By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Kay Warren says five years ago she was a "white suburban mom with a minivan" helping her husband run one of the most influential evangelical churches in the United States and barely aware of the global AIDS crisis.
Today, Warren will host the third conference on her church’s role in fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic after a spiritual awakening that rocked her own faith and challenged how the evangelical community responds to what many still regard as a "gay cancer."
More than 50 international speakers -- including the first ladies of Rwanda and Zambia and Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton -- will gather at Saddleback Valley Community Church in Southern California on Wednesday for three days to mobilize local churches around the world to help prevent HIV/AIDS and care for its victims.
"This is the passion, the call of my life," said Warren, a quintessential California blue-eyed blonde. She admits that U.S. evangelicals have been "late to the party" on the AIDS issue and castigates the "sinful absence and puny efforts" of her community’s past track record.
"I see more and more individual churches, pastors and believers who are recognizing that this is what the Bible teaches and that there is nothing strange about it," Warren told Reuters of her campaign.
Saddleback Church, in the affluent suburb of Lake Forest, attracts some 22,000 people to services each week. Pastor Rick Warren, author of the best-selling inspirational book "The Purpose Driven Life," is one of the most charismatic leaders of America’s 60 million-member evangelical community.
EMBRACING SOCIAL ISSUES
The Saddleback AIDS initiative is the most controversial in a recent raft of social issues embraced by U.S. evangelicals, who have traditionally favored social conservatism.
In January, a coalition of evangelicals and scientists joined forces on global warming, calling the protection of life on Earth "a profound moral imperative." Christians have also campaigned to end modern slavery and pushed for an end to the conflict in Darfur.
The Saddleback approach to AIDS sidesteps the thorny issues of sexuality and condom use by focusing on the care and support of victims. The Warrens say the question should be not "How did you get sick?" but "What can I do? How can I help you?"
The plan encourages churches around the world to use their grass roots networks to set up testing centers, unleash volunteers, reduce the stigma of being HIV positive and promote "God’s standards of behavior."
Saddleback has collected some unusual allies in the process. An invitation to the 2006 Saddleback conference to Barack Obama caused outrage because of the presidential hopeful’s support of abortion rights.
This year’s invitation to Hillary Clinton, who also supports abortion rights and who will address the conference on Thursday, has caused surprisingly little reaction.
The Warrens say they are interested in saving lives and want to focus on common ground, not differences.
Kay Warren’s life as a behind-the-scenes pastor’s wife changed radically in 2002 when she read a magazine article about the more than 12 million children in Africa orphaned by AIDS.
What her husband and her church first saw as her pet project became what she terms a surrender to God as she realized that AIDS wasn’t just a gay disease.
Some Saddleback members felt uneasy at being urged to care for AIDS sufferers. "They felt that our job was to speak to people’s spiritual needs, that the church was about saving souls. I completely disagreed. This is historically at the heart of our Christian faith," she said.
Warren now spends much of her time attending international meetings and AIDS projects in Africa. The Saddleback conference will hear progress reports from those who have started AIDS ministries in their local churches or have fostered orphans.
Five years on, Warren says she is no longer the comfortable wife, mother and grandmother she once was.
"I froth at the mouth a lot. I‘m not very much fun at dinner parties because I really want to talk about life and death issues. It is a radically different life," she said.
(Editing by Mary Milliken)