Pricking the Conscience of Churches: From AIDS Activism to Ending World Hunger

Donald E. Messer is a 70-year-old writer, United Methodist theologian, and retired college (and seminary) president who tells us here that he believes his career may have begun in earnest only after he retired and began to work full time for the organization he founded, the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.  

In fact Rev. Messer has been on the front lines of AIDS activism since the 1980s in his pastoral and academic leadership, his writing, and his institution building. Author of Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis and much else, an important leader in the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund and their campaign, “20/20: Visioning an AIDS-Free World,” his reflections both inspire us and remind us, thirty years into this pandemic, how much more there is to be done. 

Susan Henking: I know that your career has, in part, been defined by concern for world hunger and, then, in more recent decades, with the global impact of AIDS/HIV. What drew you to these concerns?

Donald Messer: In 1961, I journeyed from the prairies of South Dakota to do my junior year of college in southern India. During that year abroad I encountered a depth of disease and hunger that changed my life. One could not step outside my campus walls without encountering the raw realities of people perishing from lack of food and living with leprosy.

When I returned to the United States, I earned my M.Div. and Ph.D. in Christian social ethics from Boston University. I became engaged in the struggle for civil rights and the anti-Vietnam movement. Suddenly at the age of 30, I was elected president of Dakota Wesleyan University and found myself engaged in academic administration. A decade later, at the age of 40, I became president of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.

Since the emergence of HIV and AIDS thirty years ago, I have felt compelled to be involved in addressing the pandemic. What outraged me from the beginning of the AIDS crisis were the stigma and discrimination persons experienced by persons infected by HIV. My first action was to write a petition in 1983 calling for United Methodists to overcome this bias and to become involved in caring concern and advocacy of public funding for research and care.

Also early in the 1980s I was asked to speak at a conference on “the church and AIDS.” Realizing I needed help, I contacted the local pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in Denver and he introduced me to six young gay men who at that time were dying from AIDS. I asked them what I should say in my sermon. Two messages I have never forgotten were: first, they told me that worse than having the disease was the way people treat you, and second, never give up hope.

In 2004, you published Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence. What inspired you to write that book when you did?

In 1995 I returned to India for the first time in 35 years and rediscovered an old college friend who had become a medical doctor and professor. N. M. Samuel, M.D., was now specializing in HIV and AIDS, but told me that the church was totally non-supportive of his efforts. Together we decided “to change the church” and to work together on projects that brought education, prevention, care, and treatment to persons in need.

As I became more deeply involved in India, I noted the devastating impact HIV and AIDS was making around the world. At the very time the pandemic was escalating outside the United States, new anti-retroviral medicines had become available in our country that helped to mitigate the alarming rate of death. This good news was offset by immense apathy that swept this country, along with a mindset that it was impossible to share this medicine with the impoverished of the world in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

My book was an attempt to express what I heard as God’s cry for the marginalized around the world. I saw it academically as an essay in practical theology, but I remember wondering, when I was writing it, if the rhetoric was too shrill and maybe the publishers would tone it down. Fortunately Fortress Press editors were very supportive—and to my surprise the book changed my life! The response of readers led me to a seemingly endless series of speaking engagements, writing assignments, AIDS Conferences, etc. I started a 501c3 charity, The Center for the Church and Global AIDS and wrote the legislation that created the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund. Serving as Executive Director of the Center and Chairperson of the denomination’s fund have proved to be two full-time commitments!

Once upon a time what we now call AIDS/HIV was called the “wrath of God” syndrome. And, of course, some religious leaders have not been helpful, either then or now. Why do you think this is?

An inability to deal with human sexuality has been at the heart of the church’s failure to be positive forces in the battle to overcome HIV and AIDS. In particular, since those most impacted from HIV from the beginning were homosexual men, some religious leaders claimed that God was unleashing divine wrath because of their sexual practice.

While I saw this as both a misreading of scripture and a misunderstanding of a loving God, I also saw this as strange logic. I would sometimes counter those arguments by claiming that if God showed displeasure to gay men by giving them AIDS, then God especially must love lesbians more than anybody else in the world, because their rate of infection was almost nil compared to gay men and heterosexuals! The advocates of “God’s wrath theology” really sputter when you counter with that argument!

As an active leader in the United Methodist Church who, as you mentioned, has served as Chair of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee. How do you see your own path or that of the Methodist Church in this regard? Or, as has been asked elsewhere—what would Wesley do?

