NAIROBI, Kenya (BP)–Sharon Pumpelly goes to work every day knowing that 500 people in her country will die of AIDS before the sun sets.
It’s a race against the clock that Christian workers across Africa are fighting. It is an epidemic that already has claimed 13 million Africans. But it’s one that can be stopped. Southern Baptist missionaries and their African co-workers don’t want multitudes of Africans to die before hearing the good news of God’s love and forgiveness.
“I keep saying one generation could end AIDS — one generation of young people following God’s ways,” said Pumpelly, an International Mission Board worker in Nairobi.
“Either I’m ignorant enough or naive enough or have faith enough to believe that’s how youth should be challenged. They are the ones, they are the hope, and they can make that kind of choice.”
That hope prompted Pumpelly and members of the student ministry team in Kampala, Uganda, in 1993 to create a “True Love Waits” sexual abstinence program designed especially for African youth. By that time, AIDS already was sweeping through the African continent, claiming thousands of victims, particularly in Uganda.
“Nobody was giving information to young people to tell them premarital sex was something to be avoided, and that saying no is not bad,” said Cecilia Kabanda, who works with the Baptist Student Center in Uganda.
In 1994, Pumpelly shared the True Love Waits philosophy and program with Janet Museveni, the First Lady of Uganda. Museveni eagerly supported the team’s efforts to promote True Love Waits throughout the country. She hosted a program that informed government leaders, heads of schools and church leaders about the True Love Waits philosophy.
“I just think God wanted to make his way known and he was just putting all the parts together,” Pumpelly said.
Soon requests for True Love Waits presentations came spilling in. School leaders wanted their students to hear the message about abstinence. Church leaders promoted the program among their youth members. Students shared the philosophy with neighbors and friends.
One young person told Pumpelly that after hearing her presentation he and his brother gathered the neighborhood kids together and taught them the True Love Waits philosophy.
“[He] said, ‘Thank you for teaching us. You have given us hope,'” she recounted. “It just caught on.”
Christian leaders often take the True Love Waits message into schools. A student drama team illustrates the effects of sexual promiscuity.
“I watch youth share their dreams, then actively participate in seeing how sexual behavior can kill dreams, then hear God’s Word and be challenged to make a drastic commitment,” Pumpelly said. “Seeing faces harden and faces become eager for the truth is incredible.”
And it seems to be having an effect. One study found a growing number of Ugandan young people are choosing abstinence before marriage. Medical surveys also show that the rate of new AIDS infections is declining.
But the effects are not reflected in statistics as much as in the lives of individuals who pledge to remain abstinent until marriage, said Prince Ngongo Bahati, adviser for Agape, a Christian club at the United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya.
Sexual promiscuity is rampant among the students who come from all over the world to study at the college.
“We’ve seen God work through True Love Waits,” Bahati noted. “I’ve talked to so many people and I’ve seen them make commitments and look to the [TLW pledge] cards when they are tempted.
“I have seen people change their lives and live sexually pure lives before God,” he said.
When Irene Lwantale was married, she and her husband exchanged the True Love Waits pledge cards as part of the ceremony.
“Since we had made a commitment to wait until our wedding day [before having sex] and we had fulfilled that commitment, it was time to start a new life,” she said.
But those who work with True Love Waits recognize it is still a battle to teach abstinence in a culture that promotes sexual promiscuity.
“The culture teaches the girls to be dependent on men,” said Andrew Mwenge, pastor of Kampala Baptist Church in Uganda. “Girls give sexual favors to be taken care of. We have to teach the girls how to take care of themselves and about their own value.”
For guys, sexuality is something to be flaunted.
“At this age a gentleman thinks having sex is a way of showing they are real men,” Bahati said.
Cultural myths and sexual practices complicate matters. Many believe that if someone infected with AIDS has sex with a virgin then the disease will disappear, Pumpelly said. And in a few tribal areas, it is polite for men to share or loan out their wives.
But those who have seen True Love Waits work and change lives are not discouraged.
“You just teach the truth and the Holy Spirit takes over,” Pumpelly said. “We cannot be lax in calling people to the highest and the best.
“If nobody teaches them or challenges them, then how can they rise to God’s best and God’s blessing for them? God blesses the nation whose people follow his ways.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PRINCE OF TRUE LOVE, A CLEAR CHOICE and WAIT FOR TRUE LOVE.