A hero of the faith

Rt. Rev. Dr. Frank Sellar

15.12.2016 | Global Mission, Mission, Moderator


Presbyterian Moderator, Dr. Frank Sellar knew Dr. Helen Roseveare very well. A missionary in Democratic Republic of Congo, she went to be with the Lord last week aged 91. At her funeral this week, Dr. Sellar led the prayers. In this BBC Radio Ulster Thought for the Day, he describes her as ‘a hero of the faith, and recounts a remarkable story she told, of the “kind and generous God we worship.”

The New Testament book of Hebrews, Chapter 11 gives a list of remarkable people who are described as ‘heroes of the faith’. Outstanding individuals who because of their trust in God faced agony through jeering and flogging, imprisonment and torture, persecution and death. ‘This world was not worthy of them,’ it says potently.

It was my privilege yesterday to participate in the funeral of a modern day hero of the faith of which it could also be said ‘this world was not worthy.’ Her name was Dr. Helen Roseveare, known to many in Ireland and throughout the world. A pioneer medical missionary who gave 20 years of her life caring for and serving people in the Nebobongo region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Born in 1925 Helen became one of the earliest women to study medicine at Cambridge and it was there that she came to a living faith in Christ. Dedicating herself to overseas service, within a few years of arriving in Africa, she had formed a training school for nurses, working with local Africans, established a hospital with 100 beds and 48 satellite rural clinics caring for mothers, lepers and children, there being no other medical help for 150 miles in any direction.

When Civil war broke out there in the early 1960’s Helen along with a number of other missionaries were arrested by rebel forces. “We were roughly taken,” she wrote, “thrown into prison, humiliated, threatened and raped.” How she overcame that trauma was only by the grace of God and she later, astonishingly talked about “the privilege of sharing in some little way in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings”. Many stories of Dr. Roseveare’s experiences in Congo can be accessed on ‘You Tube’, but let me tell you one.

One night Helen had worked hard to help a mother in the labour ward; but in spite of all they could do, mum died, leaving a tiny, premature baby and a crying, two-year-old sister. They had no incubator and no electricity and because the night was chilly, a student-midwife went to fill a hot water bottle, but It burst and that was the last one!

The following day Helen went to say prayers with some of the orphan children. She told them about the tiny baby and explained the problem about keeping the baby warm. She also explained about the two-year-old sister. During the prayer time, one 10-year-old girl, Ruth, prayed with the usual blunt consciousness of African children. “Please, God,” she said, “send us a hot water bottle. It’ll be no good tomorrow, the baby will be dead; so, please send it this afternoon.”

While Helen gasped at the audacity of the prayer, Ruth added … “And while You are about it, would You please send a dolly for the little girl so she’ll know You really love her?”

Astonishingly, that very afternoon, a parcel arrived at the hospital. Helen sent for the children. Together they pulled off the string. From the top, she lifted out brightly coloured knitted jerseys. Then, there were bandages for the leprosy patients. Next, came a box of mixed raisins and sultanas. Helen tentatively put her hand in again and yes, “A brand-new rubber, hot water bottle!”

Ruth was in the front row of the children. She rushed forward, crying out, “If God has sent the bottle, He must have sent the dolly, too!” Rummaging down to the bottom of the box, she pulled out a small, beautifully dressed dolly. Her eyes shone: She had never doubted! Looking up at Helen, she asked, “Can I go over with you, and give this dolly to that little girl, so she’ll know that Jesus really loves her?”

Five whole months before, that parcel had been put together and sent, and all those weeks earlier, somebody in another part of the world had been prompted to send a hot water bottle and a baby’s dolly. What a kind and generous God we worship!

In Hebrews 11 we are told of heroes of faith. As with them, we can say of Dr. Helen Roseveare: ‘This world was not worthy of them’.


This blog was broadcast as a 'Thought for the Day' on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme on 14th December 2016.

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