United Methodists are no different than other Christians. We struggle and fail to deal with issues of human sexuality too. Theologically, for example, we are not opposed to the use of condoms, but we are too embarrassed in most situations to admit that or to publically advocate for their use.

Some of my earliest essays focused on what John Wesley would do. Our denomination has a great heritage of being involved in healing care. Wesley operated his own medical clinic in London and handed out medical tracts as well as spiritual leaflets. He was quite non-judgmental and very much concerned with caring for persons without stigmatizing. I don’t think it is too much to imagine John Wesley might have been handing out religious pamphlets in one hand and safer sex literature in the other!

As a denomination we are great at writing wonderful resolutions. Starting in the 1980’s our denomination passed excellently worded resolutions asking Congress, the President, the United Nations, and others to be involved in solving the HIV and AIDS crisis. However, we put little demand on others. We didn’t as a denomination commit any funds to the effort. So, as I mentioned, in 2004 I lobbied the denomination to start the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund.

The legislation passed, but it never has received the regular funding that primary programs of the church receive. It has always been treated as a special offering, not a part of the apportionment assigned every local church. As a denomination, there is increasing lip service to raising funds to combat HIV and AIDS, but in reality it remains a low priority among our bishops, pastors, and other church leaders.

Thanks to a very dedicated core of United Methodists, however, we keep the issue alive and continue to attempt to prick at the conscience of United Methodists. We have raised over $3 million and funded 185 AIDS projects in 37 countries. As a denomination, however, we are much more comfortable talking about malaria.

If only HIV were caused by the bite of a mosquito, rather than primarily through sexual transmission, I am sure the trajectory of United Methodist involvement would be dramatically different.

What do you see as the relation of AIDS/HIV globally and the epidemic’s history and current status in the United States?

Internationally and in the USA, HIV and AIDS share a common denominator—poverty. No, not everyone who is HIV positive is poor, but there is an incredible coincidence of persons who suffer from both.

Take a world map and note where hunger and malnutrition are most abundant. If you superimpose on that map the places where the HIV and AIDS pandemic are most rampant, you will find a striking similarity. In the United States, Washington DC has the highest prevalence rate—and it also has an incredible amount of poverty. It is not accidental that South Africa has the highest number of persons infected with HIV—the consequence of apartheid has been poverty, lack of education, unemployment, hunger, and disease. In India, HIV spreads among the most impoverished and poorly educated.

This theme of poverty takes me to a few more questions. You co-authored a book entitled Ending Hunger Now with Senators McGovern and Dole. And you had previously written on the relation of politics and Christian ethics. Might you comment some on how you see church and government as distinct and important leaders in ending hunger? Or more generally?

Neither hunger nor HIV can be curbed or ended by the church, but neither can these goals be accomplished without the help of the church and other faith communities. Governments alone have the resources to deal with the tremendous needs of feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. However, the church can help serve as the conscience of a country—prompting policies that are more compassionate and generous to the poor. Faith communities need to model what it means to be non-stigmatizing and what it means to share from its resources. Christians that do not reach out to the poor, the hungry, and the sick jeopardize their own souls.

Unfortunately, in many places the government is more conscientious and compassionate than the church when it comes to HIV and AIDS. Just knowing the theological perspective of a person or a church community does not guarantee that one knows whether someone cares about combatting HIV and AIDS. A liberal congregation may be doing nothing, while a neighboring evangelical church may be reaching out to help. Ultimately, how people respond is not so much a matter of the head but of the heart—do they really care? How seriously do they take Jesus’ command to care for “the least of the these?”

You have also written on hunger and HIV as twinned issues in, for example, your 2010 book Names, Not Just Numbers: Facing Global Aids and World Hunger. I have to admit I love the title and its humane thrust. What do you see as the core reasons these issues are related?

I already touched on this in response to an earlier question, when I sought to demonstrate the link between hunger and HIV. Let me expand my comments a bit.

People who are HIV positive and who lack appropriate treatment are often sick. Illness prevents employment and income that reduces money to expend on food and other necessities. HIV-positive people need more food, especially protein, but they often get less. They can’t take powerful anti-retroviral drugs on empty stomachs. If they do, the medicine is more like poison than medication.

People who are hungry will do desperate things to survive. A hungry mother with two crying, malnourished children will sell her body in order to feed them. Who wouldn’t? The risk and/or immediacy of getting infected are not nearly as great as starving.

