AIDS didn’t yet have a name or a known cause when Glenn and Elizabeth Styffe were Biola nursing students in the early ’80s. But they knew, even then, that the disease would dramatically change the course of their medical careers.

Not long after graduating and getting married, Elizabeth found herself caring for some of the first children to die of AIDS in Southern California. Glenn, meanwhile, saw heartbreaking situations as he provided home care to gay men affected by the disease.

Nearly three decades later, Elizabeth is now a leading voice in the campaign to get local churches to do more to fight HIV - serving as director of the HIV/AIDS initiative at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. (The church, pastored by Rick Warren, is actively involved in AIDS efforts around the world and has worked with world leaders through its “Global Summit on AIDS and the Church.”) Glenn, a nursing professor at Biola, regularly leads students on overseas trips to serve communities affected by AIDS and other diseases.

Together, the couple has traveled the world providing education and health services. And just last year, they adopted three children from Rwanda. Biola Magazine recently spoke with the couple about the work that local churches and individual Christians can be doing to confront what has been called “the greatest pandemic of all time.”

It seems like we’ve been hearing less about HIV/AIDS in recent years, at least here in the United States. Do Americans have a false sense of security - a false notion that the problem is under control?

Elizabeth: Yes. When medications for HIV were discovered in 1995, that changed everything. People who were dying were now living longer and better because of medication. At the time, I really thought, “Great, we’ve got this under control.” I had no idea. Today, cases of HIV are actually increasing - not decreasing - in the United States. And there are 33 million people who are HIV positive around the world. Every 10 seconds or so somebody dies from HIV. Another 12,000 people became infected today. It’s on every continent. It’s not going away. It’s getting bigger, not smaller. And it impacts everybody.

Where is the crisis most severe?

Elizabeth: Well, part of the problem is that people don’t know that they are positive. So the greatest number of infections is in Asia because it has the highest number of people. But it’s not known, because people aren’t being tested. The greatest known burden is in sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa has right now 15 million children who are orphans.

Why is the disease continuing to spread as rapidly as it is in some of these regions?

Elizabeth: There are many drivers of the pandemic: lack of knowledge, wrong things done to a person or done by a person. The person who is at greatest risk for contracting HIV right now in the world is the married woman, and the primary cause is unfaithfulness in married relationships. But in different places there are different drivers. Intravenous drug use is the primary driver for parts of Asia, in Russia and in New York City. A major driver in California is unfaithfulness in married relationships and homosexual choices. It would be helpful if each of us would examine our own hearts. There is still a lot of stigma and ignorance among Christians. While many believers care and have their eyes open to the way they can care, there are still many believers who don’t yet know how important HIV is on the local and global scene. It’s a very unique disease; because it’s preventable, people think - in their most hardhearted times - that people are getting what they deserve. That has created a lot of distance between caring for the sick like Jesus did and keeping our eyes shut to it.

As you’ve traveled the world and met so many different people, is there one story in particular that has really made an impact on you?

Glenn: Probably the most poignant stories - and we’ve seen them so many times - are mothers who are dying. Many times the husband has already died; they become infected first and then bring it home to the wives. Over and over, what these young moms and widows are most concerned about is “Who is going to take care of my children?” Many times they’ve been kicked out of the villages, and sometimes kicked out of the churches. Many times the family support system just goes away because of the stigma attached to the disease. And they’re looking at their three or four children, and some of those are HIV positive as well, asking, “Who will take care of them?”

Elizabeth: Here in Orange County, there is a man in our church who lived with HIV secretly for 20 years. Glenn and I met him, actually, on a plane. We were going as Christians to serve in Kenya, and he was HIV positive. He had been telling friends he had cancer. It wasn’t until our church said, “If you’re HIV positive, you’re safe here; it is not a sin to be sick,” that this man gave his testimony at church that he was HIV positive. It was his first time in 20 years of being HIV positive that he had told anybody other than his immediate family.

That brings up a key question: What can local churches be doing to minister to people who are HIV positive in their own congregations or communities - people who they might not even know are suffering?

Elizabeth: We really believe that churches are the hope of the world. Caring for people who are HIV positive should be a signature of the church. They can do six things, and it happens to fall under the acrostic of CHURCH (see sidebar).

Glenn: Of those, “removing the stigma” is probably the most difficult, because we as Christians can be so incredibly judgmental in how we categorize sin, and because many of the risk factors are connected with morality. In many parts of the U.S., homosexuality is one of the biggest risk factors. And that’s on the list of “taboos” - if it’s not the unpardonable sin, it’s very close to it. So as long as Christians are judgmental of each other, it will keep those struggles that are linked to the disease in the dark, which is where they flourish.

Are there additional, specific things that the church can be doing on the global level? It seems that the CHURCH acronym is tailored more toward the local, domestic level.

Elizabeth: It’s for the local church everywhere. Christians, no matter where they are, need to ask how they can help to stop HIV where they live. Look, the government has tried to stop HIV and it’s not working. Christian organizations have tried to stop HIV and it’s not working. Unless we get a focus on the local church, HIV will not end. And the local church is everywhere. You can go to every village, and sometimes you may not find a post office or a civil government or even a school, but you will find the local church.

So, for churches here in the U.S. that perhaps want to do something to help in Africa or Asia, the best thing for them to do is to find some way to partner with local churches in those areas - rather than working on their own or with some other umbrella organization.

Glenn: Yes, but before a church gets passionate about going to Africa or Asia to work with HIV, they need to care about it in their own community. Actually, not just their community - because some Christians can put down their judgmentalism long enough to go to Long Beach or Laguna Beach and work in a shelter for people with HIV, but still not be welcoming in their own church. I think they really need to get a passion and a compassion for the sinner that is in their midst and in their mirror. Once they have that, they’re better equipped to go to other parts of the world.

Elizabeth: Right, once we’ve done that, then we can talk about serving locally and globally. Everyone needs to be “glocal.” That’s the new missions word. The church has several advantages. It is the only thing that has the largest participation, the simplest administration, the longest continuation, the highest motivation, the widest distribution, the fastest proliferation and the strongest authorization. If we start with that CHURCH acronym, it would change the pandemic and we would have zero moms saying, “Who will take care of my children?”

From Church to CHURCH

Local churches can take six basic steps to begin ministering to those with HIV/AIDS, Elizabeth Styffe says:

Care and support the sick: “Start making your church a safe place. Preach sermons on God’s compassion for the sick, or start an HIV ministry in your church, so that people know there is a place they can come to.”

Help with testing and counseling: “One of our goals is to get churches to serve as places where you can get tested. Because if people are going to be getting a life-defining diagnosis, don’t you want them to be at the church?”

Unleash a volunteer labor force: “The only thing growing faster than HIV is the local church. Every believer needs to do what Jesus would do, which is care for the sick. It’s the leprosy of our day.”

Remove the stigma: “Befriend someone who is HIV positive. Or have your pastor be tested - not necessarily because they’re at risk, but just to reinforce that it’s not a sin to be sick.“

Champion healthful behavior: ”You can do this, for example, by promoting abstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness in marriage.“

Help with medications: “In the United States, people with HIV can lead a hard, but relatively normal life thanks to medication. But around the world, that’s not true. Without treatment, around the world, you will be dead in three to five years.”

Glenn (’82) and Elizabeth (Ainslie, ’82) Styffe each hold master’s degrees in nursing from UCLA. Glenn is an associate professor of nursing at Biola. Elizabeth is director of the HIV/AIDS initiative at Saddleback Church.