Missionaries are sometimes called a rare breed. They leave home, integrate into a foreign culture and bring a foreign concept (the Gospel) to people who don’t know they need it. Indeed this isn’t normal living. Yet their lives are filled with the victories and disappointments we all share as Christians.
Some face extreme hardship, and by their lives, encourage us all into a deeper walk with the Lord. One such person was Doctor Helen Roseveare.
Born in 1925, in Hertfordshire, England, Helen first learned about World Missions as a child in her Anglican Church Sunday School. Her heart stirred as her teacher shared of the work in India. Helen decided at a tender young age that she would become a missionary too. Her father gave a high priority to education, and so she poured herself into academics, which propelled her to pursue medicine at Cambridge University. But as she matured into adulthood, Helen became aware of a gnawing void in her soul. She never strayed from her Anglican upbringing but longed for something more than the comfortable life she knew as a child. It was at University that the Lord reached out to her in the form of a classmate who invited her to join the local Christian Union. The prayer meetings and Bible studies inspired Helen to read through the entire New Testament, for the very first time.
God broke through to her during a weekend retreat led by Dr. Graham Scroggie. During one of the sessions, Helen received the Lord’s grace with the firm conviction that her sins were forgiven. After the meeting, she went to see Dr. Scroggie to tell him all that had transpired. He opened her Bible and wrote a prayer based on Philippians 3:10 that foreshadowed the Lord’s work in her future.
“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.’” 1
When Helen graduated Cambridge, she joined the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade as a medical missionary to the Belgian Congo.
She then moved to Belgium, where she first learned French, as well as to study Tropical Medicine, before entering into the missionary call she received as a child in Hertfordshire.
Helen arrived in Northeastern Congo in 1953. She determined to work and live among the local community. They taught her how to fire bricks, and she helped build a hospital from the ground up. It was this simplicity and tenacity of spirit that earned her the endearing name, Mama Luka, after the New Testament writer and physician, Luke.2
During those first years, she also established a training center for nurses and opened a maternity ward. Through these years of hard work and struggle, the Lord revealed to Helen her sins of unrelenting willfulness, impatience and ethnic pride.3 Overworked, she found herself disputing with colleagues and nationals, until she was encouraged by her local pastor to spend a week away in prayer and fasting. Through this experience, she received renewal, but she would still be led to return to England to rest and refocus.
While on furlough in Cornwall, Helen enrolled in more medical training. There, she met a young English doctor, and soon a romance developed. Helen considered settling down into married life. Yet the Lord impressed upon her, that she was to remain single—the last thing she wanted to do. After a profound struggle with the Lord, she finally accepted the divine plan, and in 1960, Helen returned to the Congo.
In January 1960, the Belgian government agreed to decolonization. On June 30,1960, the Congo gained its independence and became the République Démocratique du Congo (RDC). But the RDC slid into a political vacuum when the Belgian Government abruptly left the region, causing inner governmental conflicts, which led to rebellions that disintegrated into Civil War by 1964.4
During this time, many missionaries and dignitaries returned home because they were attacked, tortured and often executed. Helen decided to stay. Hers was the only hospital in over a 100 mile radius. When the Simba Rebels came, the villagers tried to shield her, but she was brutalized, raped and taken hostage. Though she experienced the worst evil she’d ever known, Helen testified to the overwhelming sense of God’s presence.5 As the years passed, the Lord ministered to her and gave her new insight into what had transpired. In 1976, she shared these words at the Urbana Missions Conference:
“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.”6
In 1966, Helen Roseveare returned to the RDC and accepted the challenge to build a new hospital in a new location.
Arriving at the site, she discovered she had to build it from the ground up. A missionary doctor worked with her while she trained national doctors. Helen sent out an open invitation to the surrounding villages, and to her surprise, 20 candidates responded. Before they could begin their medical training, they had to help build the facility, so they made bricks and built the hospital. Unfortunately, they had no one qualified to build the roof. So when they finished the walls, their training went on hold as they prayed and waited on the Lord. Another missionary arrived whose wife needed urgent surgery. As it turned out, he was a roofer and was able to complete the 250 bed facility.
As time went on, the RDC officially recognized the new hospital which brought in governmental subsidies and more students. A new couple was appointed to oversee the mission, and by 1973, Helen’s time was drawing to a close. Her health was suffering, and she became embroiled in a student dispute with the leadership about finances. Before she left, she resolved the conflict with the students, who repented of their false accusations, and honored her by writing her songs for her farewell party.7
Helen Roseveare settled in Northern Ireland, where she remained active until she went to be with the Lord in 2016.8 She spent her later years writing, public speaking and encouraging new generations of missionaries to follow the call. She often revisited the word “privilege.” For all she endured: the hardships, the celibacy, the sufferings, etc., they all dissipated into what she called the great privilege of being used for the Lord. In this way, this energetic woman remains an example to missionaries everywhere.
1 “A Woman of Whom the World Was Not Worthy: Helen Roseveare (1925-2016).” The Gospel Coalition. Accessed May 21, 2018. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/a-woman-of-whom-the-world-was-not-worthy-helen-roseveare-1925-2016/.
2 “Mama Luka Comes Home.” Cross.tv. Accessed May 21, 2018. https://www.cross.tv/78482.
3 “Congo Rebels Reached Helen Roseveare.” Christianity.com. Accessed May 21, 2018. https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1901-2000/congo-rebels-reached-helen-roseveare-11630820.html.
4 Wiese, Bernd Michael, and Dennis D. Cordell. “Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Encyclopædia Britannica. March 09, 2018. Accessed May 21, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/place/Democratic-Republic-of-the-Congo/The-Congo-crisis.
5 ChristianFocus. “An Interview with Dr. Helen Roseveare.” YouTube. November 06, 2011. Accessed May 21, 2018.
6 Roseveare, Helen. Give Me This Mountain. Scotland: Christian Focus, 2006.
7 “Helen Roseveare.” URBANA. Accessed May 21, 2018. https://urbana.org/blog/helen-roseveare.
8 “Helen Roseveare.” Wikipedia. May 12, 2018. Accessed May 21, 2018. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wik…