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Bono's quest to save the world continues
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of Relevant Magazine

Super Bowl Sunday might be the most hyped up sporting event of the year, but when it came to 2002's pursuit of victory rings, athleticism took a back seat to patriotism. At the centerpiece of that momentous post-September 11th contest was none other than U2, who turned in half-time healing soundtrack on the heels of its continent crossing "Elevation" tour. As The Edge blazed into the opening chords of "Where the Streets Have No Name," a gigantic tapestry with a list of names representing the attack victims raised up behind the band. As the flowing backdrop landed in place and Bono paid tribute to the list of heroic victims with a victory lap around the stage, the audience roared with approval, tears streaming down faces.

Nearly four minutes later, The Edge returned to that same riff to close out the song, and Bono once again stood front and center ready to send a message. After singing the final lyric, Bono positioned his hands in the shape of a heart and soon trusted open his coat to reveal the outline of a United States flag on his lapel. The television cameras panned in on the red, white, and blue stars and stripes as the song reached its climatic conclusion, and at that moment, the heart of America rested in the rock star's hand.

It's a position the Irishman's tapped into several times throughout his career of rocking stadiums and impacting the masses. There was the Live Aid concert of 1985 where U2 joined an all-star performers' cast summoning all to assist African poverty. There was his same era participation in the Amnesty International tours to uncover the unjust imprisonment in nations without governmental regulation. There have been single recordings to benefit the hungry ("Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "What's Going On?"), numerous quests for racial equality, and even assistance with the Jubilee's "Drop the Debt" campaign. Despite his rock star occupation and an aura of fame that could easily swell any man's head, Bono's consistently demonstrated his social and spiritual consciousness through such tireless activism, that's most recently focused on AIDS in Africa interests. "I get really bugged when I hear people saying that Bono should keep out of politics and stop trying to save the world. It usually comes from music critics who are selling magazines through the idol of celebrity," notes Steve Stockman, author of Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 (Relevant). "When is it more useful to make a number one single than keep people alive? I think Bono has a radically subversive mindset in the rock world. His priorities are amazingly well balanced for a rich pop idol."

With the aforementioned resume of relief and U2's frenetic recording and traveling schedule over the last two decades, it would be understandable for its front man to recharge his batteries, especially following the toil of its last expansive "Elevation" outing. However the last year and a half's worth of events has proved opposite, as Bono's re-commitment to African relief has manifested in the formation of DATA- an awareness raising organization surrounding African debt, AIDS, and unfair trade that keep Africans poor. No sooner did Bono lend his healing touch on America's wounds at the Super Bowl than he empowered the country to reach out beyond its specific terror-inducing incident to a land faced with the daily horrors of disease and poverty. To do just that, the touring titan loaded up some buses with a pool of his celebrity friends (including actors Ashley Judd and Chris Tucker) DATA representatives, and AIDS experts, empowering people of faith across several cities on the appropriately titled "Heart of America" tour.

"There's a lot at stake here, obviously lives of people," Bono told journalists backstage at a briefing on the Chicagoland date. "I think Judeo-Christian culture is at stake. If the church doesn't respond to this, the church will be made irrelevant. It would [be] like the way you heard stories of people watching the Jews get put on the trains during the Holocaust. We will be that generation who watched our African brothers and sisters get put on the trains."

Bono's gripping analogy comes as a result of several staggering statistics, from the stomach-churning rate of 4.1 million African AIDS patients that are in need of medical treatment to the shocking 9,500 that contract the HIV virus each day. With his signature glasses tucked in his sport coat pocket and a green bureau atop his slicked back hair, the iconic artist further divulged the drama afflicting Africa's endless streets with no name. "'Love thy neighbor' is not a piece of advice, it's a command," he said with insistence. "Christ talks about the poor [and says] 'whatever you have done to least of these brothers of mine, you've done to me.' In Africa right now, the least of my brethren are dying in shiploads and we are not responding. We're here to sound the alarm."

And off Bono went to public assemblies with colleges and churches, private meetings with politicians and pastors, lunches at roadside diners, coffee at truck stops, and hand shaking everywhere in between. Though the power of this man's music may have been instrumental in uniting such a vast array of people, clearly Bono's ability to relate to address the issue on everyone's level was vital to the tour's effectiveness.

"Bono, it would seem, is very well researched in not only his message but also in who he sends his message to," says Stockman. "When he walked into the Oval Office he strategically figured out that a Texan conservative Christian was his target and thus he used what was most dear to George W.- The Bible- to get his message through."

As indicated by numerous press reports over the last year, such meetings struck a chord with each demographic, right up to the top of the food chain that resides in the White House. In a follow-up phone call briefing from his Dublin home, Bono cited the tour's campaign efforts as a primary source for converters to the cause. "A lot of [those] who worked on the "Heart of America" tour are the reasons why the president has put AIDS on the bill of his State of the Union speech," he shared. "I believe the president is sincere in his convictions to put America up front in a way that hasn't been done before on these issues, but we have to make sure that his intentions are not undone [by Congress]. All of us involved need to [be] watching the process and not [be] fooled by a check written. It's not the check signing that I'm impressed with; it's getting the check cashed—because it is potentially life changing and life saving for millions of people."

