LAKE FOREST, Calif. (AP) _ After years of ministering to AIDS patients overseas, evangelical Christians are turning attention to the disease in their own backyard _ and one of the nation's largest and best-known megachurches is leading the way.
Nearly 2,000 pastors have traveled to Orange County's Saddleback Church for a national conference that coincides with World AIDS Day on Thursday. On the agenda: How to start local AIDS ministries and free HIV testing in churches.
The ``Disturbing Voices'' initiative, led by best-selling author and megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay Warren, represents a shift among evangelicals. Many sidestepped the U.S. health crisis because of its association with homosexuality even as they made AIDS part of their missions in Africa and other places where the disease disproportionately affects women and children.
``The evangelical church has pretty much had fingers in our ears, hands over our eyes and mouths shut completely,'' said Kay Warren, whose interest in HIV/AIDS led her husband to sponsor the conference. ``We're not comfortable talking about sex in general and certainly not comfortable about talking about homosexuality _ and you can't talk about HIV without talking about both of those things.''
Saddleback, with 22,000-members, isn't alone in its newfound domestic focus. A small but growing number of evangelical Christians are focusing on homegrown AIDS ministries.
Churches have realized that AIDS isn't a ``gay disease'' and can't be easily labeled, even in the United States, said Doug McConnell, dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at the Pasadena-based Fuller Theological Seminary. Interest in domestic ministries has steadily grown in the past five years, he noted.
McConnell said some evangelicals began asking, ``'We're involved overseas ... so why aren't we involved here?'''
``This is a relatively recent awareness and it's come primarily from the devastating effects AIDS has had on Africa,'' he said.
That's the kind of epiphany Kay Warren said she had while flying home from one of the four trips she's taken to sub-Saharan Africa in the three years since she first learned about the AIDS pandemic from a magazine article.
``On the plane ride home I realized that we had done nothing,'' she said. ``Let's get our act together and get every pastor doing something in their church _ and then we really have the right to go somewhere else and say, 'You need to do something for the people in your community.'''
Harry Knox, director of the religion and faith programs at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation _ a leading gay rights organization _ said he welcomed the outreach as long as it wasn't judgmental.
``For far too long, many radical right pastors have mischaracterized the disease for their own political purposes and we have reaped the unfortunate reward of that misinformation,'' he said. ``It is good news that evangelicals are now embracing people with HIV and AIDS to help us get our needs met.''
Alan Witchey, executive director of AIDS Services Foundation Orange County, said Saddleback Church helped collect $5,000 in food for HIV/AIDS patients last year and was doing it again this year. He said the help was welcome because his organization was too small to collect so much food on its own.
``A group like Saddleback is late to the table in terms of stepping up to help, but they're stepping up to help at a wonderful level,'' he said. ``We try to practice the same kind of thing that we want from people. We don't morally judge who's supporting us. We wouldn't turn our back.''
About 1,700 senior pastors from evangelical churches nationwide are attending the Saddleback conference, which ends Thursday evening with a free concert featuring Wynonna Judd and nearly a dozen Christian rock acts.
Workshops include such topics as ``Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would'' and ``The Local Church Engaged in Prevention/Treatment/Care/Support.'' Participants also plan to visit Laguna Beach _ known in Southern California for its gay scene _ and to visit with HIV-positive Southern Californians.
Warren said he's encouraging other pastors to offer free testing and counseling at their churches, start service groups to help HIV patients with daily chores and train lay members to administer crucial anti-viral drugs.
The focus isn't on the behaviors that led people to contract the virus _ and Warren hopes other pastors will follow his lead.
``The church has the moral authority to say, 'Hey, it's not a sin to be sick,''' said Warren, author of ``The Purpose Driven Life,'' a best-selling book. ``The Gospels repeatedly show that Jesus loved, touched, and cared for lepers _ the diseased outcasts of his day. Today's 'lepers' are those who have HIV/AIDS.''