Helen Roseveare was one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever met. The news of her death in Northern Ireland at the age of 91, has brought many friends to reconsider our fellowship together and her impact in Sydney.
Since the time of cheap airfares, international Christian leaders have often visited Sydney and a few have even endured the long journey to visit us often. Some make a great contribution to our Christian fellowship, others have seemingly made little contribution and have been quickly forgotten. Sadly, some have done us great harm and we could wish their visits would be forgotten.
However, amongst the visitors Helen Roseveare’s contribution was as great as any. Her two visits to Katoomba conventions in 1985 and 1988, challenged and changed the lives of many people.
The story line of Helen’s life is well known. Converted, through the ministry of the Christian Union in her student days at Cambridge, she graduated in medicine and by her late 20’s was a missionary in the Congo. During the 1950’s she established two hospitals as she cared for the physical and spiritual needs of a huge population. However, it was in the 1960’s she came to public attention when she was held prisoner by Simba rebels. During her months of captivity, she and her colleagues were beaten and raped. Upon her rescue she returned to Britain and subsequently to the Congo to continue her work; finally leaving in the 1970’s to take up a ministry of writing and speaking. After several years of travelling she settled in Belfast.
Helen was a force to be reckoned with. Her authoritative air forced people to comply with her wishes – though this sometimes created resentment and conflict. I recall her story of having one of her captors threaten her with a gun held to her head. She told him to ‘put that silly thing away before somebody gets hurt’ – and quite obediently he did as directed! Her dynamic energy, keen mind, and capacity to talk like a machine gun simply overwhelmed people around her.
Yet, while those characteristics contributed to her impact in Sydney they were not the reason for it. Others with those characteristics did not affect change as she did. She didn’t use them upon us as she had used them in the Congo as a young missionary. It wasn’t that she had mellowed, but rather, through painful conflict she had come to understand herself and the difficulty that forceful personalities can create.
Undoubtedly, anybody who had suffered for Christ, as Helen had, would have an impact as they recounted their testimony. There is a credibility given to the words of somebody who has stood firm under the pressure of persecution. This was all the more so in Sydney in the 1980’s when persecution seemed so unlikely and remote. She told us that there were no nations that were closed to missionaries. You could get into any nation – it’s just that there are some you couldn’t get back out of! Such statements coming from a local speaker, or even an international speaker who had suffered nothing, would easily be joked about and ignored. But from the woman who had suffered so much – it was a challenge to our whole sense of sacrificial service.
Yet, Helen didn’t play upon her own sufferings to motivate us. She warned against emotionalism. She pointed out that emotional missionary appeals tended to produce emotional missionaries and they were a disaster on the mission field.
How then can we understand the quite unprecedented response to her challenge to go into God’s world to preach the gospel? The number of people who told us of their intention to serve Christ was beyond the Convention’s capacity to cope.
I know that God’s Spirit can and does move as he wills. Like the wind, we see his effects without really understanding his movements. However, sometimes we can see a person’s gifts or their character and conviction that God has used to affect others. With Helen, it was her brutal self-honesty. It was not simply her suffering but the lessons God taught her through her suffering and the other lessons she learnt subsequently, as she wrestled with God about her personality.
Despite her forceful personality she was unbelievably kind and gentle with individuals. And that loving care was somehow communicated even in a large group situation.
Despite her prominence, and even fame, she was completely self-effacing in the light of Jesus Christ her Lord and Saviour. She wrestled with the desire for recognition and renounced it completely. This article would not please her, unless I make it clear that it was all of Christ and none of her.
Helen Roseveare was a walking, talking example of living wholeheartedly and single-mindedly for our Lord and Saviour. It was that integrity and passion that inspired a generation of Bible believers to follow her example to the glory of Christ and the salvation of others.