Book Review

"He Gave Us a Valley" by Helen Roseveare

Susan Disston
Helen Roseveare
Thursday, November 6th 2008
Nov/Dec 2008

He Gave Us a Valley is the story of Dr. Helen Roseveare's years of service as a medical missionary in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo and formerly Zaire). It is also a deeply personal spiritual journal. Woven throughout her memoir is what she calls "a niggling question that I wouldn't look at, that I didn't want to hear, [that] kept pressing up into the level of conscious thought." "OK," she told herself, "right now, after all your philosophizing and encouraging others, just answer: has it all been worth it?"

At the time she wrote this book, first published in 1976, Roseveare had reason to wrestle with this question. She toiled for twenty years (1953-73) as a medical missionary, and returned to England at the end of her service having experienced many disappointments, hardships, changes in job descriptions, and a brutal beating and rape while in captivity during the rebel uprising in the early 1960s. The book recounts her two ten-year terms and the implementation of the vision to train national paramedics that became her legacy. The work was accomplished in fits and starts with meager resources and in the context of the medical ministry of WEC International, then Worldwide Evangelization Crusade. The story of her beating and the subsequent struggle to forgive and return to the Congo is told in her book He Gave Us a Mountain.

The medical work that Roseveare and the WEC team established is remarkable, given the primitive and volatile circumstances. In Nebobongo, they rebuilt the 100-bed hospital with maternity services, a leprosy care center and children's home, a medical training school, and 48 rural health clinics. They provided surgery and medical care to thousands of people annually. But by 1964, civil war engulfed Nebobongo. Rebel forces nearly destroyed the medical center. Roseveare wrote in her journal, "Through ten months…the rebels wrought havoc, destroying property, stealing possessions, inflicting cruelties, instilling fear. Shops emptied of all stores. All work ceased and the economy crumbled. Good men were murdered, many others tortured and mutilated. All sense of order and discipline disappeared and anarchy took over." During that time, she and other women were taken into captivity, beaten and raped by rebels, and left to die.

Traumatized and spiritually depleted, Roseveare recovered in England. A year later, in January 1966, the National Army leaders invited missionaries back to the Congo to assist in the work of rehabilitation. Hundreds of thousands of people died during the war, many suffering from starvation and lack of medical supplies. "So we were each faced with the question, 'Am I willing to return?'" In spite of her own suffering, Roseveare decided to go back.

At the border of what was then being called Zaire, she and other returning missionaries were greeted by National Army soldiers carrying rifles.

We quickly realized we were under a military regime. It was a strange feeling, this long-anticipated homecoming, so unlike the carefully-rehearsed imagery. It was rough and raw, with coarse language and barely-concealed dislike….Why have I come? I was sure I had made a mistake in coming back. I had thought I'd truly forgotten [my own] suffering. I had thought the fear had died. It hadn't.

Immediately, the hard work started again with "sore hands and grueling hours." The WEC team and nationals rebuilt the medical center and medical college, which gained national recognition for excellence. But a series of demoralizing events led to Roseveare's resignation and sudden departure for England in 1973. It is at this point that the book ends, but not before Roseveare takes on her "niggling questions" about the worth of her ministry. Many readers will feel her pain as she struggles to find any value in her many years of work. To her, there is far too much evidence of her mistaken judgment and outright mistakes.

Her story has resonated with Christians over the years because of her frankness about her very human struggles on the mission field. She wrestles with her personality, ambition, strong opinions, and impatience. She stoically faces the challenges of being a single professional woman in a pioneering mission that used her more than it nurtured and empowered her. In her journal, she is reluctant to acknowledge her huge heart, selfless service, and ability to train and inspire paramedics who were otherwise untrained. She tends to look too blandly at the results of the mission's work and the impact of the gospel. While she was preparing to leave Africa for the last time, she desperately scribbled down a "few facts and figures to share with folk back home. 372 major operations in 1972 with only six surgical deaths. Surely it was all worth it if we practiced good medicine."

John-her longtime friend and medical assistant-tenderly rebuked her: "Don't bother with things like that. Just tell them that nearly 200 people found Christ as their Saviour through the medical services last year."

She wrote, "I turned and hugged him, my eyes filling with tears of joy. And God said pretty plainly, 'Isn't My way better than yours?'"

Yet she questioned God's ways and struggled with what she called the privilege of his calling to suffering. Having resigned because of errors and problems she held herself responsible for, she accused herself: "You went home and told everyone that [God] was sufficient at that moment, in those circumstances. Isn't this true now, in today's circumstances? You no longer want Jesus only, but Jesus plus…plus respect, popularity, public opinion, success and pride. Either it must be 'Jesus only' or you'll find you've no Jesus. You'll substitute Helen Roseveare."

The spiritual journey of the days following that journal entry are really the heart of the book. There is a ministry of the Spirit that comes to those who listen well to the stories of faith. Roseveare discovers the answer to her question and leaves Africa with a peaceful spirit and with no medical statistics to cover-up the real story of difficulties, setbacks, and suffering. In her speaking ministry that followed her years in Africa, she uses the analogy of an arrow shaft crafted from an unruly branch snipped from a tree. The branch must be stripped to the bark and honed and polished before it is useful as an arrow. In the same way, God uses suffering to make his servant useful, if we will say, "Yes, your way is better than mine."

Thursday, November 6th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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