Reflections on the life of Helen Roseveare
Reflections on the life of Helen Roseveare
I thought it would be helpful (to me at least) to record some thoughts after spending so much time exploring the life of Helen Roseveare in order to share with the Adult Sunday School this past Sunday.
I first encountered Helen at Urbana 81, a missions conference that was held at the University of Illinois in the deep cold of late December. She was one of the speakers in a large session in the Assembly Hall. As I recall, I had never heard of her.
What I didn’t know or learn at that time was how much I could identify with Helen’s personality and struggles. She was a courageous, strong-willed, sometimes stubborn woman. She learned from her mistakes, was sensitive to the Lord’s promptings, either through His Spirit or through the counsel of others, and shows me that the Lord does not ever give up on us – He allows us to sin in the same ways over and over again, and His mercy is unfailing.
Helen’s journey to know the Lord was a long one, beginning when she was just a child in Sunday School, throughout her adolescence in boarding school. In medical school at Cambridge, she was attracted to some Christian girls in her dorm because of their unfailing friendliness that showed itself in small ways – helping others find their way around campus, inviting them into their own rooms for coffee and conversation, and ultimately inviting them to meetings of the Intercollegiate Christian Union. Helen was also impressed by their detailed knowledge of the Scriptures, for though she had gone to church faithfully with her family as a child and at boarding school, she had never studied the Bible for herself and was unfamiliar with what it said.
I am impressed by the simplicity and effectiveness of the witness of these girls at Cambridge. They just did what came naturally to them – welcoming new students, sharing life with them, showing kindness and eventually, sharing Christ. Isn’t this what we are called to do with our neighbors, co-workers and family members who don’t know Jesus?
Helen knew from an early age that she wanted to be a missionary and the Lord prepared her in so many ways for this. After medical school, she was off to Congo. There she found opportunities to demonstrate her skill in leading others to build a ministry – caring for patients (there were hundreds of thousands in the area around her mission station for whom she was the only doctor), training Congolese men and women as medical assistants and nurses, teaching the Bible, and doing all of the administrative work on top of all of that! However, her strong will often led to conflict with others who were put in leadership positions above her. But what I found in Helen was a soft enough spirit to listen to the prompting of other people or the Spirit to repent of her pride and desire to be in control. She learned that particular lesson over and over. Oh for a spirit of humility like that – to listen to the hard messages that the Spirit whispers (or shouts!) to me.
Helen served at the village of Ibambi and later Nebobongo from 1953-1958 when she went back to England on furlough. On this furlough is one of my favorite ‘episodes’ of Helen’s life. She decided that the reason she had struggled so much on the mission field with things like heavy physical labor, car maintenance and other repairs was that she didn’t have a husband! So she decided to find one! She changed her hairstyle, bought new clothes and told God that she would not return to the field until He provided her with a husband. Now I’m sure at this point you, like me, are thinking – I would NEVER do that! I would never demand something like that from God.
Really? Never? Do we never bargain with God that if He does something, we will be faithful to Him? Or that if we are faithful, do we ever expect Him to bless us in return? I have heard this called ‘transactional faith’, making a bargain with God (think of Jephthah’s daughter…..(Judges 11:29-40).
Eventually the prayers and counsel of faithful friends made Helen realize the folly of her demands of God and she let go of the guy that she had set her sights on……
Helen returned to Congo in 1960, to a country in chaos as independence from Belgium had been declared and civil war was underway.
The next 4 years were a blur of medical care, training of medical assistants and the constant worry and fear that rebel soldiers would appear at any moment to loot, destroy property, and beat anyone who crossed them. The tension was constant and exhausting but Helen and her fellow missionaries keep on as long as they could. She and others at her mission station were imprisoned by rebels in August of 1964 for the next 5 months. They truly expected to be killed at any moment.
On October 29 of that year, Helen was beaten and raped by a rebel soldier.
But even as the attack was happening, Helen cried out to God and He answered. God assured her – not in words exactly but somehow in His presence with her – that He was there with her. He asked her if she could thank Him – thank Him – not for the beating and rape she was enduring, but for the privilege of sharing in His sufferings (Philippians 3:10, the verse that a friend had written in her Bible when Helen accepted Christ as her Savior). At that moment, she felt God’s presence and comfort and said Yes, Yes I can share in your sufferings and even thank you for trusting me with this sacrifice. Notice she said that you for trusting me with, not for the suffering. This distinction makes all the difference. To hear Helen’s version of this, you might want to watch this video:
She tells the story much more effectively than I ever could.
After this night, they were kept imprisoned until December. Then, miraculously it seemed, they were released and by New Year’s Day Helen was back home in England.
Helen’s message from then on was the privilege of sharing the sufferings of Christ. She knew first hand of suffering and humiliation. She returned to Zaire (the new name of Congo after its independence) in 1966 and stayed until 1973 when she had to return home due to medical reasons. But she spoke, wrote and served as a missionary advocate for many years. She died in 2016 at the age of 91.
I am thankful for this re-acquaintance with Helen Roseveare. She has reminded me that God is faithful to work in me and even through me when I sin in the same ways over and over again. He is faithful to sustain His children when we are suffering for His sake. He is worthy of the suffering, whatever it might be. These are hard lessons that I have not had to learn fully yet, but Helen reminded me that at the right time, God will sustain me in whatever circumstances He brings in to my life, as He did her.
Thanks be to God who is faithful to His saints in all ages, at all times and in all circumstances.