NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–United States Army Maj. Tyler Fitzgerald did what any good soldier does when faced with an aggressive enemy. He took the offensive.
Fitzgerald was about to finish his tour of duty as military liaison in Guyana, a small Caribbean country, but as a Christian he couldn’t shake the feeling of desperation he had for the physical and spiritual condition of Guyana’s people.
Guyana’s HIV/AIDS crisis is second to that of Haiti’s in the Western Hemisphere. The government’s attempt to combat the situation decidedly excluded any abstinence programs. Fitzgerald found that conclusion unacceptable and in March turned to the Internet. His search landed at True Love Waits, the faith-based abstinence program produced by LifeWay Christian Resources that encourages students to be sexually abstinent until marriage. He’d heard of the success True Love Waits was having in curbing HIV/AIDS-related deaths in Africa. The rate of HIV/AIDS infection has decreased from 30 percent to 5 percent during the 10 years True Love Waits has been the officially recognized method of combating the epidemic.
Fitzgerald exchanged a flurry of e-mails with Ernest McAninch of LifeWay’s international department. A solution was found that potentially could change the future of Guyana much as Uganda’s has been. True Love Waits has no budget to send someone to a foreign country to teach. But the church where True Love Waits was pioneered more than a decade ago, Tulip Grove Baptist Church near Nashville, accepted a unique challenge: be pioneers again, this time in another culture.
“Tyler hoped government officials would use the True Love Waits model to promote abstinence,” McAninch recalled. “When the group decided it would not adopt an abstinence approach, Tyler did not give up. He offered to organize church leaders to promote an abstinence-until-marriage movement and received commitments of support from Baptists, Wesleyans, Methodists, Youth with a Mission and the Full Gospel church.”
McAninch, a member at Tulip Grove, approached Ken Clayton, the church’s pastor, with the challenge of helping. Clayton saw the opportunity for the church to support overseas missions and asked Alec Cort, the church’s current youth minister, to consider going to Guyana to teach True Love Waits to the coalition Fitzgerald was building.
Cort had serious doubts. During his 10 years of vocational youth work, he never felt an overseas calling. “My wife, Allyson, and I prayed about the trip and sought God’s guidance and decided we would go,” Cort said.
Cort has taught True Love Waits to Tulip Grove’s youth for four years. Clayton told the church Cort and his wife were prepared to go. The church’s members responded by funding the April trip through a special offering. The Corts arrived in Guyana within six weeks of Fitzgerald’s initial inquiry.
Cambelville Baptist Church hosted the training that drew more than 150 people of diverse backgrounds including public school and government officials, representatives of non-Christian non-government organizations and churches and Christians from several denominations. Cort found the schedule that Fitzgerald and Cambelville pastor Charles Van Dyke had developed to be quite ambitious.
“I had planned on presenting two 90-minute seminars each day for two days but saw I was scheduled to conduct two three-hour seminars both days,” Cort said. “Tyler dismissed my concern, smiled and said, ‘You will do great!'”
There is a great deal of racial and political violence within the country as two factions war for control of the republic of almost 700,000 people. There is an eclectic mix of Christians, Hindus and Muslims that fosters a great deal of prejudice. Marxism is prevalent, and few people own land. Good jobs are hard to find. The poverty overwhelmed Cort as he found a people lacking hope. He learned that many people turn to sex searching for fulfillment.
Cort used the Bible to define marriage and sex. The attentive audience asked dozens of questions and spoke openly of personal situations. The clock was of little regard.
“I was amazed at how well we were received,” Cort said. “We later discovered that the Guyanese are a culture that is non-sensitive to time constraints. Historically an agrarian society, the factory whistle has never industrialized them. There is little movement due to the heat. Few own cars or can afford cab fare. Since there is very little to do in Guyana, the seminar was a major event.”
Attendance rose to nearly 300 by the end of the first day. Cort realized from the questions being raised about sex that no one had ever taught about these particular issues. He saw people hungry for the knowledge they were receiving.
“I had my doubts, but again God did His thing,” Cort said. “At the end of the first day, young petty officer Jason Benjamin from the Guyana Defense Force [GDF] stood up to give his testimony. The GDF is directed by the political authorities to help in HIV prevention.
“Being a new believer, Benjamin wanted to attend the seminar but was unable to because of his work assignment. During the morning while the first session was taking place, his superior told him that his duty was changed. He was to attend the True Love Waits seminar, gathering information and making notes.
“The information he took back to his superiors has led the GDF to change its entire stance on ‘safe sex.’ Prior to the seminar it had supported condom distribution and safe sex programs. Now, because of officer Benjamin’s report, it has adopted ‘abstinence’ as their primary promotion in the prevention of HIV. God is good.”
The second day was devoted to how to teach TLW to parents and teenagers. Nearly all 300 people signed the accompanying True Love Waits commitment card, pledging to live according to the biblical model of sex and marriage. Cort used that evening at the community bandstand to publicly relay the message of God’s plan for marriage and purity to the youth and their parents gathered there.
“It was a very special time,” Cort said. “True Love Waits and biblical values are taking root in Guyana.”
Cort hopes to return to Guyana with a mission team from Tulip Grove to encourage and assist pastors. Of 24 Protestant churches in the country, two have paid pastors.
“With help, the church has tremendous potential to stand up and break the cycle of sin and oppression,” Cort said. “The people are so hungry to hear about True Love Waits, and they are hungrier still for more biblical truth. We can give them resources, teach and train the people to serve beyond what the pastor is able to do, excite and encourage them and in so doing, reestablish hope in their hearts.”