We lose a friend; Heaven gains a saint

May 30, 2019 | Africa, congo

Dear Mending the Soul friends and partners,

Celestia and I are finally back from Africa. God gave us an incredible month there. I’ll send out a final trip report soon.

Yesterday we lost a dear friend. Heaven gained a saint. In the past 12 years you may have heard us talk about “Mama Abia”, one of our most trusted, faithful ministry partners and founder of a Congolese Christian nonprofit called CEPIMA, a French acronym meaning “Centre for the Protection of the Destitute and Mentally Ill.” Here is one of my favorite pictures of Abia giving a greeting when we visited her center in Oicha. Her joy and love for those she served is well captured in this photo. (Moments after I took this picture one of the patients walked in front of her and began rambling incoherently. Abia lovingly put her arm around her, redirected her, and kept right on talking as if nothing had happened.)

Almost 20 years ago in her home town of Butembo, Congo she founded the first residential center for mentally ill people who have experienced extreme trauma. We visited this center in 2007 on our first Congo trip. We were astounded at her commitment to serve this difficult population under the most difficult circumstances. We visited each of the 25 or so patients, housed 3 or 4 to a tiny dank room. It was here that we met Naama, one of the most difficult cases of trauma (rape by soldiers) they had treated. Naama could no longer speak, had to be force fed, and was catatonic. She almost died a few months after we visited. Here is a picture we took of traumatized Naama on that visit. It haunted us for the next year and we often wondered what had happened to her. Abia’s center barely had enough food for the patients, let alone medicine or mental health professionals. Patients like this seemed quite hopeless.

On that visit we also learned that rebels often came to her center demanding money and her meager supply of medicine. Abia refused to abandon the work in spite of the constant dangers. She described an incident that had taken place in their community a few years earlier when soldiers rounded up an estimated 500 young men and buried them alive in front of the local villagers. The way she described this incident it seemed that she had witnessed it. We couldn’t fathom what experiencing such evil would do to a person. Abia explained that this was one of the atrocities which had caused widespread trauma leading to “mental illness.” Clearly, instead of caving in to such extreme brutality and resultant suffering, Abia was determined to do what she could, by God’s grace, to help her community. She had very few resources—little or no outside funding and very limited support from her community (in 2007 we were the first people, Americans or Congolese, to visit her center in almost 10 years). She and her husband Maurice sacrificed tremendously to launch this ministry.

God multiplied the few “loaves and fish” Mama Abia offered God. In 2008 we were back in the Congo and asked her to come meet us in Beni where we were conducting a conference for prostituted women. We will never forget seeing Abia standing there with her characteristic big smile. The first thing we did after exchanging hugs was to pull out a picture of Naama and ask her what the woman’s name was and if she was still alive. Abia literally began to shout and dance, saying “that’s Naama that’s Naama.” The very next day Abia traveled far into the bush to get Naama from a small village where she was in protective hiding and brought her to see us two days later. Initially we had no idea who the young woman was standing next to Abia until she told us that this was Naama—the traumatized girl in the picture. We had thought Naama was a 35 year old severely mentally ill woman who might well never recover. But the young girl standing next to Abia looked no more than 20. And once she began to speak, it was clear that she was quite lucid and had recovered beyond our wildest dreams. Naama told us that she had no memory of our visit the previous year but Abia and the staff had told her about it and said we had promised to pray regularly for her (a promise we kept). She attributed her dramatic healing to our prayers and the loving care of Abia and her staff. We knew in that moment God was doing miracles at CEPIMA. Here is a picture from that day. Naama is to the left in front of Celestia. When you compare the two Naama pictures, you truly see a divine miracle. To cite our Mending the Soul motto—”the difference is visible.” Since that time we had seen many other incredibly traumatized patients experience miraculous healing at CEPIMA.

In the subsequent years God honored Abia’s faith and sacrifice, dramatically blessing CEPIMA, allowing it to grow explosively. In time she gained great respect from Congolese church leaders and westerners. Since 2007 she developed 4 additional residential centers which serve thousands of people a year. For the past couple years she has done hundreds of trauma healing presentations for church and community leaders using Mending the Soul resources. As the ministry expanded so did the challenges—feeding and housing several hundred men and women every day with no government help whatsoever. Massive influxes of traumatized refugees requesting help. The Ebola epidemic. Five facilities jammed full of seriously ill patients who couldn’t take care of themselves. Frequent violent assaults by patients. Daily threats from rebels and bandits (the last time we visited Butembo, Abia praised God that her largest center hadn’t been invaded and robbed even though every one of the homes surrounded the center had been). A few years ago in a candid conversation Abia told us that by western mental heath standards CEPIMA wasn’t able to offer “standard care”—they had few psychopharmaceuticals, extremely limited resources, and few trained counselors. But she was determined to use every resource God gave her to serve the most needy. She truly lived each day by faith, trusting God in the face of overwhelming obstacles. And God did what only He can do. CEPIMA often witnessed the kind of healing miracles among their patients which we’ve rarely seen in the west.

Most of you know that for several months Mama Abia has been very ill with cancer. Mending the Soul helped her get medical care in Kapala, Uganda and had hoped to fly her to Kenya for much better oncological treatment. But she was too ill to travel. A few weeks ago our team was blessed to visit Abia in Kampala. In spite of her pain and great weakness (she hadn’t been able to eat in over a week), she still evidenced supernatural joy, great concern for others, and deep faith in her Heavenly Father. Today our dear friend Katavo sent me a message saying that last night Mama Abia passed away. This is absolutely devastating to those of us who knew her. She was one of the most godly, loving, joyful people Celestia and I have had the privilege of knowing. I can’t name more than a couple other people I’ve met in my lifetime who persevered year after year under such difficult circumstances and who had such a dramatic impact on thousands of lives. Her eternal reward will be great.

I will close this eulogy with a couple action steps and a thank you:

Please be praying for CEPIMA and its staff. They are truly God’s light in the darkness. The needs in the three cities they serve have never been greater.
Reflect on Mama Abia’s amazing life and let it stimulate you to run the race well until you take your last breath. Abia would be the first one to say that she was a very normal person with normal gifts. But she trusted God tenaciously and served God and those in need with every fiber of her being. She didn’t complain about what she didn’t have but entrusted to God everything she did have. What a great model for us to follow.

Thank you for your prayers and financial support. Your gifts have allowed us over the years to train and resource CEPIMA and many other life changing African organizations. Every time I saw Abia over the years she would ask me to thank our Mending the Soul partners for her. So one final time on her behalf I thank you.

Finally, this link is to a short video interview we did with Mama Abia a few years ago: mendingthesoul.org/stories/congo-cepima/. It captures well her passion and the beauty of our partnership with CEPIMA. Abia is now enjoying her heavenly reward. May we follow in her steps.

In Christ,

Steve and Celestia

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”
2 Timothy 4:7-8

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