By Steve Beard
December 7, 2002
United Methodist News Service
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, December 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, Nebraska.
Launched on World AIDS Day, the week-long, seven-city “Heart of America Tour: Africa’s Future and Ours” 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 involved in various projects including raising money for an orphanage there. Margery Ambrosius, one of the leaders of the denominational partnership, is a member at Saint Paul and was enthusiastic to have Bono at her church. “He is willing to use his celebrity to have an impact on the world, instead of just building more mansions, like others might do,” she told the Lincoln Journal Star.
The Sunday morning program included an energetic youth choir from Ghana called the Gateway Ambassadors and the sobering testimony of Agnes Nyamayarwo, an HIV-positive Ugandan nurse who lost her husband and 6-year-old son to AIDS.
Saint Paul pastor, the Rev. David Lux, offered Bono (donning his blue sunglasses) the pulpit but the singer 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 the fight against AIDS in Africa. He told the congregation that he stopped asking God to bless his own work and started to do the work that God already has blessed.
During his presentation, one of the newly-baptized babies began to cry. As the father was taking the child out of the sanctuary, Bono recalled the child’s name and said, “Where are you going Alexander?”
The Rev. 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 on that Sunday toward the building of an 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 also been candid about his fascination with Jesus and his simultaneous disillusionment with organized religion.
While at the Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, United Methodist New Service 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 judgement 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 have seemed to have forgotten this? Why isn’t the Church leading this movement? The Church ought to be ready to do that.”
Throughout the Midwest tour, Bono was outspoken about his faith. “That there’s a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it,” he told Cathleen Falsoni of the Chicago Sun Times. “But the idea that that same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in straw and poverty, is genius. And brings me to my knees, literally.
“Christ’s example is being demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy, which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here. If it wakes up to what’s really going on in the rest of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn’t, it will be irrelevant.”
While 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.…It is why I am here, I suppose.”
Bono also spoke openly of his faith while he was a guest on CNN’s Larry King Live on World AIDS Day, differentiating 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.”
He continued, “The idea that God might love us and be interested in us is kind of huge and gigantic, but we turn it, because we’re small-minded, into this tiny, petty, often greedy version of God, that is religion.…
“I don’t doubt God. I have firm faith absolutely in God. It’s religion I’m doubting,” he said.
The singer emphasized the vital implications of battling 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.”
Throughout the week-long tour, Bono was accompanied by actress Ashley Judd and actor Chris Tucker, who visited Africa four times in 2002. The group spoke in schools, truck stops, and churches along the way. The unique 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 – a first in the newspaper’s history.
While in Chicago, the group met with Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church – the largest church in the United States – 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 were lifted when the tour was greeted with a rousing reception from the students at Wheaton College later that evening. “I am blown away by your joy,” actress Ashley 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 film maker] 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 your neighbor’ is not advice,” he said. “It is a command.”
Quoting C.S. Lewis, Bono reminded the students, “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,” he said. “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, Kentucky, 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. The politicians tell him there are no votes on this issue. He believes 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 – that very often doubled as a revival meeting with the Gateway Ambassadors youth choir singing, praying, and dancing with fervor and zeal.
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,” Bono said with a smile.
Serving as a 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.”