Saddleback Makes AIDS a Mission

Times Staff Writer

Kay Warren was haunted by the skeletal images of the men and women with AIDS in Africa after reading a magazine article in 2003.

“The pictures were so horrible I couldn’t look at them,” Warren said. “I actually covered my face with my hands and read the words through my fingers.”

She went to Africa a few months later to see for herself the devastation the disease was causing and vowed to do something about it.


Although it took some convincing, her husband, the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, decided to use the wealth and fame he had garnered from his best-selling book “The Purpose Driven Life” to enlist the help of churches around the world in the fight against AIDS.

The result was the Disturbing Voices HIV/AIDS Conference, held this week at Saddleback. The Warrens say it is the first conference that teaches smaller churches how to start AIDS ministries.

“It’s what the people least expect the church to do,” Rick Warren said. “Local churches may have been silent for a long time, but not anymore.”

Nearly 1,700 people from 37 states and 17 countries registered for the three-day conference, which ends today, World AIDS Day.

Saddleback Valley carries enormous weight simply because of its size. The Warrens started the church in their home 25 years ago, and it has grown into one of the nation’s largest evangelical congregations, with an average weekend attendance of 22,000.

Workshops focused on providing information on HIV and AIDS and how to reach out to people who are HIV-positive or who have the full-blown disease. Others shared their stories of coping.


“I went in a hole and cried for a year,” said Kathi Winter, 59, who has been HIV-positive for 12 years. “I begged God to love me because I realized it was caused by my behavior.”

Winter, who contracted the virus from a man who introduced her to church, found out she had HIV when he became ill.

Speakers also advocated the “ABC” approach to AIDS prevention: abstain, be faithful or use condoms.

Free HIV testing was provided at the conference. About 300 people waited nearly two hours to be tested Wednesday afternoon. Rick Warren said he would be one of the first in line today.

For Wayne Benson, who attended the conference with five people from Green Valley Christian Church in Watsonville, Calif., the lectures opened his eyes to the 8,000 people who die from AIDS worldwide every day.

“We are here to open the minds of our church,” Benson said. “We are finding out there is no fear except for what we put in our minds.”


He said he planned to reach out to a member of his church who had AIDS so he would feel accepted. “I want to walk up to him and hug him,” he said.

Kay Warren’s way of staying focused on AIDS is to look at a photo she took on her Africa trip. It shows an emaciated woman named Joanna, a week from death, who was living under a tree after having been kicked out of two villages because she had AIDS.

“I see her every day,” Kay Warren said.