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"Elvis ate America before America ate him." — Bono

Bono Returns to Willow Creek


Three years after first sitting down with senior pastor Bill Hybels for the annual Willow Creek Association's Leadership Summit, Bono humbly stated, "So, since the last time we met, I can honestly say that as a person who's really enjoyed giving off about the church, you have completely ruined it for me because the church has done incredible things."

Bono reconnected via video with close to 100,000 people in 140 satellite locations for the Leadership Summit to update Christian pastors and church leaders on how the fight to end global poverty is changing. The 37-minute production titled "Only Love" was created by Prolifik Films in association with the ONE Campaign and the Willow Creek Association, and challenged Christian leaders about "what is possible when the church unites to solve a global crisis." Using the Apollo moon landing video footage as the opening example, Bono narrated that fighting global poverty is this generation's moon shot.

Bono stated in the video, "41 million bed nets distributed in places like Rwanda and Ethiopia. Malaria deaths are down by 50 percent. Isn't that amazing? I heard a story that in Rwanda, that there are corners in Rwanda where they are sending back the drugs, where there's pediatric wards with no children in them and they're saying to keep the drugs in case there are people who need them. There is no doubt in my mind that had the church not woken up on the issue of AIDS that we would not have 2 million Africans on anti-retroviral drugs."

The video showed various U2 performance footage from Chicago in 2005 and the Somerville Theatre in 2009, as well as personal impact stories from three community churches and organizations who were moved after Bono's 2006 Willow Creek appearance. Whittier Area Community Church's worship leader, Bryan Guthrie, asked the question that was on many people's minds, "Why is this message having to come from a rock star?" The church's senior pastor, Bill Ankerberg, put it in slightly different terms, "I thought I had heard a prophet. I thought like I heard God speak through this man, and I wasn't even sure this guy was a believer."

The personal impact stories centered on how, in 2006, Bono reminded people of what Matthew 25:31-46 says, and how their hearts were changed. People like a soccer coach in Lancaster, Pa., who rallied his team around building a new soccer pitch in Khayelithsha, South Africa, or a single mother in Centerville, Minn., who helped her local church raise funds to build a pediatric wing in a hospital in Malawi. With each inspirational personal impact story, the mood of those in attendance at this year's conference became one of hope and action.

"Grace is the thing that finds something in common. And when I see it in Africa, when I see the grace of the way people behave in dire circumstances, whenever I see grace, I am moved by God," Bono said.

Much in the same way Bono called out the church in 2006 to do something about the fight to end global poverty and AIDS, Hybels turned the tables to question why Bono has not been publicly connected to a local church. Hybels asked, "A while ago, you applauded the church and said it's doing better. And yet you yourself have stayed at an arm's distance from a local church. It is very frustrating to me. For some of us you have become such a proponent of it, it just seems like your allegiance to it and your actual engagement in it would be higher than it is. It seems contradictory." As Hybels finished his question, summit attendees were applauding, drowning out the beginning of Bono's answer.

Bono responded first by saying that he fears denominationalism, but then gave a much more in-depth answer: "My father was Catholic and my mother was Protestant, and that's unremarkable anywhere other than Ireland, where I grew up. And I've always found myself equally comfortable or uncomfortable in any churches, and I go where the life is. When I am in New York, I'll go to St. Patrick's Cathedral, a big Catholic cathedral, and I'll go sit in a corner and look at the stained glass windows. If I'm in the southern states of the United States, I'll go to a Baptist church. If I'm near Saddleback, I'm going. If I'm in London, I'll go to an Anglican church. I can get into the formalities. Again, I go where the life is. But, you know, equally, I'm happy just walking down a beach or a road. But what I find really hard to take is a lifeless ceremony and I've seen a lot of that in churches. If I feel there is honesty there, truthfulness; doesn't have to be a charismatic preacher – doesn't have to be the most super-intellectual teaching -- but if there is honesty and humility, and a place where everybody's welcome no matter what they look like or how they act even, then I feel comfortable. I'll go."

Hybels asked Bono if there was a time between 2006 and 2009 where he felt like walking away from the activism and returning to being just a rock star, implying that trying to solve a crisis as big as global poverty is too difficult and too depressing to battle. Bono recalled a time when he was walking through Central Park in New York City and he stumbled upon a man on a park bench who might have been a guardian angel.

"It got very bad a couple of summers ago. So, I always use this image of the man on the moon. And I was walking across Central Park with my head in a bit of a stink with the team and I was really considering just giving up on these fanciful ideas. There was a guy -- a New Yorker -- sitting on a park bench with a plastic bag. And he was just talking to anyone who was walking past, including me. He didn't know that I was in a band or anything like that. He said, 'I've got a copy of The New York Times here. My wife, she told me I had to clean out my room. I've got some old vintage New York Times.' And he said, 'Hey you -- do you want this?' and he reaches in and pulls out a copy of The New York Times with the bold headline 'Man Lands On The Moon' and I said, 'I'll take that.' He said, 'I've got extra -- I've got a bag full,' and I bought them all. And I felt it was some kind of encouragement that there was an angel with a copy of The New York Times in Central Park. So, yes you shouldn't think that any of this stuff is dependent on you, but you shouldn't be surprised that it's hard because there is resistance. There is always resistance to the journey of equality."

Hybels concluded the session by saying that he feels burdened daily that Willow Creek isn't doing enough, or that he isn't doing enough to reach out to the poor. He is working on a Global Leadership Summit "that works in these very difficult areas around the world to try to raise up pastors because we believe pastors will lead churches that will be a part of the solution to all of this."

© @U2/Lawrence, 2009