Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Fight for Young Lives

In my last post, I discussed Dana Perino’s appearance on CNN to talk about her time as a volunteer with Living Hope’s HIV/AIDS ministry. In dealing with HIV and AIDS – along with the poverty it is inextricably linked to in South Africa – Living Hope takes a two-pronged approach: health care and prevention. The former addresses immediate needs, while the latter lays a foundation – particularly in young people – for avoiding HIV altogether.

Abstinence, of course, is the only guaranteed way of not contracting HIV sexually. That’s one of the values taught by Living Hope, along with other Biblical principles, in its prevention and education programming. Perino told CNN host John King, “The key to any type of poverty eradication is education. And in this case, it's not only education for those youngsters to be able to get jobs, but prevention, and prevention is the next step.”

Unfortunately, it appears prevention is not the next step in the eyes of one of Living Hope’s biggest supporters, USAID and PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). In late March, Living Hope received a letter from USAID stating that as of October 1, PEPFAR funds will no longer be available for the AB (Abstinence and Be Faithful) program because they are being redirected toward different targets. In a letter to Living Hope supporters, Pastor John Thomas, chairman of Living Hope, wrote, “Effectively they have decided to focus away from children and youth, and focus on sexually active adults.”

Thomas said the implications of this announcement include:
  • The potential shutting down of Living Hope’s Life Skills ministry, which employs full-time educators in six communities
  • The Support Group ministry (which counsels HIV-positive individuals) effectively being cut in half
  • Social work also being cut in half
  • Salary cuts or outright loss of jobs among support and administrative staff

PEPFAR, a George W. Bush initiative, has made a tremendous impact on people with HIV and AIDS, particularly in Africa, where 18 percent of the population is HIV-positive. Thanks to PEPFAR, 2.2 million people worldwide are receiving anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment for HIV, and many of those are in Africa (up from 50,000 prior to the program’s creation).

Certainly, the care for people suffering from this affliction needs to continue, and thankfully President Obama recognizes that need. But this change of course in the distribution of PEPFAR funds is a signficant blow to those attempting to address the underlying reasons for HIV and AIDS. If people are not educated as to the cause of it, the cycle is only going to continue.

To continue its education and prevention efforts, Living Hope is seeking alternate funding possibilities. The total budget for each community is approximately $4,000 per month. If you are interested in contributing or learning more, contact John Thomas at As Pastor John stated in his letter, “We trust that we may be able to continue to bring the hope of Jesus as we address values and behaviour and provide life skills in the communities in which we minister. We believe God called us to this.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

Spreading the Message of Hope

When President Bush left office in January, his press secretary, Dana Perino, had her next venture lined up. It wouldn’t be a speaking tour, or writing a book, or starting a consulting firm. She would go to Africa to volunteer and see how a group of Christians are bringing hope to people affected by HIV and AIDS.

Perino spent two weeks with Living Hope ( in Cape Town, South Africa. She recently appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union with John King” to discuss her experiences. “You know, over the years at the White House, you become kind of hardened,” Perino told King. “And I had felt that way, a little bit, but it wasn't my true heart. And when we went to Africa in February of 2008 with President Bush, I realized that this is what I want to do. I want to come back and try to help in some small way.”

Perino showed video clips of Living Hope’s Children’s Club, an after-school program that gives kids a time of fun and learning in a safe environment. She also told the story of Khumi Morare (, a woman who, after nearly dying of HIV-related complications, now runs a successful sewing business and is training other women in her craft.

The entire CNN clip can be viewed at

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hunger Strike

Spending last week in New Orleans brought back memories of my first trip there three years ago. LowCountry Community Church had sent a mission team to clean up homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina seven months earlier. The work was discouraging. We threw away waterlogged possessions and gutted houses to their bare framework. “Why even do this?” I was often tempted to wonder. The residents might rebuild, but another storm could come and ruin everything again.

I tried to keep in mind what a pastor had said on the first day of the trip. He had spoken to the work crews on Matthew 14:13-21, in which Jesus satisfied the hunger of 5,000 with just five loaves of bread and two fish. He pointed out that the Lord charged His disciples with doing the actual feeding. “Your job is to feed the people,” he told us repeatedly, emphasizing that we would need to encourage the homeowners, listen to their stories with compassion, and tell them of God’s love and care.

Indeed, we were helping give residents a new start of sorts. And by getting to know them, we showed them God cares and His people care. Later in the week, a team member was ripping out pieces of sheetrock in a bedroom when he uncovered two words, written in permanent marker on the inside wall: “Feed me,” it read. It was a powerful confirmation that our work was not in vain.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Big Uneasy

Nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coast, we don’t hear much about the suffering anymore. But it’s there all the same. Many locals still live in “temporary” trailers. Ravaged homes sit untouched. For some, trying to rebuild is a colossal uphill struggle.

A group of middle-schoolers from LowCountry Community Church gave up much of their spring break to witness this first-hand – and to lend a hand in the recovery effort. Working with a relief organization called Forward Edge International (, the LCC team hung sheetrock, installed insulation and painted at two homesites, thus helping two families get that much closer to being back in their homes.

