not being taught like previous generations.

“So they’re getting a lot of their information from the wrong sources, and consequently, it’s not good information. It just causes more chaos when they get these myths,” she said.


But with the help of programs like True Love Waits promoted now by Ugandan Baptists and with the endorsement and strong support of Uganda’s president and first lady, Uganda has become a success story in the fight against AIDS.

In 2003, President Bush visited Uganda to spotlight the abstinence method before he allotted $15 billion to help prevent the spread of AIDS in Third World countries. Bush’s success in promoting faith-based initiatives in the United States correlates with the success those organizations have now in Uganda, Sharon said. “Worldwide, it has probably made people a little more open to faith-based groups.”

But also, as time passes, more government groups are realizing that the research they sponsor in countries like Uganda is concluding that condoms are not working to curb the spread of AIDS nearly as well as the abstinence and faithfulness message.

“Some of those people were people who were negative [about abstinence] and they looked at the research and said, ‘Oh, wow. It’s our research that says what they’re doing is working,'” Sharon told BP. “… I think you’re probably going to get more reports of Ugandans who say that it was choosing abstinence [that brought the AIDS rates down].”


The transformation in Uganda is simply the work of God, she said, and such a transformation can be replicated in any country.

“What was fascinating is that by faith, we told Ugandan youth that they had the power to change the history of their country, that God would bless their nation when its individual members chose to follow His ways,” Sharon said. “Just like there are different generations that can tell you something different about their history, their generation could say, ‘We turned Uganda around on AIDS.’

“And God did it! That’s what was fun. God did it. I loved talking to the teenagers. I just loved it. But our fun was watching what God was doing, that He initiated it, He put the program together, He touched the hearts and He turned people to Himself. That was our joy.”

Although no longer in Africa, the Pumpellys are still champions for the work there.

The $12 million response of Southern Baptists to the Asian tsunami disaster was completely appropriate, Sharon said, but people must be careful not to forget the AIDS epidemic that continues to ravage entire populations in sub-Sahara Africa.

“I am so appreciative of the response that Southern Baptists gave to the tsunami — overwhelmingly generous as we know Southern Baptists are. That was right in every way,” Sharon said. “I would hope that because AIDS is a slower and more silent killer and [is spread largely] because of human choice rather than natural disaster, that those people and the whole situation with AIDS is not forgotten.”

Sharon said even in Africa, people have a tendency to slip into a mindset that those who suffer from AIDS are getting what they deserve because their disease is the result of an act of their own will.

“And yet, when the Scripture says the wages of sin is death and I know that I haven’t lived a sin-free life, that if I ever say to somebody that they’re getting what they deserve for their sin, I’m just reminded that by God’s grace, I didn’t get what the Scriptures say I deserve, no matter what the sin is,” she said.

“I hope that our hearts would ache and that we would pray for a strong movement of the Spirit across Africa to reduce the number of orphans, to give the next generation a future and a hope with Christ and wise choices.”

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  • Erin Curry