With my $50 gift card to the Shepherds’ Conference bookstore, I purchased (among other books) Give Me This Mountain by Helen Roseveare, first published in 1966. After reading it over the weekend, it feels a bit inappropriate to have gotten it for free.
Roseveare was a medical missionary to the northeastern province of the Belgian Congo beginning in 1953 and continuing through the upheaval and labor pains of burgeoning independence which resulted in a new but flimsy government in 1960. The subsequent instability resulted in Zaire and eventually the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Roseveare served the Lord in the Congo until 1973. Roseveare is most widely known for her five months of mistreatment at the hands of Congolese rebels in 1964, resulting from her choice to remain in the country as threats and tensions rose.
Yet as with most missionary stories, this crescendo of focused suffering is enveloped in the full score of a faithful, sacrificial life with all of its planned melodies and providential harmonies. Give Me This Mountain relentlessly reveals Roseveare as a flesh-and-blood human being striving to live out her identity in Christ in very earthy terms, not a cloud-walking hero looking for a spot in the Hall of Faith.
Born in England in 1925, Roseveare came to know Christ around the age of twenty through a providential series of agonizing twists and exciting turns. She studied medicine at Cambridge and eventually joined the Heart of Africa mission which had been founded in 1913 by world-class cricket player CT Studd. The mission’s name was later changed to Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade (WEC) and then Worldwide Evangelisation for Christ (WEC International).¹ Roseveare sailed for Congo in 1953 and returned to England for good in 1973. Her account impacted me in a number of ways.
- Roseveare is an example of a young lady who was insecure, self-focused, competitive, attention-seeking, and quite jagged along the edges. She freely admits this throughout the book and speaks openly of how God used friends and circumstances and Scripture to break down her pride and build her back up in her identity in Christ. When she lusted for leadership, God made her follow. When she searched for rest, God gave her labor. When she chained herself to labor, God forced her to rest. She documents these experiences so eagerly that it’s clear that she learned to embrace God’s sanctifying paths and sovereign priorities for her, difficult though they were.
- Roseveare is ruthlessly authentic. Noel Piper anticipates this in the Foreword: “The main reason I keep coming back to Helen’s books is her unembarrassed forthrightness in portraying her normal, weak, and self-centered seasons. I can hardly imagine letting the world into my life as she does… Each time I read one of her accounts, I want to be like her, I want to know God as she does” (5). Roseveare herself says much the same thing: “I am in no way offering my story as an example for others to follow. There are many mistakes that I hope may warn others. There are streaks in my nature that I am glad to see the Lord is dealing with, and I should hate others to think that they ought to emulate them. I think especially of the tremendous ambition to be a success in anything I undertook, which so often drove me to set myself standards which, under all the circumstances, were not required and which, if I had been more perceptive, I should have known I had no chance of achieving” (8).
I found my heart constantly exposed by her reflections on her own motivations, the tilling and uprooting that she had to do at many points along the way, and the agonizing sacrifices that she made (many of them internal, mental, emotional, and relational). Often as I was reading of disturbing dilemmas, interpersonal conflicts, mounting frustrations, and understandable irritations, I found myself siding with her initial fleshly thoughts, only to see myself confronted by her later penitent reflections. Time and again the Lord graciously nudged her onto the path of lowliness or mercifully beat her into his image through trying circumstances. For instance, after setting up and running a hospital in the Congo, she had to hand over the reins to an incoming missionary doctor who (naturally) ran it quite differently than she did. She talks openly about the months it took for her to yield her heart to the Lord’s obvious providence and to detach her identity from her previous leadership role and to embrace afresh her identity in Christ and her new role at the hospital. These are not small or pain-free lessons.
- During and after the rebellion which transformed the Belgian Congo into an independent state, the Africans grew highly suspicious of white foreigners. Meanwhile, the budding Congolese church began blossoming into maturity. According to Roseveare, it was an adolescent maturity, but it was maturity nonetheless. This combination of suspicion in the culture and young maturity in the church created a deep desire for the Congolese church to be independent of white missionary guidance, in the same way that the Congolese rebellion had thrown off the Belgian yoke. “Storm-clouds were now gathering in the church. Before Independence, all Europeans were invited to all church meetings and were on all committees. Now things were changing. There were tensions. There was a growing consciousness that the Africans did not wholly trust us whites, afraid that we were not really willing to give them absolute equality, absolute authority. They wanted to have their Independence in the church just as others had it in political matters” (136). Roseveare documents the distrust, the bitterness, and the divides that formed as the parental figures (European missionaries) were pushed aside in the indigenous church’s eagerness to stand on its own two feet. Roseveare paints both the dark streaks of division and the brighter shades of providence, acknowledging that while neither the missionaries nor the Africans handled the transition flawlessly, God was faithful to his church and created unity over time.
