Caring for AIDS patients in Zambia

LUSAKA, Zambia — Troy Lewis' deep, melodic voice is brimming with emotion as he talks about the people of Zambia.

The missionary's heart became burdened for sub-Saharan Africa during his college and seminary studies. He heard stories of how the Gospel was taking root and spreading through new believers and churches. However, Lewis also heard reports about the rising HIV/AIDS pandemic — at the time, 6,000 people were dying each day in sub-Saharan Africa from the disease and 8,000 were being newly infected.

"With many Gospel-proclaiming churches, why has this march of death and new infections run unabated where abundant life should be demonstrated at its best?" Lewis asked at a convention. "To unbelieving nations — is this what a place looks like when we've 'reached' it [for Christ]?"


Christ-like response
Lewis and his wife Tracey moved their family from Dallas, Texas, to Zambia, a country slightly larger than Texas, in 2001 to serve as missionaries to the people they had come to love.

Lewis counsels churches and their leaders to develop a Christ-like response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other problems affecting Zambia's communities, through Expanded Church Response (ECR), which he serves as executive director and a founding trustee.

"While we're getting people ready for heaven, how do we deal with each other, love each other, forgive each other, all that — what about between now and heaven?" Lewis asked. "... Do we really look like Jesus?"

Started in 2003, ECR has trained approximately 3,000 volunteers to be home-based caregivers who get "out of the four walls of church and into the community and [are] providing care for HIV/AIDS [patients]," Lewis said. ECR now has volunteers in 24 of Zambia's 72 districts.

"I can only go and visit so many homes; I can only go and do True Love Waits [an abstinence-before-marriage program] in so many places," he said. "But right now through [ECR] we've been able to exponentially increase the impact we've been able to make through helping people discover that God has put them here for a purpose."

ECR has expanded its ministries to help people with other debilitating illnesses such as cancer, age-related conditions and strokes. Caregivers also distribute mosquito nets and teach people how to prevent malaria — another deadly threat in Zambia.


Understanding their pain
God began to prepare Lewis for ministry as a boy.

"If there was any type of bacteria or virus in the county, I invited it into my body to multiply and use as a petri dish," he joked. During kindergarten and first grade, he missed more than 60 days of school due to illness.

"I remember just ... looking out the window, just wishing I could be well like everyone else, like the other kids," he recalled. "... [I] asked God, 'Why is this happening?'"

Lewis' frequent childhood illnesses stunted his athletic development. He also wore hand-me-downs since money was tight for his family — issues that made him an easy target for school kids who teased and ostracized him.

As he grew older, Lewis overcame his frequent sickness and lack of coordination; being ridiculed, however, had a more lasting effect.

When Lewis went on his first mission trip as an adult to Zambia and Kenya, his team visited people suffering with AIDS; many are rejected by their communities because of the stigma associated with the disease. As Lewis talked with the victims, painful memories came flooding back.

"I knew that look of just being sick and just wishing that you could be like everybody else.... It really kind of explained all those years I asked, 'Why God?'" he said. "Out of that pain in my life there — it didn't compare with the pain these people were going through — but it gave me this heart for these people that were rejected, ostracized and sick."


Reaching the community
Lewis has made sure that ECR also serves communities through disaster relief, hunger relief, AIDS testing, providing income-generating activities, teaching savings plans, supporting schools and helping vulnerable children.

He is helping churches realize that when they lead people to Christ, they "give them the Good News about heaven, but then also we share ... that God has put you here for a purpose — Psalm 139 — how God has created us and how He expects us to be a steward of our time, of our lives, of our resources, of what we have to glorify [Him]."

AIDS in Zambia affects 13.5 percent of the population — nearly 1 million people. Though the pandemic seems overwhelming, HIV infections actually decreased by 25 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to UNAIDS.