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Bono's message resonates at college

Posted on Monday, July 28 @ 12:49:20 UTC by Macphisto
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(Dailyherald.com) -- Somewhere between his tribute to Billy Graham and his tears for dying children in Africa, Bono won over Wheaton College seven months ago.

The world-famous rock star had stopped at the school in December to recruit students in his fight against the AIDS pandemic in Africa. He had been touring the Midwest with various celebrities, explaining his cause and looking for grassroots volunteers.

At the time, no one could have predicted the lead singer of U2 would find his most loyal soldiers on the conservative Christian campus.

The campus has used its political connections and powerful alumni base to push a $15 billion plan to combat HIV and AIDS. It also has formed one of the most active chapters in the country of the Student Global AIDS Campaign.

No other stops on Bono's 2002 "Heart of America" tour have galvanized so quickly or successfully. The college's effort has extended beyond its borders to form an eclectic grass-roots network of professors, religious leaders, activists and soccer moms.

"In terms of organization, they're way ahead of the others," said Jen Bluestein, spokeswoman for DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa), the organization Bono started to help rescue the impoverished continent. "They're politically savvy and they know how to get things done."

The school's reaction, in part, prompted Bono's organization to return to campus again last week. DATA wants the group to keep pressure on Congress as it mulls foreign aid.

The House has earmarked $2 billion in the next fiscal year to battle AIDS, only two-thirds of the amount President Bush pledged in his State of the Union address in January. On Tuesday, lawmakers defeated an amendment that would have restored the relief package to the original $3 billion.

"We're in a moment where things are hanging in the balance," DATA executive director Jamie Drummond said. "The promise hasn't been broken yet."

In an effort to ensure the promise is kept, Drummond and his organization returned to Wheaton Tuesday. The college seemed the logical place to turn given the critical juncture for AIDS funding.

"There is a strategy behind us coming to Wheaton," Drummond said. "You have some of the country's most powerful lawmakers from this area. That's why we're here again. We're trying to shine a spotlight on the issue."

It's an unlikely partnership between Bono's group and Wheaton. Even among the most bizarre political bedfellows, rock stars don't hook up with campuses so conservative students are forbidden to dance.

Their pairing, however, is a testament to excellent timing. Bono appeared at the school as AIDS relief in Africa was becoming a part, albeit a small one, of the Evangelical agenda, said Ashley Woodiwiss, a political science professor at Wheaton College.

The campus, which has a long history of sending missionaries to Africa, was ready to embrace the singer's message. Before Bono spoke, college President Duane Liftin proclaimed Wheaton's solidarity with the cause.

"It was just a ripe moment for this event," Woodiwiss said. "If it had happened five years ago, maybe not. There was something wonderful about that moment."

During his two-hour appearance, Bono encouraged the students to send letters to their congressmen and the president urging them to rescue Africa. He contends Bush - whom he met with earlier this year - has a passion for the cause but needs to know other Americans share it.

More than 17 million Africans have died of AIDS, with an additional 2.5 million expected to die within the next year. About 28 million people - including 1.5 million children - are infected with HIV.

Activists argue it would cost less to thwart the problem now than after the virus destroys the continent. If the disease continues its horrific course, 25 million children are expected to be orphaned by the disease.

If the United States doesn't help, Bono told his Wheaton College audience, they would be as guilty as those who said nothing as the Jews were taken to concentration camps.

"We will be that generation that watched our African brothers and sisters be put on the train," he said in December. "History will judge us."

The next day, the first meeting of the Wheaton College Student AIDS Action Network was held. Within three months, the young group had the second-largest contingent at the national convention.

The college also helped start a grass-roots movement off campus, as well. They gathered local AIDS activists, religious leaders and average residents together to promote the cause.

The group, called the DuPage Global AIDS Action Network, has met about six times since its inception and has made several visits to local congressional offices. At each stop, organizers make sure they have a Catholic, an Evangelical and a soccer mom with them.

"We're trying to show that in diversity there is a unity of voices," said Sister Sheila Kinsey, the network's co-chairwoman and a member of the Wheaton Franciscans.

The group also used its connections at Wheaton College to lobby high-ranking alumni in Washington, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Yorkville and presidential speech writer Michael Gerson.

Gerson wrote the State of the Union address in which Bush promised $15 billion over the next five years to combat AIDS. The president's words were almost verbatim of Bono's address at Wheaton College.

"That's not a coincidence," Bluestein said. "The Wheaton College community has helped spread the message in droves, and the result was the words in the president's speech."

The DuPage group also has pressed local legislators to support the president's Africa agenda.

Local activists have become so dedicated to the cause, DATA officials are only half-joking when they say they call Kinsey and Woodiwiss when they want to get a message to Hastert or Rep. Henry Hyde of Wood Dale, who chairs the powerful International Relations Committee.

"This wouldn't have happened without Sister Sheila and Ashley," Drummond said. "They're the real heroes in this."

Some activists, however, say the group has ignored the AIDS crisis domestically while helping Africans with the disease. Critics contend the Evangelical mindset prefers to help AIDS patients in Africa because the disease is not associated with homosexuality there.

There must be efforts to combat the disease both locally and internationally, said Brad Ogilvie, director of Canticle Ministries, an HIV-AIDS service agency based in Wheaton.

"It's got to be a collaborative process, but I'm not sure that's happening," he said.

Supporters agree the disease should be addressed domestically and have asked the president not bolster African AIDS relief at the expense of efforts at home.

Kinsey, who has worked on local AIDS issues for years, says the network can champion only so many initiatives.

"You can't deal with every issue every time you come to the table," she said.

The DuPage group will spend the next few weeks urging Congress to restore the African AIDS funding to $3 billion. Their efforts will include a letter-writing campaign and informing the public about the president's initial promise.

Their mission will not end any time soon, Woodiwiss said. Though grass-roots efforts often have short attention spans, the interest in battling the African AIDS pandemic only has grown stronger over the pass seven months in DuPage.

"The energy levels are still high," he said. "We'll be here long after Bono."

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