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Eleven years ago, Richard Stearns went to Washington.

Stearns — president of World Vision, the billion-dollar Christian relief organization — joined other faith leaders in lobbying Congress to spend $15 billion combating AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. He acknowledged he and his fellow evangelicals were late to the fight against this pandemic and explained their tardiness with remarkable candor.

At first, he said, Christians perceived AIDS as a disease of gay people and drug users and so, “had less compassion for the victims.” This, from followers of the itinerant, first-century rabbi who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened …” So Stearns’ words offered stark illustration of one of the more vexing failings of modern Christianity: its inability to get there on time.

“There” meaning any place people are suffering, hungry, exploited or simply denied some essential human right. Yes, there are exceptions; let us not deny the good works of good people of faith.

And yet…

On issues where it should take the lead, where it should make noise and news, challenging the status quo, marching in the streets, actively advocating for human dignity, the great body of Christendom always seems to bring up the rear, arriving decades late to the place the rest of the nation has already reached.

It’s not just that delegation joining the AIDS fight nearly 25 years after it began. It’s also churches apologizing 30 years after the Civil Rights Act for supporting segregation. And Christian tardiness in standing up for the right of women to be freed from kitchens. All of which provides a certain context for a recent controversy.

On March 24, World Vision announced it would no longer bar Christians in same-sex marriages from working there. In an interview with Christianity Today, Stearns took pains to say this was no endorsement of those marriages — only a decision to opt out of the argument. “We have decided we are not going to get into that debate.”

Two days later, almost 5,000 of his sponsors having abandoned him, Stearns was backpedaling like Michael Jackson singing Billie Jean. He reversed the new policy, calling it a “bad decision” made from “the right motivations.”

And you know, don’t you, that 20 years from now, Stearns or whoever has his job by then, will reverse the reversal and struggle to explain — again — why so many people of faith were the last to get there.

Why is Christianity so often so slow?

Maybe it’s because there has grown up among us an unfortunate tendency to equate Christianity with conservatism. The effect has been to shrink the gospel of Christ — a radical compassion that touched prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, adulterers, women and other third-class citizens of his time — to a narrow and exclusionary faith of narrow and exclusionary concerns: criminalize abortions, demonize gays and that’s pretty much it.

But you know what?

When children are abandoned, hungry or abused, when some of us are mass incarcerated because of the melanin in our skin, when the poor are exploited by corrupt banks and ignored by useless politicians, these should be matters of religious conscience, too.

And yes, when people are denigrated and denied because of whom or how they love, that, also, should trouble people of faith.

Instead, for many of us, faith becomes this comfortable, pharisaical ritual that gazes outward only to condemn. So one watches World Vision’s reversal of course with dull resignation, knowing all too well what is coming, 20 years down the line.

Maybe by then, more of us will realize: faith is not an excuse for getting “there” last. It’s an obligation to get there first.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

Photo: Amy the Nurse via Flickr

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