It took a magazine article in 2002 to completely change the trajectory of Kay Warren's comfortable suburban life. Then 48 and the wife of Rick Warren, author of the bestselling book The Purpose-Driven Life and pastor of Southern California's megachurch, Saddleback, Kay was a busy "soccer mom" of three who dreamed, once their nest was empty, of sharing a platform with Rick and ministering to pastors' wives.
Then one day Kay picked up a news magazine and was arrested by an article on AIDS. When she read that 12 million children were orphaned in Africa due to AIDS, "I realized I didn't know even one orphan. I couldn't imagine millions of them anywhere," she admits. "That number haunted me. My life's never been the same."
Since that "divine appointment," Kay, now 52, has become a woman on a mission. Despite being treated for breast cancer in 2003, in the last four years Kay has visited Africa five times plus six other countries. Rick, with whom she celebrates their 31st wedding anniversary this June, caught Kay's passion for HIV/AIDS ministry, and together they, along with lay teams from Saddleback and other Purpose-Driven churches, travel overseas to work with local church, business, and political leaders to combat the AIDS pandemic. Their hope is for more churches and individuals to become personally involved.
But Kay's mission isn't only global; she's equally passionate about ministering to HIV-positive people in her community. To this end, last November, Kay initiated the first annual Saddleback-sponsored international HIV/AIDS conference, Disturbing Voices, to create awareness within the church body about the pressing local needs to minister to those with HIV.
TCW caught up with Kay to discover why she changed from soccer mom to social activistand what we can learn from her transformation.
Did you ever wonder if you could even make a dent in an issue as big as AIDS?
Of course. But the day I read that article on Africa, I had my own Damascus Road experience. I was blinded by a reality outside my own. After that, I went to sleep thinking about those 12 million children; I woke up thinking about them. The Lord and I began this internal dialogue. I said, This just can't be true. Because if it were, then I'd have to do something about it. But there's nothing I can do!
After a month, I realized I had to decide either to go on with my plans or to let my heart become engaged. I sensed I couldn't face God when he asked me, "What did you do about those 12 million children I told you about?" How could I possibly respond, "Oh, that was so sad. But I had so many other good things on my agenda. I'm really sorry I wasn't able to get around to that. I hope that's OK"? The truth is, it wasn't OKnot for me, not for anybody. I decided to get involved. That's when God shattered my heart into a million pieces, and I became what I call a "seriously disturbed" woman.
What did you start doing?
Reading, watching videos, talking to anybody who knew anything about HIV. After eight months of that, I needed more. God captured my heart through Africa, so I wanted to go to Africa. I first went to Mozambique at the invitation of a Christian relief organization.
How did that first visit impact you?
Nothing in American life prepared me for rural Africa. Nothing. Even the poorest of the poor here have it much better than most of those living in the rest of the world.
One of the first women I met was Joana. She was stick thin, plagued by unrelenting diarrhea, left homeless under a tree, dying of AIDS. Joana was so weak, she couldn't even crawl over to greet me. So her aunt scooped her up and placed her on a piece of plastic in front of me. I'll never forget Joana mustering every ounce of strength and dignity she could to pull herself up, fold her hands, and greet me.
I couldn't tell Joana she would be healed or that I could give her a roof over her head. But I could offer my presence, and by my presence, the presence of Jesus. And I could offer her the hope of heaven. I will never, ever forget Joana. That's why her picture hangs in my office. For me, AIDS wears a face. It's Joana's.
What happened after you returned?
If I started out seriously disturbed, I came back gloriously ruined. I couldn't live the way I used to live. I didn't have the same values. But I'm embarrassed to say that as I flew home, I stewed over the fact I didn't think pastors and churches in Africa were doing enough. Then God clearly asked me, When was the last time you cared about anybody with HIV in your community? The answer was "never."
God quickly showed me my hypocrisy; I cared about people far away, but not for the HIV-positive people in my own church. I'm ashamed to admit I was full of fear and prejudice. I had to overcome several myths, including the one that AIDS in America was a gay man's disease.
But what if it were only a "gay disease"? That's where Christians start labeling people. There are "innocent victims"a baby born to an HIV-positive mother, a woman infected by her spouseand the perpetratorsa gay man, an unfaithful husband. Why does one set seem more deserving of love and compassion?
How dare we pretend our sin is worthy of God's grace, but somebody else's isn't? When I see lists of sins in Scripture, they're lumped together. Sin is brokenness. It's going against God. God's Word says if we break the law in the slightest part, we're guilty.
What kind of response have you had from HIV/AIDS sufferers in your community?
At the end of the Disturbing Voices conference, we invited those with HIV on the platform so they could experience the repentance and love they'd never felt before from the church. About 30 people came up, and as I led them toward the stage, one by one, their entire bodies shook with sobs. For the next hour, conferees hugged them, prayed with them, and asked them for forgiveness.
So many told me, "I never thought this day would come. I never thought God could redeem my brokenness. I never thought anybody who was HIV-negative would care for me."
