LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–“Claire” was 15 years old when she met John Thomas, pastor of Fish Hoek Baptist Church in Cape Town, South Africa. Claire also was pregnant, and living with HIV.
When Claire was around 12 years old, she realized she probably had a 50 percent chance of graduating from high school. If she finished school, she then would have a 50 percent chance of finding a job. Realistically, the most she could hope for was to work as a domestic servant a couple days a week. She was certain that she would spend the rest of her life calling a crude shack her home.
“I decided to have as much sex as possible, to have as much fun as possible. And hopefully I would get HIV and hopefully I would be dead by the time I was 20 so that I would not have to live a life of poverty,” she said.
When she met Thomas, she told him that her life was “on track” with that plan.
Claire helped Thomas understand the whole of a person’s spiritual needs. Though Claire needed to hear and embrace the Gospel, she also needed someone to help her in very practical ways through the hard facts of her life.
“I am an evangelical to my back teeth,” Thomas said. “For many years I thought Jesus wanted me to save souls. And then I discovered Jesus wanted me to save people. There’s a whole lot more than getting them to pray a little prayer.”
Thomas has learned just how much more since 1999, when his church began addressing HIV/AIDS. It was that year that he learned a statistic that changed the course of his life: 17 percent of the people in an area just a mile from his church building were HIV positive.
Thomas pictured himself on Judgment Day, facing God and saying: “Well, we had lovely Christian fellowship, but sorry, God, we had no time to reach those who needed Christ as Savior, and who were dying from this terrible, terrible disease.”
Thomas knew his congregation had to respond, but they had few resources and Thomas knew very little about AIDS. God’s resources were abundant, though, and soon Living Hope — the HIV/AIDS ministry of Fish Hoek Baptist Church — was founded.
While the church itself has only four pastors and 800 regular attenders, the Living Hope HIV ministry employs 160 full-time staff members in five locations around Cape Town. In 2006 Living Hope served 7,619 individuals.
“As far as we know, we are the largest local church response in South Africa, and therefore probably in Africa, and therefore probably in the world,” Thomas said.
The ministry does HIV prevention work and palliative care, which means managing patients from the moment of HIV diagnosis to death — though, thanks to antiretroviral drugs, an HIV diagnosis is no longer an automatic death sentence.
Living Hope has support groups, a clinic where people can get antiretroviral drugs, and a home-based care division with 40 caregivers overseen by several registered nurses. More than 30 people staff a 20-bed hospice with state-of-the-art equipment.
People living with HIV work as support people alongside counselors in the health clinics. When people learn they’re HIV-positive, those support people invite them to attend support groups in local homes.
“We have seen so many people empowered with information that we give them,” Thomas said. “They become advocates in the community to pass on good healthy lifestyles. That’s where we can spread the Gospel.”
In Living Hope’s afternoon clubs for children and in local classrooms, children learn life skills and biblically based morals through games and stories.
Recently in an afternoon club, 19 of around 80 children gave their lives to Jesus. Now they meet with Living Hope leaders every week for discipleship.
Living Hope also sponsors health days at local companies and shopping malls, where people can have their blood pressure taken and be tested for things like diabetes, pregnancy and HIV. Educators give health talks, and people who are HIV-positive share their testimonies.
“At every angle we seek to tell people about Jesus and how He can help them in whatever situation they’re in,” said Thomas’s wife, Avril.
Local government leaders have been so impressed by Living Hope that they’ve appointed it the official non-profit through which they do HIV/AIDS home-based care and palliative care. Living Hope recently took on the responsibility for all HIV/AIDS testing in the area, and every health clinic and government hospital in the area includes Living Hope staff.
“It’s a case of the local church supporting the government in its endeavors in HIV/AIDS,” Thomas said.
The Kingdom of God has grown significantly through Living Hope.
Thomas said his church has no need to think of catchphrases to share the Gospel. Instead, his church members live the Gospel Monday through Saturday as they minister to their community and lead people to the Lord.
“When you’ve helped a person who is HIV-positive, they’re very interested in your Jesus,” Thomas said. “They say, ‘Tell me about this Jesus, the One that I’ve seen. I want to know about Him.'”
It’s not just the community that is changing. Thomas has changed a lot through HIV ministry too.
When Thomas began caring about AIDS, he studied Jesus’ ministry. He read repeatedly about Jesus feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and giving drink to people who were thirsty.
“As a Baptist, I did not fully understand Jesus’ mandate to the poor,” he said. “The more I’ve studied Scripture, the more I’ve become convinced that God has given the mandate to the local church and at our peril we ignore it.”
Thomas has heard that AIDS is the greatest catastrophe of human history.
“If it’s correct that it’s the greatest catastrophe of human history, then it’s also correct to say that it’s the greatest opportunity the church has ever had in human history,” Thomas said.
“Although I believe in the eternal security of believers, Matthew 25 makes me wonder whether the Lord will say to some people, ‘You had the greatest opportunity of human history around you; you did nothing about it. Depart from Me. I never knew you.'”
Thomas hopes churches will fulfill their biblical mandate and awaken to the opportunities God has given them.
“When you do the deeds of the Christian faith, evangelism follows very easily. People just ask questions, and they want to know about this Jesus,” Thomas said. “I do believe in God’s works, and God’s works bring about salvation.”
Manda Gibson is a writer for Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.