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Inroads against HIV/AIDS flow from Botswana-U.S. tie

GABORONE, Botswana (BP)–Open Baptist Church in Botswana’s capital city is celebrating. A crowd streams into the sanctuary and fills tables placed three wide and many deep, each decorated in the white, black and blue of the nation’s flag.

The former president of the republic will attend; so will the president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“It is a good day,” said Norman Schaeffer, senior pastor for the church in Gaborone, the nation’s capital. “A good, good day.”

On Oct. 2, Open Baptist celebrated the fifth anniversary of Face the Nation, its partnership with Botswana’s government and Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga. — where Bryant Wright, current SBC president, is senior pastor — to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic that is ravaging this southern Africa nation.

This past year, Face the Nation sent 150 student volunteers from the University of Botswana into high schools across the nation using a three-letter acrostic — A: abstain; B: be faithful after you marry; C: claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior — to teach about halting the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

As a result, 48,000 students signed pledges to adhere to the principles of abstinence and faithfulness — 25,000 of them also embraced Christ.

In a land where the average age is under 25 — where you are either young or old, with much of the generations between stripped from the population by HIV/AIDS — that is significant.

“At first we thought we had a medical problem,” said Sir Ketumile Masire, former president of Botswana, addressing those attending the celebration. “It did not take us long to realize what we had on our hands was a moral problem.”

Masire became Face the Nation’s patron. “Every day over the past five years has been a miracle,” he said, referring to the project. “Your perseverance has paid off and paid off handsomely,” he continued, “and the nation of Botswana has taken note.”

So have other nations. There have been inquiries about starting the program in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

This partnership between a local church, the government and an American church is unique. There is a sense that they are accomplishing together what none could accomplish separately.

“We have done precious little to help them,” said Wright, whose church has been involved in partnerships in Botswana for seven years, the past four with Open Baptist and Face the Nation.

Schaeffer disagrees.

“They’ve not just helped us out financially, but in discipling and training counselors,” he said. “The partnership has helped us mature about four years faster than we would have.”

Johnson Ferry matches the funds Open Baptist raises for the project. They helped the church train 30 counselors for follow-up efforts after the initial program with student volunteers. And one member of the Marietta church has made a deep commitment to the effort.

Jeff Williams, a retired senior executive, makes four trips a year to Botswana. Over the past four years, he has helped Open Baptist and the Botswana government negotiate a complex relationship neither had entered before.

“He has poured his life into this,” Wright said.

Beneath this celebration is a deeper celebration, one that is wrapped up in the origin of the church, Wright added. “It is a model for how missions should happen,” he said.

Southern Baptist missionaries began Open Baptist. For years they shared the responsibility of leading worship services. When the church became strong enough, they stepped aside, and Open Baptist called its own pastor. Norman Schaeffer, the current pastor, is only the second in the church’s 38-year history.

As it matured, Open Baptist became an independent, indigenous entity — reaching out to its community and beyond with a global vision for the Kingdom of God — and partnering with an American church in a Kingdom enterprise neither could accomplish alone.
Will Stuart is a photojournalist for the International Mission Board.

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  • Will Stuart