Tiburon pastor William Rankin co-founded nonprofit to bring HIV/AIDS care to Africa
The Rev. William “Bill” Wright Rankin, a longtime rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church who helped implement health-care programs in resource-deprived regions in Africa as cofounder of nonprofit GAIA Global Health, died July 22 at his Tiburon home of chronic respiratory disease. He was 80.
Born Oct. 10, 1941, in Schenectady, N.Y., to Dorothy and Gordon Rankin, the Rev. Rankin was raised outside Syracuse and attended The Manlius School, a military boarding school. He received a bachelor’s in history from Duke University in 1963 and a master’s in divinity from the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass., in 1966. He was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1967 and subsequently earned a doctorate in ethics from Duke in 1977 and a master’s in public policy sciences there in 1979.
His career as priest began at Trinity Church in Elmira, N.Y., where he was curate, and continued at All Saints Church in Pasadena and St. Bartholomew’s Church in Pittsboro, N.C. For the next 17 years, he served in various positions in both the clergy and public social services.
In 1983, he and his family moved to Tiburon so he could take a job as rector at St. Stephen’s, where he served for the next 10 years. During that time, he volunteered for two years at San Quentin State Prison.
“He was a towering figure and, in my life, he was such a mentor,” said Sandra Ogden, a longtime former member of St. Stephen’s who now lives in San Rafael. Ogden was a patron and trustee of the baroque orchestra American Bach Soloists, which was founded at St. Stephen’s with the Rev. Rankin’s assistance; he also served as a founding trustee.
“He had great insight and every single week in his sermons, we learned how we could try to conduct our lives and he did it all with grace and humor and absolutely beautifully chosen words,” Ogden said. “He was so eloquent. His words were a guide to life and to trying our best to be useful human beings.”
In a statement, best-selling author Anne Lamott, who grew up in Tiburon and came to know the Rev. Rankin well, described him as a “lifelong advocate for social equality, solidarity and peace.”
“From his first days as a priest, he fought to awaken his various congregations to the worldwide suffering of the poor and teach them ways that they might work to alleviate the underlying poverty and injustice,” she said, adding that he had “a great heart, crystalline intelligence, thirst for truth and a dry and devastating sense of humor.”
The Rev. Rankin left St. Stephen’s in 1993 to take up the post of president, dean and Charles B. Wilson Professor of Christian Ethics at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. In 1998, he stepped aside and returned to Tiburon.
At a conference while working with Episcopal Bishop William E. Swing on the United Religions Initiative, he met Jones Laviwa, a public-health official from Malawi, in southeastern Africa. Laviwa told the Rev. Rankin about the public-health challenges he faced in his country, particularly with HIV and AIDS.
The Rev. Rankin wanted to help. In 2000, he teamed up with the late Charles Wilson, a top brain surgeon and researcher at the University of California at San Francisco who had become a good friend, and they founded the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance, now GAIA Global Health. They worked with U.S. agencies, the Malawi Ministry of Health and local and Malawian communities to battle the spread of HIV in Africa. Its mission expanded to help Malawi tackle tuberculosis and malaria and expand quality affordable health care there.
GAIA’s strategy was to focus on remote villages beyond the reach of other aid organizations and to train and empower rural Malawian women to care for their fellow villagers.
What started with the help of donations from individuals, religious groups and family foundations grew with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
GAIA also has done some limited work in Liberia and is looking into expanding into Zambia, said Ellen Schell, a senior adviser for the organization.
In 2000, there were more than 51,000 deaths a year due to AIDS in Malawi alone, and more than 1 million people living with HIV, Rankin said in a 2011 Ark interview.
By 2020, deaths were down to 17,000 per year, and the number of people living with HIV in Malawi in 2021 was 904,000. That latter number is considered progress, Schell said. She cited a comprehensive survey conducted by the Malawian government that noted that because Malawi has had such success in getting people on antiretroviral therapy, people with HIV are now getting the help they need to live longer with the condition, so that number has remained stable.
