Almost 26 million Africans are infected with HIV/AIDS, 700,000 of them children. Every 15 seconds a child in Africa loses a parent to AIDS, and as a result 14 million children are orphaned.
Hearing such mind-boggling statistics does little to mobilize this generation of students; it’s too big, too impersonal. And although many college students rise to the occasion when disasters and tragedies occur, still others sit in the background, because they feel either helpless or apathetic.
InterVarsity chapters around San Diego recognize that we live in a postmodern society—that individual experience speaks more to this generation than do facts and statistics. San Diego InterVarsity chapters are using that understanding to their advantage by presenting an event in which a student pretends to be a specific child in Africa. They have responded to the challenge of turning AIDS from a far-off pandemic to an urgent, personal issue in demand of a response.
In partnership with World Vision, a worldwide Christian humanitarian organization, and area churches, InterVarsity has been reaching students by setting up a traveling exhibit on college campuses around San Diego. The exhibit is spending time on each San Diego campus from September through December. It transports students experientially into the plight of specific children affected by AIDS—and then asks the students to respond.
At the beginning of the exhibit, each person receives an MP3 player that will guide them through one of three unique routes in a tent. Each route tells the story of a different child affected by AIDS. Visual aids, such as photos of the child, objects found in an African village, and facts about the child help the student enter into the child’s life.
At the end of the route, the student enters a new part of the tent, a sterile square room with benches. It’s a health clinic where the student simulates taking an AIDS test. The last section of the tent is a chapel, a circular enclave which displays hundreds of photos showing Africans with AIDS. If they choose, each student can write down a thought or prayer and pin it to the wall.
After exiting the tent, each participant is met by an InterVarsity student. The chapter members ask questions to discover where people find their hope when they are confronted with such dire circumstances. It is the desire of InterVarsity students, during this conversation, to proclaim God’s good news in the midst of terrible suffering. The InterVarsity student invites each person to share in God’s concern and care for the poor, and to respond to what they experienced by giving money, sponsoring a child, or praying. The staff advisor at the University of San Diego, Jesse Jacobs, said, “We wanted to challenge the campus to consider the spiritual significance of poverty and injustice in the world.”
Unfortunately, talking with students at the end of the route through the tent provoked some censure about what purpose InterVarsity was serving. In a newspaper at MiraCosta College, several students criticized InterVarsity for using a bait and switch tactic. Penny Webber said, “I thought it was a good thing to learn about, until the end, when you speak to the people. Instead of talking about AIDS, you’re talking about religion.”
But for InterVarsity students, to separate AIDS and other global tragedies from God’s response to them is to not give credence to the breadth of the problem. Marlena Copado, who is president of the InterVarsity chapter at MiraCosta, and who was raised by the Bantu tribe in Africa, responded eloquently to the accusations in a letter to the editor. She said, “For us at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, we believe God truly cares about the issue of AIDS in Africa, and he is a crucial part of the solution. The world’s problems are too big for us to divorce our faith from social action.” While there was some negative reaction, the majority of students responded positively to the event.
At the University of California—San Diego, nearly 5,000 students went through the tent. At the end of the week, about 1,300 students attended the follow-up AIDS conference. Combined, these two events at UCSD led to some amazing outcomes. Students gave $30,000 for an AIDS community project in Malawi. Also, many students made the decision to sponsor a child through World Vision, and now 128 children will have proper medicine, food, and the chance to go to school. And just fewer than 30 students became Christians after experiencing and hearing about Christ’s redemptive work in a suffering world. Similar results have taken place at other campuses around San Diego.
For the most part, the response has been outstanding: a testament to the power of experience for this generation. The InterVarsity staff around San Diego hopes that students whose interest was sparked by the tent will further explore God’s desire concerning AIDS by attending the AIDS track at Urbana 06, InterVarsity’s 21st Student Missions Convention.
With the kind of success that San Diego InterVarsity chapters have experienced, InterVarsity looks forward to seeing how God uses Urbana to call people to take action against the AIDS crisis. A similar tent will be stationed at the conference; instead of following the lives of three children it will follow the lives of six. Through events like Impact 1, InterVarsity students address tragedy both physically and spiritually. God wants Christians to act when they see injustice, and in so doing bring more people into his kingdom. InterVarsity chapters around San Diego have responded to God’s call to action.