When cultural icon Bono wanted to tour the American Midwest to draw attention to the devastating plague of AIDS in Africa, he turned to the church. On Dec. 1, the Irish singer found himself sitting in the front row through two infant baptisms and a traditional lighting of the Advent Wreath before he had his turn to speak at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Neb.
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.
When asked if St. Paul would be willing to host the event on a Sunday morning, the Rev. David Lux said, "Yeah, I think that would be great!" While Lux was aware of Bono and U2, his 18-year-old daughter reinforced the significance of the rock star presence.
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 St. Paul and was enthusiastic to have Bono at her church. "He is willing to use his celebrity [status] 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 and the testimony of Agnes Nyamayarwo, an HIV-positive Ugandan nurse who lost her husband and 6-year-old son to AIDS. The Rev. 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 freshly 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 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 $4,000 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.
"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 noted the spiritual nature of his cause. "God is at work here. Decency and a moral compass offer courage and direction on a spiritual level." When asked how his faith informs his activism, Bono replied, "I'm not a very religious person. I'm a 'need to practice much more' Christian. I'm uncomfortable in churches because the Christ I love and read about in the Gospels is often not in the churches.
"Remember," he said, "I come from Ireland and I've seen the damage of religious warfare. I am a believer. I don't wear the badge on the outside but it is on the inside. 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. That is how faith has affected me. 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 went on to say, "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."
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 his Midwest 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 leading prayer at the conclusion of a meeting with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune-a first in the newspaper's history. While in Chicago, the group met with megachurch pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church, the Apostolic Faith Church, and then was greeted with a rousing reception from the students at Wheaton College.
"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 [filmmaker] Wes Craven. Get them frightened and then you know where to send them."
Quoting C.S. Lewis, Bono reminded the students, "All that is not eternal, is eternally out of touch." 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."