Digging ditches

EN interviews legendary missionary Helen Roseveare

Dr. Helen Roseveare, now in her 80th year worked with the Heart of Africa Mission during the 1950s and 60s. Her autobiography Give me this Mountain is a Christian missionary classic. With the publication of her new book Digging Ditches, EN was able to get an interview with her.

EN: What part of Africa did you serve in as a missionary?

HR: I had the privilege of serving as a medical missionary in the north-eastern province of the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), with WEC International, for 12 years and then for a further eight years in an Inter-Mission medical programme, still with WEC but also with AIM, CBFMS (of USA), and UFM.

EN: Tell us about your daily work there.

HR: I lived and worked as a GP (cum consultant), as I would have done in the UK, only with all the added problems of a foreign land — different language, culture, climate, economy! We were always poor, and therefore had to learn to ‘make-do’. There was no hospital, so we built one — initially with local materials in mud and thatch, eventually changed to brick and cement with permanent roofing. There was only rudimentary primary school teaching available for the thousands of young people, so our training programme for medical auxiliaries (para-medics) had to be hugely adapted: in the early years using the medium of the trade language of Swahili; and, as the programme steadily improved, until today it is recognised to be of university standard for nurses, using the government language of French. However, as my main calling was to be a missionary evangelist and Bible teacher, the building up of the local church was of equal, if not greater, importance.

My day started at 5.00 am with time for private devotions, followed by an hour’s Bible teaching in the church, to students, workmen and their families. Then ward rounds, and clinics, followed by lectures to the ‘medical’ students; in between, a visit to the primary school to speak to the 120 youngsters in four classrooms. At any moment, there could be an emergency call, either to the maternity or to the general hospital for urgent surgery. During the midday break, an inspection of the workmen on the building site or down at the brick-kiln. The afternoon would be a repeat of the morning, plus an hour coaching the local football team. The early evenings were filled with choir practice, elders’ meeting, women’s fellowship, youth clubs, prayer and Bible Study meetings — followed by preparation of tomorrow’s lectures!

EN: In this period, there were some troubled times. Tell us what happened to you.

HR: In June 1960, the country received its independence from Belgium. Almost immediately, mutiny broke out in the ill-prepared army, causing 90% of the foreign (European) population to make a hasty departure. Shops emptied of all goods, the economy slipped into reverse gear, foreigners were barely tolerated — until in 1964, the country erupted into civil war of a very brutal nature. We were caught up in the midst of this, not because we were missionaries, but because we were ‘pale-skins’ and therefore valuable for barter. Many were murdered — 27 Protestant missionaries, over 200 Catholic priests and nuns, many hundreds of Belgians and Americans, and some half a million nationals, innocent villagers as well as tradesmen and school teachers — anyone who had been in Government pay.

Beatings and rape were the common practice of the rebel soldiers towards the women folk (nationals and foreigners alike). Cruel savagery ruled for several months. Our group of ten missionaries was ultimately rescued by mercenary soldiers, after five months of captivity.

EN: What were the great lessons you learned from God in all this?

HR: God is in control — always. He is still on the throne, and he never forgets, nor neglects, his own. He proved his promise is true: ‘My grace is sufficient for you’ (2 Corinthians 12.9). In some mysterious way, he was working out his purposes, and gave us the privilege of being part of his plan. One particularly savage night, beaten up and kicked by a group of rebels, driven down the corridor of my home, the Lord seemed to whisper to me: ‘They are not beating you, but me-in-you. These are not your sufferings, but mine. All I ask of you is the loan of your body’. Furthermore, my heart understood that he was asking me: ‘Can you thank me for trusting you with this experience, even if I never tell you why?’ — and when I sought to whisper back: ‘Yes — I don’t understand what you are doing or who will ever be blessed by this, but if it helps to fulfil your purpose, Yes, I thank you, dear God, for trusting me in this way!’, the consciousness of his loving arms around me and his peace in my heart, even in the midst of wickedness and suffering — the sense of being privileged to share in the fellowship of his sufferings — was truly almost unbelievable.

EN: Did you ever go back?

