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By holding onto this person, I felt like I was holding onto the whole audience. -- Bono, on his dance with the girl at Live Aid

Bono Preaches, Pleads for Aid to Africa

Grand Rapids Press
"My name is Bono, and I'm in fightin' form."

With that, Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, had the attention of tuxedo-and-cocktail-gown crowd of more than 2,000 who packed the Economic Club of Grand Rapids' annual dinner at DeVos Place.

As he took the podium, Bono referred to his only previous appearance in Grand Rapids, a U2 concert at Fountain Street Church in 1981. He joked he was hurt that only 100 people showed up (there really were about 1,100), so he hadn't come back until Thursday.

"I do remember telling the assembled young people in a disused church that I would not be preaching at them," Bono said, wearing a jacket, black shirt and amber sunglasses. "Ladies and gentlemen, I offer you no such assurances."

Preach he did.

In an hourlong speech peppered with pleas, preaching and occasional self deprecation, Bono implored the crowd to awaken to the AIDS and poverty crisis in Africa, which he likened to a preventable modern-day Holocaust.

"We are watching people being loaded onto the trains, and we know where they are going," said Bono, who turns 46 next week. "But the end of the story need not be the same. The people of Africa need not be condemned. We, you, I will not be complicit...We will not turn away as the trains roll past. We will go down to the tracks, and we will lie across them."

Bono's pleas were part of his quest to gain widespread public and government support for spending an additional 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid.

So far, the One Campaign, launched by an organization Bono helped co-found, has signed up 2 million Americans committed to the additional aid.

He expects to have 5 million campaign supporters by 2008, which he noted will make the organization bigger than the National Rifle Association.

Bono, whose given name is Paul Hewson, said Africa is more than a cause. It's an emergency.

About 6,500 Africans die every day of AIDS because they lack drugs "that anyone can buy at any drug store," he said.

"If you look at what happened in South Asia with the tsunami, you had 150,000 lives lost in an instant to that great misnomer of all misnomers, Mother Nature," he said. "Well, in Africa, 150,000 lives are lost every month -- a tsunami every month. And it's not a natural disaster. It is a completely avoidable catastrophe."

Taking action is not about charity, but about justice, he said. Solving the crisis in Africa can be this generation's moonshot, its Freedom Ride.

"Africa is a continent bursting into flames and deep down, if we really accepted that Africans were equal to us, we would all do more to put the fire out."

He drew some of his biggest applause by giving Midwestern values a pat on the back.

"People say, 'Oh, the Midwest. They don't care.' But rubbish. There's a moral compass in the heart of this country that sets the tone for the rest of this nation."

He also noted the faded American "brand" in some parts of the world could use some polishing.

"You can't fight the war on Iraq and cut the budget on the compassionate side of communicating America's ideals and values," he said.

At a VIP reception before the dinner, Bono met with a group that included David Van Andel, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, former Perrigo Chairman Michael Jandernoa and Steelcase CEO James Hackett, who introduced Bono during the dinner.

Bono flubbed the Van Andel name when he praised the work David Van Andel had told him was taking place in Grand Rapids to research new medicines.

After asking the audience the proper way to say Van Andel, Bono joked: "I can only remember one name, you know, Bo-no."

Renee Van Keulen, a lifelong U2 fan from Grand Rapids, bought a ticket to the speech, sheepishly admitting she probably wouldn't normally attend an Economic Club event.

She stood outside, a tattooed Joshua Tree on her leg commemorating one of U2's most beloved albums, for more than an hour before the doors to the event opened, hoping to get a hug, handshake or autograph.

She struck out, but said she had no regrets.

"It was absolutely amazing," she said. "It was disappointing not to meet him in person, but it was not disappointing at all to hear him speak. I'm hoping he realizes that Van Andel Arena would be a really cool arena to play a gig."

She may get her wish. Bono pledged he wouldn't wait another 20 years to return to Grand Rapids.

The evening also honored businessman and philanthropist Ralph Hauenstein with the Slykhouse Lifetime Achievement Award and Wolverine World Wide Chairman and CEO Timothy O'Donovan as Business Person of the Year.

Bono, who spent time prior to the program talking with Hauenstein, couldn't hold back from complimenting the spry 94 year-old: "What a cool cat...Who's the rock star here tonight?"

© Grand Rapids Press, 2006.