The survey found that about 88 percent of Malawian adults living with HIV were aware of their HIV-positive status. Among adults living with HIV who were aware of their status, nearly 98 percent were on antiretroviral treatment. Among adults on that treatment, about 97 percent had suppressed viral loads.
Since its formation, the nonprofit has helped get 459,000 life-threatening AIDS cases treated, conducted 108,000 HIV tests and seen a decrease in HIV-positive results from 23 percent to 4 percent of those tested, according to the organization.
In addition, the organization has helped treat pneumonia, conduct sexual and reproductive health consultations and deployed nursing-school graduates to the far corners of Malawi and Liberia.
As needed, GAIA partnered with other organizations to provide emergency food and supplies following local disasters such as devastating floods.
The Rev. Rankin traveled to Malawi frequently over the years, making his last trip in 2015, as his lung disease began to take a more serious toll on his health.
Schell called the Rev. Rankin “a visionary leader and a man of deep goodness, compassion for others and a commitment to making a more just and equitable world.”
“He knew that Malawian people understood the challenges they faced in the HIV epidemic and should take the lead in creating solutions,” she said. “He was ahead of the curve on decolonizing global health and built that into the DNA of GAIA. His ability to inspire people in the Marin community and elsewhere in the U.S. to care about a small country half a world away made a huge difference.”
The Rev. Rankin also served as lecturer and on faculty of many universities and institutes, including at Duke; Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena; Church Divinity School of the Pacific and Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley; Meyer Friedman Institute of Mount Zion Medical Center in San Francisco; Homerton College in Cambridge, England; and the University of California at San Francisco, where he had a clinical professorship.
Over the last 45 years, he served on numerous councils and committees related to his mission of social service, including as chair of the ethics committee at Hospice by the Bay, as a member of the institution review board of MarinHealth Medical Center and as a member of the 2018-2019 Marin County Civil Grand Jury.
He authored four books, including “The Nuclear Arms Race: Countdown to Disaster” in 1981; “Confidentiality and Clergy: Churches, Ethics and the Law” in 1990; “Cracking the Monolith: The Struggle for the Soul of America — A Peace and Justice Manifesto” in 1994; and “A Life of Service: Jones Laviwa, Refugees, Poverty and AIDS in Rural Malawi Villages” in 2017.
In addition, he wrote chapters for eight other books, 40 book reviews and 80 journal articles, including “Where are our leaders?” in the June/July 1982 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and “Malawi Women and HIV: Socio-cultural Factors and Barriers to Prevention,” published in the journal Women and Health in 2005.
He also espoused his views toward social justice in letters to the editor published in The Ark over the years. A May 1, 1985, letter took then-President Ronald Reagan to task for his official visit to the gravesites of World War II German soldiers and SS officers.
A 2017 letter addressed the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., when a participant deliberately rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 35.
“The recent tragedy … prompts my hope that all racial, religious and ethnic minority people in our community feel safe, secure and abundantly welcome here,” he wrote.
The Rev. Rankin collected more than a dozen awards and fellowships, including the 2009 Purpose Prize fellowship from the Civic Ventures Foundation of San Francisco; the 2004 Scholar-in-Residence fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation Center in Bellagio, Italy; the 2015 Beyond Duke Award for Global Service and Leadership from Duke University; and the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Episcopal Divinity School.
The Rev. Rankin is survived by his wife, Sally Heller Rankin of Tiburon, a former associate dean for global health at the University of California at San Francisco School of Nursing who worked side-by-side with her husband at GAIA; two children, Amy Rankin-Williams of Kentfield and Robert G. Rankin of Portland, Ore.; two sisters, Sue Hodge of Roanoke, Va., and Carol Roellich of Tekoa, Wash.; and two grandchildren, Aristéa Rankin-Williams of San Francisco and Aidan Rankin-Williams of Kentfield.
His memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 24 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 14 Lagunitas Road in Ross.
Donations in his memory may be sent GAIA Global Health at P.O. Box 3829, San Rafael, CA 94912; or to the Richmond Community Foundation, 3260 Blume Drive, Suite 110, Richmond, CA 94806.
Reach Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.