Aside from loosening the bonds of political grip on the issue, Bono has also broken down stereotypes within church walls and pointing out the errors of some Evangelical communities in need of scolding. One myth often associated with contracting AIDS is that it stems from sexual irresponsibility, often traced to same gender relations. "It's a remarkable thing, the idea that there's some sort of hierarchy to sin," explained Bono. "It's something I can never figure out, the idea that sexual immorality is somehow much worse than, say, institutional greed. Somewhere in the back of the religious mind is this idea that we reap what we sow is missing the entire New Testament and the concept of grace completely."

That being said, Bono equated the DATA cause as a movement, which not only has the ability to chip away at Africa's numerous problem base, but also loosen the bonds of prejudice and ethnocentrism he justifiably aimed at America and the Church. "It feels very much like a Civil Rights movement for our generation because in the end it's about equality and we mustn't forget that," he continued. "A human life has value to God wherever it lives and we're not being let off the hook with geographical location being an excuse for somebody's life to be wasted. There's an excitement being part of that movement."

Prior to those productive encounters with the Christian community, Bono's opinions of the church were a lot less than stellar. Aside from never fitting into the Christian artist mold and being shunned by church crowds for regularly incorporating swearing into his vocabulary, he admitted labeling believers as inactive. "I kind of thought the church was asleep and it turned into a 'holy-bless-me club' or whatever you want to call it, [but] I'm glad to say I was wrong," he admitted. "Particularly evangelicals, who seemed very judgmental to me over the years, turned out to be incredibly generous in their time and their support of this effort. I've really had my view of the church turned upside down, but I will be honest. It's ruined things for me now. People are asking "why aren't I at mass?" It's a bitch, but it's [also] given me great faith in the church. I have always had it in God."

However, it's quite evident that Bono's spiritual emphasis was never missing from the U2 equation ever since the band debuted with Boy in 1980. Perhaps it was just overshadowed by critical interpretation, unfair scrutiny by the Christian community, and more headline stock in being a controversial celebrity than caretaker. "I wouldn't say that his spiritual awakening is a recent thing, it probably happened when he was a teenager and asked Christ into his life," defends Martin Smith, singer for UK alternative rockers Delirious. "His work has been spiritually 'alive' throughout his career and his challenge to the church to tackle the AIDS issue is only an extension of that."

Smith's comments come on the heels of his participation in a compilation set up to assist the AIDS crisis called In the Name of Love: Artists United for Africa. The disc culls together songs made popular by U2, while its proceeds will go to World Vision, a relief organization founded in 1950 that's also instrumental in taking on this crisis. Although it may be an unrealistic that a CD's profits will wipe out an entire epidemic, it's one of the many proactive examples that will make a difference. "A lot of people don't know how to support projects like these [and] not practical for most people to get on a plane and deliver medicine and supplies to the sick people in third world countries," notes Sanctus Real vocalist Matt Hammitt, a fellow contributor to In the Name of Love. "This record, however, is a practical way for both artists and music buyers to fight AIDS in Africa."

More than just one's purchasing or performance ability, elimination of the illness hinges on people's ability to spread the word to those around them and put their money in from of their mouth. Aside from DATA and World Vision, outlets like the Jars of Clay founded Blood:Water Mission and several of Steve Stockman's suggestions are making waves. "DATA, along with many other organizations like The Awake Project, Christian Aid, Tear Fund etc. are showing how trade law [and] third world debt are intrinsically linked to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa," he asserts. "As well as helping we need to ask why the situation has arisen and campaign against the injustice that is there. If you are not doing something in your life to help in some small way with the HIV/AIDS pandemic then you are simply not involved in the bringing Kingdom."

Hearing Bono champion American citizens in his thick accent and charismatic tone is enough to get even those who consider themselves average off their butts and in the center of the storm. "People are more powerful than we think," he confirmed. "This country is great because it's a country of individuals. I think calling the politicians and the congressmen and saying this matters to you is a really important thing to do. Calling the president and writing the president [even]. We're not asking for money here. We feel we've already given the money. We're asking you to give the president permission to spend the money on this problem."

Though the focus as of late has been on the latest cause to come across Bono's radar, don't expect him to quit the day job anytime soon. Pursuing a new U2 album, undoubtedly steeped in social concern and spiritual enlightenment is on the horizon, squelching any rumors that he'll enter the full time political or activism occupations. "I think as the old adage goes, I wouldn't move to a smaller house," he said laughing. "I don't think my job is politics. I think my job is to break the ground for politicians to allow our activists to sow seeds. Ideas of changes have always come from culture. In a healthy democracy and society there should always be exchange between the art, economics and politics. Great ideas and great melodies have a lot in common [and] this is one of them."

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