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Musicians Challenge College Students to Fight AIDS

Every day in Africa, 6,500 people die from the HIV/AIDS virus–and people are beginning to notice. Dan Haseltine of the Christian band Jars of Clay wants to bring the Christian community face-to-face with its responsibilities concerning the HIV/AIDS crisis ravaging Africa.

“God has given us a mandate, a privilege … to see God’s hand of mercy reach down and heal a continent,” Haseltine says.

A crowd of college students gathered at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tenn., last Tuesday to support Haseltine and Jars of Clay (along with several other speakers and artists) at the 2004 AIDS Awareness Symposium and Concert. The event was aimed at raising awareness of the world’s looming HIV/AIDS crisis and at equipping students with the tools necessary to fight the crisis.

The symposium featured speakers Haseltine, Adam Taylor (Director of Student Global AIDS Campaign), Josh Barnes (Vanderbilt University Medical Center AIDS Educator), Shellie R. Warren (Relevant Media Group Author and Columnist) and Erin Luchenbill (National Campus Organizer for Bread for the World). Though the speakers touched on different aspects of the HIV/AIDS crisis, they all shared the same hope that the Christian community (college students in particular) would soon begin to take initiatives in healing the crisis.

Immediately following the symposium, the concert featured artists Sarah Masen, Derek Webb, Steven Delopoulos and Jars of Clay. All offered up songs relevant to the HIV/AIDS crisis, with Jars of Clay memorably opening their set with the verse, “This is for all the lonely people, thinking that life has passed them by.”

Indeed, Jars of Clay is doing their part in raising awareness of the HIV/AIDS crisis, as all four members of the band–Haseltine, Stephen Mason, Matt Odmark, and Charlie Lowell–have founded the non-profit organization called Blood:Water Mission.

Blood:Water Mission, through a series of symposiums started in 2003, has partnered with other organizations such as Student Global AIDS Campaign in educating college students about the HIV/AIDS crisis. Students are in a good position, Haseltine believes, to use the wisdom and knowledge gained in their college education “to reach into the suffering of the world and make a difference.”

And college students are already beginning to find in themselves the ability to make a difference. The symposium and concert were both sponsored by The Relevant Project, a student-led organization that labels itself as “a faith-based, non-profit organization dedicated to using popular culture to promote social change.” Adam Taylor, the director of Student Global AIDS Campaign, cited the civil-rights demonstrations of the 1960s as one example of the power of student activism. Indeed, this Tuesday-night event itself demonstrated that very power, and there is perhaps no other issue calling as urgently for the aid of college students (and all people) as the HIV/AIDS crisis.

An astonishing 42 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS the world over, with an additional 14,000 people becoming infected every day. And these staggering numbers can’t be attributed to homosexuality or sexual promiscuity–rather, they can be attributed to world hunger. HIV/AIDS is perhaps most prominent in Third World countries where food is in short supply. In these areas of the world, poverty and lack of food lead to malnutrition and weak immune systems, allowing HIV/AIDS to be more easily contracted. For these reasons, Adam Taylor suggested during his speech at the symposium, HIV/AIDS has become a social-justice issue. Those impoverished people in Africa who are stricken with HIV/AIDS are in a social position in which they lack the resources to be able to help themselves.

According to information handed out by DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa) at the symposium, HIV/AIDS is a “preventable and treatable disease.” Uganda was able to reduce its rate of infection from 15 percent to 5 percent after it received sufficient support from its surrounding communities. DATA further states, “The world is currently spending less than half the $10.5 billion annually that is needed to fight AIDS globally.” Evidence shows that the crisis can be helped, but not nearly enough help has been offered.

Erin Luchenbill, national campus organizer for Bread for the World, encouraged students at the symposium to contact the nation’s leaders concerning the passing of a bill that would see $3 billion go towards AIDS relief. Luchenbill presented students with ways in which they could contact government leaders, including letters, phone calls, lobby visits and the use of local media (like writing a local newspaper editor). Luchenbill assured the students at the symposium, “You have a very powerful role and a powerful voice.”

Josh Barnes, AIDS educator at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, encouraged students to get involved in helping to find a vaccine for the HIV/AIDS virus. Research for an HIV vaccine is taking place at medical centers all over the world. HIV-negative volunteers are needed to test the effectiveness of the vaccines in order to take research to the next level. Although vaccines normally contain a small trace of the virus being targeted, the HIV vaccines contain no trace of the HIV virus, minimizing the risk of volunteers, Barnes said.

After the symposium, a larger crowd of students piled into the Belcourt for a concert featuring Sarah Masen, Derek Webb, Steven Delopoulos and Jars of Clay. All the proceeds (at $10 per ticket) went directly to the HIV/AIDS crisis. The selection of songs for each artist was aimed at the issue at hand, with Sarah Masen in particular offering up such songs as “Hope” and “We are a Beginning.” Addressing the crowd in between songs, Masen commented, “We can make a difference; we can change things, little by little.”

And such was the theme of the night–that Christians can make a difference in something as daunting as the HIV/AIDS crisis. Not only can we make a difference, but as followers of Christ we should make a difference. No longer should we allow the HIV/AIDS crisis to go unnoticed and unattacked by the healing hands of God. It is time to make a difference, to be the healers Jesus called us to be. To use a paraphrase of Jesus’ words offered up several times in the symposium: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I had HIV and you looked after me.”

Mark McCormack is a student at Belmont University and an intern with the Baptist Center for Ethics.