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A ‘shameless girl’ addresses church leaders

Angélique Machozi and her husband, Patrick Kisembo.

Patrick Kisembo describes how his HIV-positive wife, Angélique, surprised and inspired church leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

My name is Patrick Kisembo.  I am a film maker and a trainer, based in the town of Bunia, in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Angélique with two of her three children

My wife, Angélique Machozi, has been living with HIV for the past several years.  We have three small children, all healthy and living without HIV.  We have a small NGO, Action Chrétienne contre VIH et Sida.  We train church and community groups in ways of reducing the stigma and discrimination attached to HIV, and in preventing the further spread of the virus. Together we have produced a film, L’Espoir est un pouvoir [Hope is Power], about Angélique’s experiences of living with HIV.

Recently we ran a two-day training workshop for 30 leaders of the African Inland Church, using the French and Swahili editions of the manual, Call to Me: how the Bible speaks in the age of AIDS. Soon after the opening of the workshop, Angélique delivered her testimony, in which she described how some church leaders treated her when she seemed likely to die of AIDS-related causes:

“When I was ill in bed, in a very critical condition, many pastors came and tormented me in my room.  Seeing me lying there, they thought I was about to die, so they thought they should prepare me for death.  At that time I wasn’t very familiar with the various aspects of the Christian life, but I held onto a promise from God, which was: “This illness is not leading to death, but is for the glory of God.”  This is what Jesus said to Martha, the sister of Lazarus.  I held onto that promise and I believed that it was meant for me too.  But none of the pastors who visited me mentioned it.  For them, I was simply a shameless girl from whom they expected a confession, and nothing more.  They were really tormenting me by demanding that I should make a confession.  They wanted to hear it from my mouth to confirm what they thought of me, but I didn’t respond.  Some said that I was stubborn, some that I was possessed by a demon which they wanted to exorcise through prayer…”

After Angélique’s testimony, she asked the participants a series of questions:

- Do you think the pastors behaved well towards me? Most of the participants replied ‘no’.  The pastors should have shown pity towards her.

- If you had been one of the pastors who came to my room, how would you have behaved? Everyone replied that they too would certainly have behaved exactly like the pastors because they had the same understanding of HIV, so they would not have been able to act differently.

- If one of your pastors or other clergy were HIV-positive, how would you react?  There was a big discussion about this question.  Many people said that an HIV-positive pastor should make a confession to the elders’ council, which would suspend him in order to preserve the good image of the church.

- Don’t you think that we would be acting in exactly the same way as the accusers of the “shameless woman” in the Bible, who gave priority to upholding the Law of Moses rather than showing pity towards the woman?  There was another big discussion about this question. There was a strong feeling that it is extremely important to respect the laws and regulations of the church.  But we also discussed whether it is really fair to uphold the laws and regulations of the church if this entails ruining the life of someone who needs our understanding and support in order to survive. This session ended with expressions of regret and remorse.  We all understood that we needed to act like Jesus in the Bible. 

On the following day, however, we had to face up to some more huge issues.  There was a big discussion about whether the use of the condom is sinful.  The pastors often tend to forget that what is sinful is sex outside marriage, not the condom as such.  But they claim the condom is leading young people into having unprotected, pre-marital sex.  This discussion finished with agreement that what we should be teaching young people is the biblical view of sex outside marriage.  We should not be condemning the condom, but discussing it as one means of HIV prevention for those who do not accept the ways of the Bible.  We should also be advocating the use of the condom to prevent HIV transmission when one person in a marriage is HIV-positive and the other HIV-negative, or both are HIV-positive.

Another big issue for discussion was that of couples wishing to get married.  The Church has often tended to discourage couples from marrying if one member is HIV-positive.  Through the discussion we came to the conclusion that couples themselves have the right to decide whether or not to marry.  The responsibility of the Church is simply to ensure that they are well informed about all the implications of their decision. 

We had a lively discussion about confessions of guilt.  Many pastors not only expect people living with HIV to confess that they have sinned, but they also want to know whether their sin was of a sexual nature, after which they will be accused and stigmatised.  We agreed that it is not fair to treat people like this.  Sex is not the only way in which HIV can be transmitted, but these sorts of accusations can destroy the lives of people living with HIV. What is more important is to encourage these people to have a good relationship with Jesus. 

At the end of this two-day workshop, the participants were unanimous in expressing their appreciation for what they had learned.  They were frank about acknowledging their mistakes and sincere in their desire to change their behaviour towards people living with HIV.  HIV and AIDS will no longer be taboo subjects for them.  They will be able to discuss it openly, and also support people living with HIV.

And yet there are still stumbling blocks to be overcome.  One such is the issue of maintaining the ‘holiness’ and ‘order’ of their church.  This can have the effect of prioritising the image of the church at the expense of the wellbeing of an individual living with HIV and in need of support from the church.  As one workshop participant remarked: “We can now talk about HIV and AIDS, we know how to live with and support people living with HIV, but what about the holiness and good order of the church itself?”

See ... Call to Me