The poor of this world are far more “sinned against, than sinners.” No, they are neither saints nor are they perfect. But the grinding injustice and inequality of the impoverished makes irrelevant the teaching of ivory-towered theologians and cathedral-closeted bishops. We live in a world of immense wealth with abundant food and medicine, but the moral scandal is that these resources are not shared. Every time I look at my wardrobe, I feel embarrassed at my sinfulness. I can’t help but hear John the Baptist saying: “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” (Luke 3:11 RSV) Few, if any of us, are in any position to judge the sinfulness of the poor.

In my book, Names, Not Just Numbers: Facing Global AIDS and World Hunger, I try to share the voices of the voiceless. I believe people respond more to stories than to statistics. I know the people in this world who are HIV positive and those who are hungry and I feel compelled to awaken myself and others to their plight.

One thing that is notable about your career is the relation between academic work, ministry, and action in the world. You are (as even the few works we’ve referenced here make evident) a prolific author, have been a seminary faculty member and president of a university and a seminary, and you have built and led organizations like The Center for the Church and Global AIDS. Can you comment on the relation among all these “parts”?

Some friends say I didn’t discover my calling until I retired from academia and the ministry. They even say I “re-created” myself. Maybe those 29 years as a university and seminary president were a long detour—or just preparation for post-retirement. What I do know is that I love working every day, and I don’t care how many hours are involved or how many miles I must travel. The size of the audience makes no difference (HIV and AIDS are not exactly a popular subject in our churches!). What I need are all the skills I learned in my previous life in order to achieve the goals I deem important. I spend my time writing, speaking, teaching, fundraising, organizing events, recruiting volunteers, administrating, etc. The only difference is now I don’t earn a salary and don’t have a big staff to help me.

What I find especially enjoyable are the wonderful people I meet throughout the world. Truly those persons engaged in ending AIDS and hunger are caring, compassionate people. The volunteers that assist me are truly the “salt of the earth,” and the most caring, compassionate people I know. The persons we are privileged to partner with in Africa and Asia and elsewhere are really good people. When you are helping AIDS orphans in Kenya or assisting women and children living with HIV in India, you discover the biblical truth that indeed it is more “blessed to give than to receive.” If I am spending time with a group of Asian commercial sex workers engaged in “survival sex,” or a group of caregiving grandmothers in Africa who are struggling to care for seven or eight children, I feel like my life is blessed beyond words.

The issues you are dealing with like hunger and AIDS and all those many roles—are not easy. What keeps you from burning out?

“Burnout” is more likely to happen to those on the frontlines of caregiving. Their life is not easy and the pain and suffering they see and experience each day can be quite overwhelming.

Of course, I suppose we all sometimes suffer from self-pity or think our burdens are too great. Once after visiting an AIDS hospital in India that was more like a warehouse for the dying, I said to myself, “OK, I have to go back tomorrow, but that will be my last time. Others can do it from now on.” But then the next day, to my total surprise, I was suddenly surrounded by grieving mothers and wives at the hospital who thanked me for coming to see their loved ones. Nothing like that had ever happened before. Also suddenly a guard waved me into a restricted unit, and prisoners crawled off their beds and knelt before me and asked for prayer. I don’t wear a collar and I don’t advertise I am clergy. Why they wanted me to pray, I don’t know, but I prayed and prayed—even though I don’t think they understood a word I said. That night I decided I guess I had a mission and a ministry and that I wouldn’t be quitting soon—or ever, if I could help it.

I am grateful for your wisdom in what you have shared with us today, and for your work on this topic which matters so much to so many. So: I want to end with a question I will ask all folks I speak with for Religion Dispatches in one form or another: If you were to imagine the future—or to imagine the most hopeful future—what would the impact of your work be? And how would our world be different?

I’m an idealist and it is not coincidental that my favorite popular song is the “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. But I am also a realist and I believe it is possible to conquer hunger and end AIDS in our lifetime. An AIDS-free and hunger-free world are my mantra. What it will take is political will and compassion without borders. This is not simply a romantic vision, but one embraced by scientists, economists, politicians and other persons of goodwill around the world. These goals are not simply within our reach, but also our grasp. Achieving this future is not inevitable, but neither is it impossible. I feel fortunate to live at such a moment in history when this vision is not just a utopian dream, but a realistic possibility. And maybe my work will have contributed in some small way.