I sat sandwiched between Zana and Julie for the second leg of a three-leg-flight to Cape Town. I didn’t know a whole lot about Zana – sure we spent the months prior planning a mission trip and watching documentaries about HIV, but I only knew her in that context. The basics: she worked as an event coordinator at the Grand Ole Opry and this was her first mission trip-that’s what I knew.
“I think God wants me to share my story while we’re in Africa.” Those are the first words she uttered as our plane left the Chicago runway. As we flew over the Atlantic Ocean, her story unfolded and we were in shock. It turned out that Zana had a secret … and, quite frankly, I understood why she kept it.
A little more than a year earlier, Zana had too much to drink-entirely too much to drink. She managed to drive from downtown Nashville onto Interstate 65. She headed south, which was problematic because she had managed to get into the northbound lanes. And that’s when Zana hit a car head on. All she remembers of that evening is sitting in the back of a police car spitting glass from her mouth. She doesn’t remember leaving the bar, she doesn’t remember getting on the interstate, and she doesn’t remember seeing the van-the van carrying a family of three.
She does remember sitting in jail. She remembers the shame of those moments-knowing that as a child of God she had managed to get herself into serious trouble and she was completely unsure of what would happen to her. She remembers the unnerving gratitude she felt that she hadn’t killed or even hurt anyone in the accident. She remembers going to work and never mentioning a thing about her weekend. She kept her secret from her family, her coworkers and her church. Somehow, she managed to go to court, serve a little more time in jail, and function an entire year without a driver’s license and hardly anyone noticed.
While we were in Africa, our team led a spiritual retreat for the caregivers at Living Hope, a nonprofit that works in Cape Town and surrounding townships to provide palliative care for HIV+ individuals. We gathered all their over-worked social workers and caregivers together and spent two days doting on them, praying with them, and doing our best to provide a “break” from their incredibly challenging lives. During our evening session, Zana was to share her story with the 80 or so caregivers and our team. I’ll be honest… I was nervous for her-nervous that some would judge her, even those on our team; nervous about how her story would be received; nervous because this would be the first time, other than our flight to Africa, that she shared her story.
Standing in front of the caregivers, she wept as she explained that she didn’t know why God brought her halfway around the world to share her story for the first time. She admitted that she had felt so much shame that she had kept quiet about her sin, about her situation. Sitting in that room I could do little more than pray and wipe tears from my face as she made herself the most vulnerable person in the room. I watched as tears rolled down the tired faces of African women who carry secrets of their own-secrets of HIV status, of rape, of God knows what. And I recognized in that moment that no one else in our group could relate to those sweet people like Zana could. They were moved by her story and they spent the following hour or so singing praises and thanking God for his mercy and grace. As they sang “Blessed Assurance” the words “this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day-long” meant something altogether new to me.
I’m still processing all the things I’m learning from Zana. She’s evidence that God can turn a life around; He can redeem the biggest mistakes we make. I’m convicted when I consider how she carried her burden alone for so long, how she went through the motions and nobody noticed. I recognize the intentional nature of God in her story – how she could relate so closely to the shame many HIV positive Africans feel. I see the power and freedom confession brings to a life, how she let go of her pride and found freedom in Christ and I am compelled to live honestly, even if it’s scary.
We came home from Africa in March. Zana told her family the truth about her life. She quit her “dream job” and packed her bags for Africa where she’s volunteering for the next four months. While she’s there, I can’t stop thinking about the miracle that her life is – how God allowed one girl to go from a sobering jail cell to a land and a work that’s as beautiful as South Africa in no time at all.