Chicago Sun-Times : Bono credits church for leading AIDS fight - U2 France
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Chicago Sun-Times : Bono credits church for leading AIDS fight

vendredi 5 décembre 2003 / par Dom


Source : Chicago Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — A year ago, as we sat in a tour bus motoring across the Midwest where he was trying to raise consciousness about the AIDS emergency in Africa, Bono told me in no uncertain terms that he was pissed off at the American church.

"Christ’s example is being demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy, which is AIDS," he’d said. "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.’’

A lot can change in a year. Even the mind of a stubborn, quick-tempered Irish rock star.

As we sat in the lobby of the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C., Wednesday afternoon — on the first anniversary of Bono and his Heart of America tour’s stop in Chicago — the 43-year-old lead singer of the Irish band U2 revealed that the greatest spiritual insight he’s acquired lately was how he had underestimated churchfolk.

Given the facts — 6,500 Africans die of AIDS every day because they can’t afford antiretroviral drugs we take for granted in the United States and that cost less than $1 a day — they responded. With gusto.

"I really am surprised and even a little disappointed that I can’t continue to beat up the church, because they have really responded," Bono said, between sips of tea and puffs of a Marlboro Light. (He’s down to three cigarettes a week these days, he said.)

"The sleeping giant kind of woke up and is really playing a huge role in getting the job done. I’m amazed and moved by it, actually," he said of the American church he’s come to know and respect in the last year.

Bono largely credits people of faith — particularly the Evangelical Christian community that was the target both of his ire and his campaign to raise awareness about the scourge of AIDS and poverty ravishing sub-Saharan Africa — with motivating politicians and ultimately President Bush to pony up unprecedented funding for African AIDS relief.

Promises, promises

During his State of the Union speech last January, shortly after the Heart of America tour arranged by Bono’s not-for-profit Debt AIDS and Trade in Africa (aka DATA) was completed, Bush announced his plans to provide $15 billion over five years in emergency funds to fight the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

Almost a year later, Congress has yet to pass a bill allocating $2.4 billion in aid for the first year. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill before Christmas, but the Senate might not get to it until after the holiday break in January.

If the $2.4 billion bill passes, it will double the amount of aid currently given to Africa by the United States, and would be the largest such increase in 40 years, Bono said.

The possibility that passage of the bill — and in turn the funding — could be delayed for another month or two makes Bono crazy.

"I am infuriated to hear that the bill hasn’t passed and may not be passed for the next couple of months. The fire truck has arrived at the scene and we can’t turn on the water because of Congress," Bono had told a crowd of AIDS activists and advocates for Africa at the Kaiser Foundation earlier in the day.

Africa in flames.

It’s a metaphor Bono was fond of using last year in meetings with church leaders, editorial boards, politicians and students, when he would say that our generation will be judged by how we "stood around with watering cans as an entire continent went up in flames. Or not."

A half-million Africans will die in the next few months without the antiretroviral drugs they currently can’t afford and that can dramatically stave off — even reverse — the progression of HIV.

"Five-hundred-thousand fatalities, if Congress trips up on this, would spoil an extraordinary year," Bono told the Kaiser crowd.

Back at the Jefferson, Bono reminded me of a impassioned speech Bush made at the White House a couple of days after announcing the emergency relief plan for Africa, where he elaborated on his — and our nation’s — commitment to delivering lifesaving drugs to dying Africans.

"We use motorcycles, trucks, bicycles," Bush said. "We use nurses and local healers to go to the farthest villages and farms to test for the disease and to deliver medications that will save lives. It doesn’t matter how the medications get there ; what matters is they do get there."

"So where are the bicycles ?" Bono said, stuffing another tea bag into a pot of hot water, and pausing to talk to a passing fan who says he saw U2 play at a club in England 22 years ago.

"Are you in town to see George about the whole AIDS thing ?" the guy asked.

"No. I saw him before, but I’m still working on that," Bono said.

"OK. Good. We’re all behind you on that," the guy replied, adding, "I’ve got all the albums. Listen to them all the time."

Life of the party

The rocker-cum-activist arrived in Washington earlier this week, jet-lagged and feisty, from South Africa where he performed (with U2 guitarist The Edge and pop diva Beyonce Knowles) at an AIDS benefit concert in honor of Nelson Mandela.

He’s made many trips to the nation’s capital in the last 12 months, glad-handing influential members of Congress, and even having an old-fashioned row with Bush in the Oval Office. (They disagreed on how much funding Africa should get for AIDS relief.)

This week, he came to town to host a holiday party for friends and supporters of DATA, the organization he founded, to say thank you for how much had been accomplished in the last year, and to give the troops a pep talk for the year to come.

Which is how he found himself wedged in the corner of the VIP room of a Washington disco Wednesday evening, between a nun, an archbishop, a mega-church pastor, and a small army of politicians and activists, all vying for a hug and a quick snapshot for the kids at home.

"I hope the people ... who worked on this feel a stake in the success, as modest as it is," Bono said. "It’s the beginning of something much bigger in the years to come, as we take the money and turn it into lives saved."

He’s still looking to the church with a critical eye to do much of that saving work, calling on church leaders in Africa and the United States to offer sanctuary — physical and spiritual — to those living with AIDS.

So what’s next ?

"There’s an opportunity here for the church to really, truly become sanctuary, to be the place people go to to feel safe and a place where people go to be honest with themselves as well as with God," Bono told me. "This is an opportunity."

While in South Africa, Bono had what he said was an enlightening conversation with singer Bob Geldof, an old friend from Ireland who was the Svengali behind the Live Aid movement of the 1980s. Faith, at least in its institutional form, he told Geldof, may be the secret weapon to beating back the AIDS offensive.

"He’s an atheist. I said to him, ’Bob this is going to annoy you, but I really do feel, looking at this problem so out of control, that synagogues, temples and chapels are really, in the end, my only hope across Africa. As you look at this, if it isn’t going to happen through the church, it’s going to be so very difficult for government.

"’Just dealing with prevention, giving young girls the courage to say no to male advances, to fight the culture of rape which exists in ghettos all over the world.’ And Bob turned around to me and said, ’You know what ? I think that may be true. Human beings are so in need of guiding principles right now, I’m not sure they can come out of textbooks. Education has to be at a very deep level to change and deal with this.’"

There’s a lot of education to be done, in Africa and at home.

When I told Bono about a recent survey of African-American clergy in Chicago that found a majority of them would not allow an HIV-positive member of their congregation to work in the church kitchen, he looked more saddened than disturbed.

"Well, then we’ve got a long ways to go with the education," he said. "Archbishop Tutu introduced me to a word : ubuntu. Essentially, what it means is ’I am because we are.’ And it’s about the interdependence, how we need each other and we have a stake in each other. One part of the community can’t thrive truly while the other part of the community is in the dirt.

"In tending to them, we will be better off ourselves. It’s that simple. Ubuntu."

A year from now, U2 will be on the road in the middle of a tour supporting their new album — the other project, in addition to saving Africa, that has occupied Bono’s time this past year.

"I’d like to be on tour when the election’s going on. It’s a hell of a loud hailer to have, and, although we’ll try not to get involved," he said, grinning, "in case anything should happen along the way, you know, on our issues, we’ll be there."


RELIGION COLUMNIST CATHLEEN FALSANI talked to rocker Bono this week, exactly one year after his bus tour to raise awareness of AIDS in Africa. He had kind words for the church, tough questions for the president — and a keen understanding that his journey is far from over.

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