Psalms 23:4 (NIV)
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
At 9am every Saturday morning, between twenty and thirty women and men gather at Tatu Charles’ home in Nganza Commune. They began gathering together in 2007. They are different ages, but most are women. They do different types of work, but many of them farm. They worship in different churches. Despite these differences, they all share one thing in common. Each member of this group has HIV/AIDS. They originally began meeting to remind each other to take their anti-retroviral drugs. They also began coming together for mutual encouragement. People living with AIDS are often misunderstood. Many people in Congo believe that persons with AIDS practice witchcraft. Those afflicted with AIDS often live in shame, unwilling to expose their sickness. Yet this group is different. They do not live in shame. They are open about their malady. They want others to know that AIDS exists, and that it kills. They reach out to others who are living in darkness and fear. This group of courageous women and men have given their group a name - “Diakaja,” which means the act of transforming something bad into something good.
Pastor Albert Kabue Muela finished his doctoral studies last year in Kinshasa. He returned to Kananga early this year. He began inquiring to discover if any groups of HIV/AIDS patients were meeting regularly. Through a former classmate from seminary, he was introduced to Diakaja. Pastor Kabue expressed his interest in meeting with them and doing a Bible study. Having heard Pastor Kabue preach on the radio, members of Diakaja were happy to welcome him into their fold. Pastor Kabue, usually paying his own way, travels by ‘moto taxi’ every Saturday morning to be with this group of AIDS patients. With warmth, humor, humility and love, he leads them through a Bible study. Each member actively participates in the study and feels affirmed.
Three weeks ago I had the privilege of joining Pastor Kabue to visit Diakaja. I met Kabue at his home, and after a short motorcycle ride, we arrived. We sat together with Diakaja members in a large circle under a tree. Tatu Charles, President of Diakaja, described how the meeting would commence and gave a few announcements. Each person introduced themselves. Pastor Kabue was then asked to pray and lead us in the study. That morning we studied Psalm 23. Pastor Kabue read slowly through the psalm twice. Then he or I would read one or two verses at a time, allowing members of the group to ask questions and provide comments. Pastor Kabue facilitated the study with grace and patience. He gave wonderful insights to supplement what was shared by group members.
The passage came to life for group members as we reflected on the role of a shepherd caring for his sheep, and how God tenderly and watchfully cares for us, His children. The group’s reflection of verse four stands out in my memory. Verse four reads, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.” After reading these verses, Charles said “This verse is for us. As AIDS patients we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We don’t know when death will come, but it is ever present for us.” Everyone in the group resonated with Charles’ comment. Later they shared the many challenges they face: work despite physical weakness, paying school fees for their children, and paying for drugs to repress sickness. Despite these challenges, members of Diakaja exuded a quiet confidence that God is with them as they travel through this valley.
Psalm 23 reminds us all that God is indeed with us, even through the darkest valley. May God bless the Diakaja group, and Pastor Kabue as he seeks to encourage and comfort those afflicted by HIV/AIDS.