Mention New Orleans and the image of Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras and an anything-goes atmosphere often comes to mind. A souvenir t-shirt on sale throughout the French Quarter displays a likeness of the devil with the words, “God is busy. May I help you?” Clearly the spiritual battle is strong in this town.

But God’s people are hard at work here, too. The LCC team was hosted by New Genesis Bible Church, a small congregation that lost its original building to the storm and now meets in the pastor’s former home, which has been renovated to serve visiting relief teams. Led by Pastor Charles Garrison, who grew up in the city’s storm-ravaged Ninth Ward, this church is a beacon of light that is bringing God’s truth and healing hand to a city that desperately needs it.

Below are a few images from the trip.

New Orleans, Four Years Later

Memorial located near entrance to Lower Ninth Ward, aka "Ground Zero" for Hurricane Katrina flooding.

This government housing complex in the Upper Ninth Ward was completely destroyed and sits untouched like a ghost town.

Some residents simply evacuated their homes and never came back.

LCC youth group members measured, cut and hung drywall like professionals.

The LCC team with, from bottom left, Pastor and Mrs. Charles Garrison and Kris and Jeff Thompson of Forward Edge International.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Happy Easter

I encourage anyone who is reading this, if you don't know Jesus Christ as your personal savior, to consider the true meaning of Easter. Like a lot of people, I grew up thinking that if I lived a basically "good" life and went to church every Sunday, I would go to heaven one day. Sure, I had heard the stories about Jesus dying and being resurrected, and I believed them. But it was only an intellectual belief, not a personal belief in my heart. I just assumed that I was covered by Jesus' act because I went to church and tried to do my best to be a good person.

Then I heard the account of when Jesus told a man named Nicodemus that "no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3:3). Up to that point, I thought "born again" was just a term that "holy roller" Christians used, one that certainly didn't apply to me. But after hearing this story, I realized that being born again meant making a decision to repent (i.e., turn away) of my sinful nature and personally ask Jesus to come into my heart and give me new life. And thus I would be born again and have the assurance of eternal life in heaven.

This new life comes not on any merit or good works of my own, whether done before or after asking Jesus to come into my life. I could never be good enough, compared to God's standard of perfection, to overcome all the wrong things I've done. My salvation and eternal life are assured only by believing that Jesus, the Son of God, lived a perfect life, died in my place and conquered death by rising from the tomb.

And that's what Christians celebrate at Easter. It's not about bunnies and eggs and dressing up nice to go to church. It's not even about intectually acknowledging that Jesus died and rose again, although that is the most important truth in all of history. For the message of Easter to be effective, it has to be personal.

So, have you asked Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior? Every one of us is going to die one day. Make sure you are ready by taking this step of faith. It is the most important decision you will ever make. For more information, go to

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Living the Great Commandment

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols was the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story a few weeks ago. In it, he responded to skeptics who discount him as just another steroid user. “I know who I am,” Pujols told SI.

Pujols is a professed follower of Jesus Christ, and that’s why he doesn’t have to worry about what his critics say. “There is something more important to me [than baseball] – my relationship with Jesus Christ and caring about others,” he said.

A two-time National League MVP, Pujols hits home runs both on and off the field. His care for others includes helping kids with Down syndrome and bringing relief to impoverished areas in his native Dominican Republic.

Pujols’ statement above is essentially a paraphrase of what Jesus said is the most important of all God’s commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).

It seems to me that Albert Pujols is a baseball hero truly worth emulating.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Defining Value

Baseball season is upon us. For me, that always brings back memories of my mostly undistinguished career, which peaked in 9th grade when I was named MVP of my junior varsity team. It was a pretty dubious honor, considering that we had an 0-10 record and I was the starting pitcher in nine of those losses. Our coach didn’t even know my full name. When he announced the award at the spring banquet, he just pointed at me and said, “This year’s most valuable player is … Al.” The trophy did include my last name, but it was misspelled.

What does it really mean to be valuable? Men in particular seem to place a lot of weight on performance, gauging our self-worth by the world’s “standards” of success. I heard a great talk on this topic by former big league pitcher Dave Dravecky. An all-star lefthander, Dravecky once thought success depended on his arm, which earned him big bucks by getting opposing hitters out.

Then the cold reality of disease struck: Cancer took Dravecky’s left arm and suddenly his livelihood was gone. He started asking some tough questions: What gives a man his identity and value? Does that value disappear when he can no longer produce? Or is a man’s worth deeper than what he has and what he does?

Dravecky held up a baseball card with his picture on the front and asked, “What’s a Dave Dravecky worth?” The answer, he had discovered, lies not in statistics produced on the field and printed on the back of a piece of card stock. The answer lies in the value God gave him as one of His children, redeemed from sin by Jesus Christ.

In his book The Worth of a Man, Dravecky wrote: “It wasn’t until I struggled through the emotional turmoil caused by the loss of my arm that I came to know I was worth more than what I had accomplished, more than what I had gained or lost. I am a man created in the image of God, in the process of being recreated in the image of Christ. That gives me unimaginable worth, regardless of what I can or cannot do.”

I’ve found much encouragement in Dravecky’s story. I know my worth comes from the Creator of all things, who loved me despite my failures and rebellion against Him. As God said to the people of Israel – and by extension, to those who follow Him today – “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). It matters not that my coach didn’t know my name, because God does.