It says something that they're not used to such love.
Yes. Not long ago I met with an HIV-positive gay man, the head of one of the local AIDS service organizations, to explain how we're reaching out to his community. He tried to ferret out what I thought about homosexuality.
Instead, I told him, "I'm not HIV-positive, so I don't know what that's like. But I had breast cancer, so I do know what it's like to have a life-threatening illness, to have to take medicine that made me violently ill, to not know the outcome of my life. But I've looked death in the face, and I'm not afraid to die."
With tears in his eyes, he said, "I'm not afraid to die, either. I just don't want to die alone." I wanted to wrap my arms around him and say, If I have anything to say about it, when your time comes, you're not going to die alone.
I told him I don't believe homosexual practice is God's plan for human sexuality. His response was, "Well, we can spend a lot of time talking about that." I said, "You're right, we'll have lots of discussion." This man may never believe what the Bible teaches about homosexuality, but I can't control that. What I can control is how I treat him. And when I do share my beliefs, he'll know it's coming from someone who truly cares.
When you were diagnosed with breast cancer, did you ever wonder why?
I struggled with the "why now," with God's timing and call on my life. I struggled with my faith, too. Although I had the best medical care available and a loving, supportive family, I thought of all the suffering people who didn't have any of those things. God, your system stinks, I told him. Why would you create a universe in which people suffer such horrible things from the day they're born till the day they die?
Fortunately, I had great people around me who listened to me and cried with me. They didn't give me pat answers; they let me wrestle that one to the ground with God.
So when people ask, "What's the answer?" I don't have one. What I do know is that I'd rather walk with God in the dark than walk one step in the light without him. In many ways, I understand less about Godbut trust him even more. It's a paradox.
Did you have an inkling God would lead you in this direction?
I think he planted the seeds, but somehow, through the years, they'd gotten buried. I'd spent most of my twenties feeling very inadequate. I didn't think I had many gifts, and I'd married Rick, a man with extraordinary gifts. When I compared myself to him and others, my gifts seemed so small.
In my thirties, I got caught up in raising our three children. But when I neared 40, life came crashing down.
When I was a little girl, I was molested by someone from my church. As an adult, I'd done a good job of pretending it hadn't affected me. I'd memorized Scripture, prayed for healing, done all the things I knew to do, but I'd built my life on a shaky foundation.
That shaky foundation couldn't bear the weight of all my life's growing pressuresthe needs of my children, the demands of a huge church, the notoriety of my husband's ministry. I waved the white flag of surrender.
I underwent intensive counseling for a couple years. That season of extreme brokenness was one of the best things that ever happened to me; through it, God rebuilt my life. I relearned things, unlearned others, and began to see myself in a new light. God was preparing me for what I do today. I couldn't even begin to minister to sexually broken children and adults if I hadn't let God mend my broken places.
What are you most passionate about?
Believers leading the way in loving. How will people know Jesus loves them unless we show up in love? And the truth is, whoever loves them first, wins them.
How can women start "showing up"?
Start with repentance. I had to repent of my enormous apathy. Even though I'd read God's Word from the time I was a little girl, somehow I'd skipped over all those verses about the poor and the sick.
A third of Jesus' ministry was spent healing people. Jesus was full of compassion. He touched the lepers, the prostitutes, the people his society wanted nothing to do with.
Ask him to show you ways to live out his heart in your everyday life. I can't prescribe that for somebody else. If you don't feel called to reach out to HIV-positive people in your community, beg God to open your eyes to others who are poor, sick, or homeless. Once you do, then it becomes personal. And when it becomes personal, you start caring.
James 1:27 says, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress." What if more women adopted the unwanted children in our own country, or opened their homes to foster children? What if Christians really lived out James 1:27? I think we've severely underestimated what God wants to do through the church.
Everybody can do something. From your sink as you're washing your dishes, from the diaper-changing table as you're changing a diaper, you can be praying for people. The bigger issue is letting your heart be broken by what breaks God's heart. I long for Christians to live out a muscular faith that actually changes our world. It starts with prayer, then moves into action. I long for women not just to be caught up in who's got the best price of chicken this week. God's asked us to do and be so much more than that.
Do you feel a sense of urgency?
Yes, borne out of my breast cancer. But I don't live looking over my shoulder, waiting for cancer to catch up with me. I'm not willing to waste a single moment. Every day I say, "God, use me as you like. I'll live out your call for however many days you give me."
What kind of legacy do you hope to build?
I hope my children and grandchildren see a life of surrender and reckless abandonment to God. And in so doing, they'll be willing, as Isaiah 58 and 61 say, to expend themselves for the needy, the poor, the immigrant, the sick.To pour yourself out on behalf of others, to accurately reflect our God's heart in this worldwhat an honor. What a privilege.
For more information, go to www.Purposedriven.com/hivaids.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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May/June 2006, Vol. 28, No. 3, Page 34