One of the occasions God used to produce this unity was when Roseveare struck an African woman (!) who offered an empty, half-hearted apology for an egregious, reputation-destroying act of slander that resulted in the expulsion of two of Roseveare’s close African friends and coworkers. After fleeing to her room in horror, Roseveare wrestled for an hour before deciding to go to the African church elders, confess her sin, and seek reconciliation. “They were amazed. Apparently this was the first time that a European had taken a case to the Africans and not to the other missionaries.” The leaders were broken by her humility and confessed their own sins of partiality. “That day yet deeper and closer links were forged between my heart and theirs as they acknowledged that I was indeed one of themselves. Humbly, I realized that God was blessing us through it all, and teaching us to walk together in close fellowship without the barriers of pride and race” (137-38).
- There were fellow missionaries who were killed or tortured in the Belgian Congo in Roseveare’s days, and they don’t have 160-page autobiographies being praised on blog reviews five decades later. This is not to diminish Roseveare’s perseverance or bravery, nor is it to insult the blessing of life providentially preserved. But it is to highlight what Roseveare herself so clearly learned to live — that it is not about what we accomplish but who we become, not about successes and accolades but about truly glorifying Christ by experiencing the power of his resurrection and identifying with him in the fellowship of his sufferings.
- The need has not abated for gifted and godly medical practitioners who want to go overseas, especially into third-world cultures. You are needed. And your years of training are not a waste. Roseveare completed her medical training at Cambridge and her account reveals that it paid a lifetime of dividends for others. If you’re interested in medical missions, I’d strongly recommend that you read Roseveare’s books (there are two others), and stoke the flames.
Finally, Roseveare pricks the bulging balloon of missions-glamorization, first through her own wrestlings and failures and disappointments and sufferings and second through the wisdom of her seasoned reflections on what missions is all about. The flesh will take the following two paragraphs and turn them into a reason why global missions isn’t as important as some say it is, or an excuse for not honoring or praying for our missionaries, or an opportunity to excuse ourselves for not being who we ought to be. But a Spirit-filled passion will say, “Yes, Lord, please — wherever I go and whatever I do, make me truly a Christian.”
Christians often seem to have the impression that ‘becoming a missionary’ is some form of metamorphosis by which a radical change of nature is achieved. Someone, possibly deeply stirred at a missionary meeting and challenged by the need of some less-privileged people, feels constrained to offer for overseas service. Almost inevitably this ‘offering’ comes to be regarded as a ‘holy call’ to a sacrificial vocation. The whole idea becomes wrapped in a veil of romantic splendour, so that even the candidate may fail to observe the unreality of it. The tendency of congregation and friends well-nigh to hero-worship the missionary only increases the dilemma. Looking at the situation honestly and critically, many may know that, mentally, physically or spiritually, the candidate is unsuitable for missionary service. Some would-be candidates do not even have a burden of prayer for the peoples they hope to serve, nor have they ever sought to bring their immediate friends and neighbours in their own country to a knowledge of their Friend and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Yet they vaguely hope that as soon as they board the steamer or plane to take them to a foreign land, something mystical will occur and transform them into their image of a ‘missionary’.
Nothing can be further from the truth! I believe that, at its simplest, a missionary is one sent by God to live a Christian life, usually amongst people other than his own. It is living which counts. This may include formal preaching, but it will certainly include personal relationships, and these often have to be worked out under most trying conditions. For example, many missionaries discover that it is far from easy to adapt themselves to a completely different climate. The native foods may be hard, not only on the digestive system, but also on the aesthetic tastes. The language barrier may constitute a difficult problem, especially in early years. One cannot choose one’s friends. Two missionaries of vastly differing backgrounds, likes and dislikes, may be thrown together for several years with no choice of other companionship. One is often expected to do jobs for which one is not trained, and which may be actually distasteful. Yet in all this, one is called upon to reveal Christ, to live a Christ-like life, to be a ‘missionary’ (85-86).