While Helen Roseveare was a medical student, she attended a missionary gathering in North England and declared publicly, "I'll go anywhere God wants me to, whatever the cost." During her address at Urbana 76, she remembered:
Afterwards, I went up into the mountains and had it out with God. "O.K. God, today I mean it. Go ahead and make me more like Jesus, whatever the cost. But please (knowing myself fairly well), when I feel I can't stand anymore and cry out, 'Stop!' will you ignore my 'stop' and remember that today I said 'Go ahead!'?"
Restless and Eager to be Admired
Born in 1925, Helen was raised in a comfortable English family. In her book, Give Me This Mountain, she admits that as a child she was "endlessly active, restless with animal spirits, always in mischief, with an urge to excel, to be noticed, to be the centre of the group, an inner need to be admired" (page 12), characteristics with which she struggled, in one form or another, all her life. One day in Sunday School the teacher talked to the class about India, and she made a quiet resolve that one day she would be a missionary, a child's determination that never faded.
Growing older, she loved the quiet atmosphere and rich ritual of her Anglican heritage but admitted to feeling a great lack of help in addressing daily needs and problems upon leaving the services. Instead there was only a great sense of emptiness and futility; a great void. She felt that God could meet both her need and the crushing, overwhelming problems of the world she was studying about, but found herself asking Where is He? How can I find Him? How can I become part of His pattern, and lose myself in Him?
Feeling steadily drawn to medicine, she enrolled in Cambridge University and came to participate in the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU) through a woman named Dorothy. Helen attended the daily prayer meeting, the Bible Studies, the weekly biblical expositions, the evangelistic efforts. She formed precious friendships with fellow students. For the first time she read through the New Testament. She began to comprehend intellectually what Christianity was all about, but she still felt she lacked something.
Then at a student retreat she opened her heart to God and experienced his forgiveness in a personal way. When she gave her testimony on the final night, Dr. Graham Scroggie, a veteran Bible teacher wrote Philippians 3:10 in her new Bible, and said to her,
Tonight you've entered into the first part of the verse, "That I may know Him." This is only the beginning, and there's a long journey ahead. My prayer for you is that you will go on through the verse to know "the power of His resurrection" and also, God willing, one day perhaps, "the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death" (R: Cost… page 33).
By this time her childhood interest in missions had matured into a sense of God's call, and after graduating from Cambridge as a Medical Doctor, she applied to the World Evangelization Crusade (WEC) for service in Africa. After six months of orientation and training at the national headquarters, three months of deputation, eight months of French language study in Belgium, and a course on Tropical Medicine in Holland, she was on her way; a missionary at last, 28 years old, but knowing precious little of what awaited her.
She was assigned to the northeastern part of Congo (later called Zaire), where she was the only doctor for two and a half million people. One day while driving to a meeting, her supervisor spoke to her of the Lord's dealings, of the possibilities of success as a missionary.
If you think you have come to the mission field because you are a little better than others, or as the cream of your church, or because of your medical degree, or for the service you can render the African church, or even for the souls you may see saved, you will fail. Remember, the Lord has only one purpose ultimately for each one of us, to make us more like Jesus. He is interested in your relationships with Himself. Let Him take you and mould you as He will; all the rest will take its rightful place (R: Give… page 75).
Her work began in a temporary mud-and-thatch hospital. With the help of local workman, this graduate of Cambridge made and fired her own bricks and built the buildings they needed. It was her torn and bleeding hands from working at the kiln that impressed the Africans that here was not only a White, professional woman, but one willing to pay the cost to stoop down to their level.
They taught her to use an axe, to choose the right tree to resist termites and rotting; to select good clean grass and durable fibers for thatching. She learned how to plan the layout of the building with regard to the prevailing wind, and the slope of the roof to withstand the tropical rainfall. She struggled to learn Swahili, the local language.
The Stresses of Pioneer Medical Service
Within eleven years, a 14 acre plot of land had been turned into a 100 bed hospital and maternity complex with all the necessary buildings and services. Many tens of thousands of sick were treated, scores of whom would have died without the help of the hospital. Each year 100 patients underwent surgery; 100 young men and women were trained as hospital orderlies and assistant midwives; and all the patients heard the gospel through the ministry of the hospital chaplains. In addition, she established 48 rural health clinics in the immediate vicinity of the hospital.
