By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007
MOUNT AIRY, Md., Nov. 30 -- Sporting a small red ribbon on his lapel to mark World AIDS Day, President Bush spent close to an hour in the music room of a small church here Friday listening to the tales of religious groups on the front lines of the battle to prevent and treat what is still the world's most devastating killer.
Rebecca Mink, a Christian missionary, related for the president how she and her husband set up a home in Namibia for 55 children orphaned by AIDS. Chris Dominick, a real estate agent and member of McLean Bible Church, described his plans to head to Zambia this weekend on a church mission to work with children who have AIDS.
A regal-looking Zambian woman known as "Auntie Bridget" noted that she is both a beneficiary and an implementer of the president's ambitious anti-AIDS initiative. Known as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the program is devoting about $15 billion over five years to buy antiretroviral drugs, create prevention programs and fund assistance for people suffering from the disease all over the world.
"I've seen the Lazarus effect," Bridget Chisenga of Catholic Relief Services told Bush. "I have seen hopes being raised. I have seen people coming back to life. And my message is, 'We are celebrating life to the fullest.' "
Bush appeared taken with her presentation. "You spoke volumes," the president told Chisenga, to laughter in the tiny room. "You wrote a novel."
After devoting much of his week to promoting Middle East peace, Bush took time Friday for another of his international initiatives. More than 1.3 million people infected with the AIDS virus are receiving antiretroviral treatment through PEPFAR, compared with 50,000 in sub-Saharan Africa only a few years ago, according to Mark R. Dybul, the global AIDS coordinator for the U.S. government.
To mark World AIDS Day, which is Saturday, Bush aides hung a 28-foot-tall red ribbon at the North Portico of the White House Friday morning before he and first lady Laura Bush boarded a helicopter that was to take them to Calvary United Methodist Church here.
After meeting with the AIDS service providers, Bush called on Congress to once again double spending on the PEPFAR initiative for the next five years, to $30 billion in all. He also announced that he will travel to Africa early next year to check on the results of the U.S. effort.
Asked Friday whether the United States is doing enough to combat AIDS at home, White House press secretary Dana Perino said: "We are putting resources and money towards it. . . . There is a need here in America, but there is also a need in other countries, including Africa, Latin America and Asia."
Some elements of the president's program have stirred controversy, such as the amount of money devoted to abstinence education, and experts say the long-term results of the new spending are yet to be known. On Friday, Bush chose to emphasize only the role of about 20 percent of the contractors, which come from the religious community. The White House calls them partners.
Bush focused on the moral dimension of what the United States is doing to fight AIDS. "I believe to whom much is given, much is required, and the United States has been given a lot," Bush said.
"It is in our moral interest," he said of the global AIDS initiative. "It lifts our spirits and souls to help neighbors in need, whether it's a neighbor across the street or a neighbor in the global community."
Bush appeared moved by his guests' personal stories of faith. After Dominick told of the calling he felt "from the Lord to go on a mission," Bush observed that it is "pretty remarkable" for "total strangers" to go to the other side of the world to help people in need.