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Philadelphia pastor Herb Lusk joins president’s HIV/AIDS panel

WASHINGTON (BP)–Herbert Lusk II used to walk the streets of Memphis as a self-proclaimed “angry black man.” Now he stands behind a Baptist pulpit and among fellow advisers to the nation’s president.

Lusk began his newest role March 16 serving a four-year appointment to George W. Bush’s 20-member Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

“The HIV/AIDS epidemic is the greatest social issue of our time. When I think of the enormity of the problem, I am completely humbled by this appointment,” said Lusk, senior pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia who once was known as the “praying tailback” while with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

Advisory council members, from a range of backgrounds, provide the president advice on addressing the global HIV/AIDS issue, with the secretary of Health and Human Services serving as a liaison.

While Lusk responds to his selection to the panel with humility, others have expressed both positive and negative reactions.

A March 10 article in the Advocate, a pro-gay publication, cites individuals who have criticized Lusk’s appointment because he has “made antigay remarks in the past” against same-sex “marriage” and has “no experience in the AIDS arena.”

But one openly gay advisory council member, dentist David Reznik, spent two days with Lusk at the council’s March meeting and said he disagrees with such assessments of Lusk.

“People assume that someone who is opposed to gay marriage is homophobic, but … what I saw was compassion, concern, and him trying to find a way to help,” Reznik said.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Lusk’s personal views on homosexuality are irrelevant to his advisory council membership.

“His position against gay marriage wouldn’t disqualify him from serving on the council as much as it wouldn’t disqualify a gay activist,” Land said.

Reznik said most of the criticism probably originates from Lusk hosting “Justice Sunday III: Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land,” a January gathering of religious and political leaders supporting the nomination of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R.-Pa., is a friend of Lusk’s who spoke at the rally and believes his selection to the panel is justified, said Robert Traynham, the senator’s communications director.

“He is not only a valued leader in the community, but he has proven successful in moving individuals from welfare to work and providing counseling and assistance to help improve everyday lives,” Traynham said.

Reznik pointed to the fact that Lusk has been involved personally in helping individuals with HIV/AIDS.

Lusk began Stand for Africa in 2002, an initiative through which U.S. churches and organizations can address HIV/AIDS problems through “prevention, education, treatment and care in 11 African countries,” according to the program’s website.

The project took root after Lusk learned that Africa will have an estimated 40 million AIDS orphans by 2010.

“It took my breath away,” Lusk said. “Those types of numbers demand a response from anyone in humanity.”

Lusk said he desires to share compassion with all people.

“I will fight to get medication as vehemently to a homosexual as I will to a heterosexual,” he said. “AIDS is a war on humanity. All of humanity has to fight against it.”

Beyond that, Lusk said he will let his actions do the talking.

“My whole life is dedicated to serving humanity and helping people. I will let my work speak for me.”

Reznik said he looks forward to Lusk increasing the African American church’s involvement in the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“It is very important that members of minority churches become involved in this disease,” Reznik said, noting “the African American community is a great gathering point” that could have a significant impact.

Mercy Polinati lived in Botswana from 1996 until she began attending a U.S. school in August 2001. Botswana, in southern Africa, is among the world’s most severely affected countries by HIV/AIDS.

Polinati said living “in and among” the epidemic gives her a personal perspective on the effect Lusk may have within the advisory council.

Noting the prevalence of immorality within the country, she hopes Lusk can help initiate HIV/AIDS education that goes beyond the basics of the disease and speaks to Africans at a young age.

“They all know what HIV/AIDS is,” Polinati said. “We need to start at the elementary level and show them they matter and mean something. If we instill such values into kids, we will be able to see change.”

Lusk said he will do his best to reach everyone who has been impacted by the disease.

“More than anything else I want to make sure every member of the human race who is affected by HIV/AIDS gets the best treatment possible, whether they are rich or poor,” the pastor said.

However, he hasn’t always held such views.

Lusk said he saw life differently at the age of 15. “I was in Memphis, Tenn., when Martin Luther King Jr. got assassinated,” he said. “I was an angry black man. You wouldn’t have liked me then. But I was wrong.”

His life changed just a few months later.

“A man called Jesus turned my life upside down. My father prayed for me and with me and led me to Christ,” Lusk recounted.

Since then Lusk has played professional football for the Philadelphia Eagles, served as pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church for more than 20 years, chaired the Greater Philadelphia Healthy Marriage Coalition, founded Stand for Africa, been a national advocate for President Bush’s faith-based initiatives and now has taken a seat on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

Lusk said he’s simply following his heart, “doing what I’ve wanted to do” for so much of his life, “and that’s serve people.”
Natalie Kaspar is a senior at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas.

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