When rock star Bono wanted to tour the American Midwest to draw attention to the devastating plague of AIDS in Africa, he turned to the church.
On Sunday, Dec. 1, the Irish singer found himself sitting on the front row through two infant baptisms and a traditional lighting of the Advent wreath before he had his turn to speak at Saint Paul United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Neb.
It was World AIDS Day, and the lead singer of U2 was launching a weeklong, seven-city "Heart of America Tour: Africa's Future and Ours." The tour was sponsored by DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa), a political advocacy organization that Bono helped found.
An estimated 42 million people worldwide live with HIV, with 75 percent of them living in sub-Saharan Africa. AIDS kills 6,500 Africans every day, and a projected 2.5 million Africans will die next year because they lack the medicine to fight the virus.
The situation in Africa is near to the hearts of United Methodists in Nebraska. They are in partnership with fellow United Methodists in Nigeria, actively working on projects such as raising money for an orphanage there.
The African connection was brought home during Saint Paul's Sunday program, with a performance by an energetic youth choir from Ghana called the Gateway Ambassadors and the testimony of Agnes Nyamayarwo, an HIV-positive Ugandan nurse who lost her husband and 6-year-old son to AIDS.
The Rev. David Lux, Saint Paul's pastor, offered Bono the pulpit, but the singer - donning his trademark blue sunglasses - jokingly responded, "I don't know about a rock star in the pulpit." Later, however, when his lapel microphone failed, Bono jumped at the chance to use it. "I've always wanted to get into one of these," he said.
Bono used Scripture to explain why he was investing his time in fighting AIDS in Africa. He asked the members of the congregation to stop asking God to bless what they are doing and to start doing the work that God already has blessed.
Lux told United Methodist News Service that there were no ruffled feathers about a rock star in the pulpit. Instead, he has heard "several positive comments from people who had children or grandchildren who hadn't been going to church but wanted to make sure to be in church when Bono was there."
He described Bono as "personable, friendly, compassionate and articulate. He challenges Christians to live out the teachings of Christ in specific ways, like responding to the horrific AIDS crisis in Africa, which is ravaging families and children." The congregation raised nearly $4,200 in a special offering that Sunday toward building the orphanage in Nigeria.
Lux vowed that the congregation will be "responding in many other ways. Bono's message, faith commitment and passion will inspire us for a long time to come."
As the lead singer of the group U2, Bono has long used Christian imagery in his songs. Additionally, he has been candid about his fascination with Jesus and simultaneous disillusionment with organized religion.
While at the Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., UMNS asked Bono how his Christian faith inspired his activism.
"Well, you know, I am not a very good advertisement for God, so I generally don't wear that badge on my lapel. But it is certainly written on the inside. I am a believer," he said.
"There are 2,103 verses of Scripture pertaining to the poor. Jesus Christ only speaks of judgment once. It is not all about the things that the church bangs on about. It is not about sexual immorality, and it is not about megalomania or vanity," he said, jokingly referring to his rock star status.
"It is about the poor. 'I was naked and you clothed me. I was a stranger and you let me in.' This is at the heart of the gospel. Why is it that we seem to have forgotten this? Why isn't the church leading this movement? The church ought to be ready to do that."
At the University of Iowa, Bono said, "We don't have to guess what is on God's mind here. It bewilders me that anyone can call themselves followers of Christ and not see that AIDS is the leprosy spoken about in the New Testament. God is at work here."
Throughout the tour, Bono was outspoken about his faith. On CNN's "Larry King Live" on World AIDS Day, he differentiated between his belief in God and mere religion. "My mother was a Protestant. My father was a Catholic. And I learned that religion is often the enemy of God, actually. ... Religion is the artifice - you know, the building, after God has left it sometimes, like Elvis has left the building. You hold onto religion, you know, rules, regulations, traditions. I think what God is interested in is people's hearts, and that's hard enough."
The singer emphasized the implications of AIDS in Africa. "This moment in time will be remembered for ... how we let an entire continent, Africa, burst into flames and stood around with water in cans. This is not acceptable. It is not acceptable to let people die because they can't get the drugs that you and I take for granted."
Actress Ashley Judd and actor Chris Tucker, who visited Africa four times in 2002, accompanied Bono on the tour. The group spoke in schools, truck stops and churches along the way. The unusual nature of the tour sometimes created surreal images, such as comedian Tucker instructing the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune to hold hands as he closed the meeting in prayer.
While in Chicago, the group met with Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, to discuss ways to get the message of AIDS in Africa out to the churches.
The group also visited the Apostolic Faith Church, a predominantly African-American congregation on the south side of Chicago. Tucker broke down in tears as he spoke of traveling companion Agnes Nyamayarwo's strength in living with HIV.
"I don't know how Agnes has overcome this. Her strength is overwhelming to me. I don't think I could do it. I just don't. God is inside her. God is inside this house. Look around. ... We are all connected in this AIDS crisis. Pray for us, all of us, that we are guided the right way and doing the thing of the Holy Spirit."
Spirits on the tour were lifted by a rousing reception from students at Wheaton College that evening. "I am blown away by your joy," Judd told the evangelical college students.
A welcoming telegram from Billy Graham - the school's most influential alumnus - was read to Bono. "We want to stand in solidarity with what this tour is about," said college President Duane Liftin.
"So this is Wheaton College," said Bono. "It gave the world Billy Graham and (horror filmmaker) Wes Craven. Get them frightened and then you know where to send them."
Recognizing the volatility of the AIDS issue, he told the students: "Our discussion may divide some of us tonight. Why? Because I believe that if the church doesn't respond, that it will become a largely irrelevant body that preaches, 'Love thy neighbor,' and does nothing. It will be the salt left on the side of a plate.
"'Love thy neighbor' is not advice," he said. "It is a command."
Quoting C.S. Lewis, Bono reminded his listeners, "All that is not eternal, is eternally out of date." He told the students that they have a moral obligation to battle the AIDS crisis. "You didn't start it, but you can end it. We need your help. Let's rock and roll."
Bono spent his final day on the tour meeting with religious and civic leaders at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) headquarters in Louisville, Ky., and stopping off at a Krispy Kreme donut shop for a snack. The program that evening was held at the suburban Northeast Christian Church.
"Politicians think people in the Midwest, working people who have their own problems, care less about what's going on in the rest of the world," he said at a new conference. "'There are no votes on this issue, Bono.' They are wrong."
When asked by UMNS if he or his organization, DATA, supported or endorsed any specific legislation, Bono said, "I think we are keeping it broad. We are just saying, 'Call your congressman, call the president. Let's grow a movement.' It is fertile soil around here. This is Kentucky. I am absolutely sure that if we start banging the dustbin lids and telling the politicians that there is a vote here, they will switch on it."
Bono emphasized that "I'm not here as a do-gooder. This is not a cause; it's an emergency." The tour was not a fund-raising effort; instead, it was a consciousness- raising educational event - one that often doubled as a revival meeting with the Gateway Ambassadors youth choir singing, praying and dancing with fervor.
After Agnes shared her testimony, Bono said: "Let me say this in the house of God: If there is anybody here who wants to pass judgment on a woman like Agnes and her children - and indeed the man who gave her the virus, her husband - maybe they should leave now. God will be the judge - not anyone in this church."
The congregation applauded.
"Let he without sin throw the first stone," he remarked soberly.
"I guess that would clear the place. I'll be out of here," he said with a smile.
At the benediction, Bono said, "I am normally not too comfortable in churches. I find them often pious places, and the Christ that I hear preached doesn't feel like the one I read about in the gospels. But tonight, God is in the house."
By Steve Beard