But during these years, stresses and strains developed. The mission assigned Dr. John Harris to the hospital and put him in charge. She had enjoyed her independence, had developed her own priorities, and chafed under this change. She became irritable and resentful. She was exhausted from overwork. She had conflicts with her African colleagues. Her time with the Lord had suffered greatly, and she had less and less interest in prayer and Bible study.
The sensitive national pastor saw the symptoms and invited her to spend a week in prayer and fasting at his home. After several days, the Lord broke through. She later wrote:
I joined the Pastor and his wife round the fire… As they earnestly prayed, slowly the Spirit of God reached through into my heart and broke down the barriers of pride, the frigid restraint, and revealed so much of self. He helped me to unburden my heart, to reveal all the rottenness and sense of failure, the fears and criticisms, the pride and selfishness. Then, so gently and quietly, Pastor Ndugu… led me to look away from myself to the Christ of Calvary. He dealt with the need of restitution on certain points, the need of apologizing and asking forgiveness on certain others, and a great calm came (R: Give… page 104).
The Fellowship of His Sufferings
Five years after arriving in Africa, she took a two-year furlough, with further medical training in England. During that time, as she reflected on her lonely work in Africa, she hungered for marriage; the companionship of a man with whom to share the burden or ministry. The Lord said to her, "Pass the buck to me; I can carry it. Lean on me; I can support you. Love me and let me be a husband to you." But, as she said later, "That wasn't the sort of 'spiritualized' husband I wanted: I wanted a husband with two arms! I told God that he just didn't understand."
She made friends with a fellow student, a single, attractive Christian physician. She set out to win his love and hopefully his proposal for marriage. She bought new clothes, fixed her hair, and even resigned from the mission. But as time went on, she realized that her attitude was essentially rebellion against God and his purpose for her life. Repeatedly, but insistently, the Lord began to deal with her, showing her that her hunger for marriage had become an idol. He brought her to repentance and obedience.
The passionate longings and yearnings all seemed to have been replaced by a quiet acceptance. There was a sense of resignation, perhaps; a consciousness that I had no right—no right to quote terms, no right to expect grace, no right even to feel, to feel saved, or happy, or at peace. I accepted utterly that, by the immense immeasurable grace of God and according to His predetermined counsel, Christ was in me and that He should now live out His life and purpose as He saw fit (R. Give… page 116).
She reapplied to the mission, and they sent her back to the Congo and the hospital. The Harris' were tired and ready for furlough. Once again, she was in charge. But change was in the air. The Congo had declared its independence from Belgium. There was mutiny in the army, and civil war broke out.
Though most missionaries fled the country, she elected to stay. In time, the rebels (Simbas) took over the hospital compound, and she was a virtual prisoner for five months. She witnessed the outpouring of hatred of Africans against the White men's failures: injustices, cruelties, hardships, cheap labor, abuse of women, etc. The rebels were brutal and coarse, rough and domineering. Their language was threatening and obscene. They stole everything they could lay their hands on. She received the brunt of their hatred. She was severely beaten and was raped.
Finally, the national army, with the help of mercenaries, defeated the rebels. She was rescued and flown back to England. As she related in future messages what had happened during those dark days, her theme was not one of anger or self-pity, but how the Spirit had enabled her to thank him for trusting her with that experience, even if explanations of Why? never came.
Building a Training College
Returning to Africa, after a year's furlough, she gave seven years' service in an inter-mission medical project, at the Evangelical Medical Centre of Nyankunde, to establish a 250 bed hospital/maternity complex and leprosy-care center. Her passion was to train Africans for leadership on the practical level. She established a training college for national para-medical workers, including a midwifery course of study for young women. She founded several regional hospitals and dispensaries with a radio-advisory link-up throughout the medical services; a "Flying Doctor Service" through the Missionary Aviation Fellowship to all regional hospitals; and a central supply depot for drugs and equipment.
Along with the joy of using her gifts and seeing concrete results during these years, she continued to experience the cost of serving the Lord. The newly independent nation was pushing for national recognition of its institutions. To achieve such recognition required months and years of dealing with bureaucrats, who seemed to enjoy their newly won authority. It cost her long, tedious, and seemingly endless trips to offices in provincial and national capitals. Her persistence, patience, and the excellence of her work finally paid off. Her training school was not only given official recognition but achieved the highest score.
But the most painful struggle was with her students. Independence seemed to bring out the worst in many of them. The radio was full of tirades challenging the youth to insist on their rights, not to be pushed around, especially by the Whites. Proud of their two years of high school before entering the training program, some felt it was beneath their dignity to do manual work as she worked with them to cut down trees to build their first facilities. The female students rebelled against the idea of being channeled into the midwifery course; they wanted to be "equal with the men," though everyone knew that single women would not be accepted in the villages as para-medical workers and there was a staggering need for mid-wives throughout the whole province.