HR: Yes. We had 14 months in the UK to recover — not only physically but also spiritually and mentally. Then letters began to filter through from our Congolese colleagues, as region by region was liberated from rebel control, and we just knew, without any doubt, we had to go back. Congo was my home: the Congolese were my closest family. They needed us to help them start again, to reconstruct all the ministries of church-life. When we actually arrived back and saw the appalling devastation on all sides, and the intensity of the sufferings of our African friends — including malnutrition, chronic illness, traumas of the beatings — we knew it was right for us to be there with them, to give all we had got — physically, materially, mentally and spiritually — into the reconstruction of the country. It wasn’t always easy — we were terribly conscious it could all happen again. It was hard not to question at times, ‘Is it worth it?’ — but deep down, we knew it was worth it. It was for the Lord’s sake, and he never failed us.

EN: What would you want to say to the new generation of Christian young women?

HR: Put Jesus first — always first. In every decision we make in life, ask ourselves: ‘What would Jesus have me do?’ Think in terms of eternal values. Don’t get sucked into the rut of thinking only in terms of self-satisfaction, pleasure, temporary happiness-so-called, personal fulfilment .. none of those things will count in eternity! Don’t ask: ‘Is it worth it?’ — that is counting the price, and seeing if I think the job is worth the sacrifice involved, in terms of my own self achievement. Remember instead, always, that ‘He is worthy!’ — 100% worthy. He died to save me: what can I give to say ‘Thank you’ to him? Make ‘Pleasing to him’ your life’s motto, rather than pleasing yourself — he will never disappoint you!

EN: What are you doing now?

HR: I left Africa, after 20 years of service there, to come home to nurse my Mother. After Mother died, I had expected to return to Congo, but the Mission invited me to accept an appointment as an itinerant deputation worker, travelling over the English and French-speaking worlds, challenging young people — church youth groups, high-schools, university Christian unions — to consider God’s right to their lives, and the privilege God offered them of missionary service all over the world. 30 years on, I am still involved in such a ministry! — encouraging Christian young people to get into Bible school and missionary training colleges, and to enjoy the sheer wonder and privilege of full-time, cross-cultural service for our Lord Jesus Christ.

At the same time, I have had the joy of writing various books — nine for my Mission WEC (two autobiographical, one historical, and the others, principles underlying Christian service) and another one for the Girl Crusaders’ Union. The third part of my autobiography, Digging Ditches, is just about to be published.

EN: What has been your involvement with Girl Crusaders’ Union (GCU) over the years?

HR: I had been a Christian for one-and-a-half years. At my 21st birthday party, a lovely Christian girl asked me what I did on Sunday afternoons? Nothing particular. ‘Well’, she replied, ‘you should be in a GCU Group — teaching teenagers to love the Lord Jesus and the Bible.’ And so that Sunday afternoon, she came for me, and took me to the local Group, and so began my more-than-50-years’ attachment to GCU, a Bible-teaching organisation, working among UK schoolgirls. For the next five years, I taught a teenage group of girls, some on Saturday, others on Sunday afternoons — and the more I taught the Bible to others, the more I loved it myself! And the more certain I became that this was the most important ministry I was privileged to have, even more so than the medical work.

When I went to Congo, the GCU leadership, as well as the local Group I had been working with, undertook to pray for me. When I came home on furlough, I linked straight back into that local Group. I was also privileged to visit other GCU Groups all over the UK, as I travelled with WEC to share with churches the need of missionaries to serve in the third world. When I eventually left Congo, to work in UK, I was invited to become one of the GCU’s Vice-Presidents — and a few years later, to accept the privilege of being their President. As such, I give as much time as I can to encouraging the Leadership, and to help in training the next generation of Leaders, as well as teaching a group of older teens week by week.

EN: What does the future hold and how should we pray for you?

HR: I have been a Christian for 60 years now, and I love our Lord and Saviour, and his Word, more than ever. I just pray that, as long as he continues to give me strength and reasonably good health, I may have the privilege to continue to serve him — in our local church, in our GCU family, and in WEC, in outreach and challenge ministry, and to see more and more young (and not so young!) people catch the vision of the need of countless millions of people who still have never heard the gospel. Please pray that I will not give up before the end of the journey down here: and that I will keep close to the Lord, and always willing to share the truths of Scripture with anyone with whom I meet.

Dr. Roseveare’s new book, Digging Ditches, is published by Christian Focus (6.99, ISBN 1 84550 058 X).