Helen Roseveare, a hero of the faith, was born in 1925 to upper-class British parents. As a child she was "endlessly active, always in mischief, with an urge to excel, to be noticed, to be the centre of the group, with an inner need to be admired."
Her parents strongly pushed their children to excel academically and otherwise, and Helen responded obediently; she was a perfectionist, attending a prestigious all girls school from the age of 12, and later continuing on at Cambridge University to become a doctor.
Fellow Cambridge girls from the Inter-Collegiate Christian Union invited Helen to their meetings right away, and not long into her college career, Helen was converted and felt a call to missions.
On the night of her conversion, a Bible teacher wrote in her new Bible – Philippians 3:10 “That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death.”
This same teacher spoke personally 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”
When Helen became a Christian, the Lord didn't clean out her heart right away, even though his blood washed her clean and conferred righteousness on her soul. Like all of us, she had heart baggage; she wasn't personally acquainted with all the sin in her heart.
Can you and I say we're personally acquainted with all our sin? I think not, especially after reading Helen's story. In his graciousness, the Lord reveals a little baggage at a time, not wanting to discourage us.
After a long road in medical school--six and a half years--she went to missionary school for six months, followed by months of learning French in Brussels, and learning about tropical diseases in Antwerp.
After six weeks of travel in 1953, she finally arrived in Africa, 28 years old, assigned to the north-eastern part of Congo (later called Zaire), where she was the only doctor for two and a half million people.
Can you imagine the pressure?
She helped build a hospital and training center, which eventually, after ten years, became a 100-bed facility. She trained Christian Africans as orderlies and nurses, and had a lot of responsibility.
It would be nice to write a glowing report of her twenty years in the Congo. Often, that's what we read of missionaries; they seem so saintly, so sacrificial, so centered on Christ and his Kingdom. They accomplish so much.
But Helen was flesh and blood. Her temper was a liability; she would snap at patients and staff. She was all business and often acted like a know-it-all. Her superior intellect, training, and upbringing all converged to puff her up; pride was a companion for a long time, though she didn't know it.
She didn't know the root cause of her personal failings on the mission field. She was very unhappy, cross and exhausted, usually seeing 150 - 200 patients a day with no break. She blamed her short temper on exhaustion, and to a large extent, that was the problem. Her time with the Lord suffered.
One morning at a staff Bible study, she broke down. She could see God working in many hearts, but not hers. She felt like a failure. Her African pastor saw her spiritual need, for the staff had been praying for her for four years (regarding her attitude).
"After my breakdown, the pastor made all the arrangements for me to go to stay in his village for a long weekend...There he gave me a room, and left me alone. I sought God's face for two unhappy days, but I could find no peace...I knew I was quite unworthy of the title "missionary".
Sunday evening the pastor called me out to the fireside where he and his wife were sitting....We prayed. A great still silence wrapped us around.
Gently he leaned toward me: 'Helen...why can't you forget for a moment that you are white? You've helped so many Africans to find cleansing and filling and joy in the Holy Spirit through the blood of Jesus Christ. Why don't you let Him do for you what He has done for so many others?"
"He opened up to me hidden areas in my heart that I had hardly even suspected, particularly this one of race prejudice. I was horrified...I was out there to share...the Good News of the gospel. I loved my African brethren...But did I? The Spirit forced me to acknowledge that subconsciously I did not really believe that an African could be as good a Christian as I was, or could know the Lord Jesus or understand the Bible as I did. My caring had in it an element of condescension, of superiority, of paternalism..."
"Opening his Bible at Galatians 2:20, he drew a straight line in the dirt floor with his heel. "I", he said, "the capital I in our lives, Self, is the great enemy...Helen, the trouble with you is that we can see so much Helen that we cannot see Jesus."
Galatians 2:20 "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. '
This wasn't all the admonition Helen received through the years.
One day, early in her career, while driving to a meeting, her supervisor spoke to her. "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 relationship with Himself. Let Him take you and mold you as He will; all the rest will take its rightful place (Helen Roseveare, Give Me This Mountain, p. 75).
And God had this exchange with her many years later: "He quietly rebuked me, ‘No. You no longer want Jesus only, but Jesus plus … plus respect, popularity, public opinion, success and pride. You wanted to go out with all the trumpets blaring, from a farewell-do that you organized for yourself with photographs and tape-recordings to show and play at home, just to reveal what you had achieved. You wanted to feel needed and respected. You wanted the other missionaries to be worried about how they’ll ever carry on after you’ve gone. You’d like letters when you go home to tell how much they realize they owe to you, how much they miss you. All this and more. Jesus plus ….No, you can’t have it. Either it must be ‘Jesus only’ or you’ll find you have no Jesus. You’ll substitute Helen Roseveare.’’ (Extract from He Gave Us a Valley, Helen Roseveare)
Helen did a lot for Africa. She worked very, very hard. And she suffered for Christ, bravely, heroically, during wartime in the Congo in 1964. She was captured and held captive for 5 months, raped and abused, along with other female captives.
When she retired from missions after 20 years (1953 to 1973, with furloughs), Helen was discouraged; the war had changed her beloved Congo and she didn't feel that her work was valued by the Africans. She felt like a failure, despite an impressive list of accomplishments.
She went back to England and the Lord worked in her heart, humbling her, preparing her for her next ministry: a world-renowned missionary speaker and author. Her popularity as a speaker grew from the raw truth she told about her heart, about her failings.
I encourage you to read more about Helen from her books. She is now retired, at 89, and lives in Northern Ireland. Her story has spoken to my heart, and I hope to yours too.
Dear Lord, thank you for your work on the cross. Thank you for cleansing us, one day at a time. Thank you for Helen's story; for her humility in revealing her failings; for her willingness to finally let you shine. We all struggle with pride, Lord. Show us the hidden pockets of sin in our lives, the ones we refuse to acknowledge. Help us to detest sin and love holiness; help us cross out the "I" and replace it with "Lord Jesus".
In Your Name I pray,