After the official recognition of the medical school and the development of all the services, she felt her time was coming to an end. The mission had appointed a new couple, both physicians, who were on the way. She felt it was time to turn things over to younger leaders. She planned an event to include the graduation ceremony, a welcoming party for the new doctors, and a farewell for herself. But before the festivities could come to pass, she was forced to resign.
The government had started budgeting subsidies for the students' education in addition to paying partial salaries for the medical personnel. She and her colleagues had generously decided to give 20% of these subsidies directly to the students for personal expenses, a higher percentage than any other institution was giving. But the students felt that they should receive more. They went on strike. They accused her of stealing college funds, of lying, of duplicity, and of falsifying the accounts and report sheets sent to the government. At last, to break the deadlock, she submitted her resignation, which was gratefully received.
[The students] left on Saturday. Not one came to say good-bye or to shake hands. There were no photos of this qualifying class, my last group of students. There was to be no diploma day. All August festivities were to be cancelled—including the choir, despite five months of hard practicing, and no recordings to take home… my pride was truly laid in the dust and trampled upon. 'Is it really worthwhile?' (R: Gave… page 176)
As she pondered this fundamental question, the Lord began dealing with her. She had come to Africa to serve Jesus. This was true. But subconsciously she had also wanted more: respect, popularity, public opinion, success, and pride. She had wanted to go out from a farewell-do that she had organized for herself, with photos and tape recordings to reveal what she had achieved.
She had wanted the other missionaries to be worried about how they would ever make it without her. But the Lord said to her, "'No, you can't have it. Either it must be 'Jesus only' or you'll find you've no Jesus. You'll substitute Helen Roseveare.' A great long silence followed—several days of total inner silence. At last I managed to tell Him that with all my heart I wanted 'Jesus only'"(R: Valley… page 181).
Before she left, however, she had the joy of introducing the new doctors to the hospital complex, the training school, and friends in many other communities. And the nationals put on a farewell party for her. For two hours individuals expressed their appreciation and love for her. Even a small group of students sung an original song asking her to remember them as her sons who loved her and to let God blot out from her memory the sore wound they had tried to inflict on her in their stupidity. Then it was time to leave.
But the questions remained: Was it worth the leaving home, the singleness, the hard work, the suffering—the cost? Speaking about being beaten during the rebellion in her Urbana 76 address, Helen recalls:
I wasn't praying. I was beyond praying. Someone back home was praying earnestly for me. If I'd prayed any prayer it would have been, "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" And suddenly, there was God. I didn't see a vision, I didn't hear a voice, I just knew with every ounce of my being that God was actually, vitally there. God in all his majesty and power. He stretched out his arms to me. He surrounded me with his love and he seemed to whisper to me, "Twenty years ago, you asked me for the privilege of being a missionary. This is it. Don't you want it?"
Fantastic, the privilege of being identified with our savior. As I was driven down the short corridor of my home, it was as though he clearly said to me, "These are not your sufferings. They're not beating you. These are my sufferings. All I ask of you is the loan of your body." And an enormous relief swept through me.
One word became unbelievably clear, and that word was privilege. He didn't take away pain or cruelty or humiliation. No! It was all there, but now it was altogether different. It was with him, for him, in him. He was actually offering me the inestimable privileged of sharing in some little way the edge of the fellowship of his suffering.
In the weeks of imprisonment that followed and in the subsequent years of continued service, looking back, one has tried to 'count the cost,' but I find it all swallowed up in privilege. The cost suddenly seems very small and transient in the greatness and permanence of the privilege.
Can you—will you—believe it and enter into it?
Alan Burgess. Daylight Must Come: The Story of a Courageous Woman Doctor in the Congo (New York: Dell, 1975)
Roseveare, Helen. He Gave us a Valley. A story of frustrations, failures & triumphs. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1976.
Roseveare, Helen. Give me This Mountain. Gleanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2006 (First published in 1966).
Tucker, Ruth A. Guardians of the Great Commission. The Story of Women in Modern Missions. Grand Rapids: Academie, 1988.
Tucker, Ruth A. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya. A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.
Helen Roseveare spoke at three Urbanas:
Urbana 76 "The Cost of Declaring His Glory"
Urbana 81 "The Spirit's Enablement"
Urbana 87 "Motivation for World Missions"