On Sunday I talked about Luther’s role in setting off the reformation. But people like Luther, Wesley and Calvin get mentioned so often you could get the impression that the spread of Christianity is just the story of European evangelistic exploits. That certainly isn’t the case. Today, Christianity is thriving in Africa while it is struggling to survive in many parts of Europe. And now there are more missionaries being sent out from South Korea, Brazil and Nigeria than any country in Europe. For Black History Month this year I’ve been reading a book called Clouds of Witnesses that chronicles the contributions of African and Asian Christians to the church.
Because Grace Baptist has been so blessed by the testimony and ministry of Zimbabweans over the years, I was intrigued to learn about Bernard Mizeki, one of the first missionaries to bring the Gospel to that nation. He was born Mamiyeri Mizeka Gwambe in 1861 in what is now Mozambique. After working briefly in a trader’s store, he moved to Cape Town, South Africa, as a teenager and there was exposed to Christian teaching for the first time. He was known for his hunger for the Scriptures and when he was baptized at 25, he immediately asked to help serve in the mission work. While he at first appeared shy among Europeans, he had a gentleness that made him a winsome evangelist among fellow Africans.
Mission efforts in Africa during the 1800’s were often complicated by British colonialism which often preceded or accompanied evangelistic outreach. In 1891, Mizeki was assigned to Mashonaland, the region of the Shona people in what is now northern Zimbabwe between the Zambezi and Munyati Rivers. After negotiating with the local chief, Mizeki was granted permission to build a hut in the village and planted a garden to supply his own food. Like many Africans, he had a remarkable gift for languages. He mastered the Shona language within a year and was able to speak eight different African languages in addition to English, Dutch, Portuguese and some French, Latin and Greek!
While he diligently studied and taught the Scriptures, he also served the Shona people. In 1895 when a smallpox outbreak threatened the region, he gave vaccinations to the villagers, protecting them from further harm. And he was a favourite among the children of the village because of his voice and was often found teaching them how to sing. While the work was slow, he gathered villagers who wanted to learn the Scriptures, led people to Christ, preached in surrounding villages, and helped translate portions of the Bible into the local dialect. Unfortunately, God’s work is often accompanied by Satan’s opposition.
Mizeki became a target of the “nganga,” traditional healers, because he taught against local practices including the killing of twin babies, rampant drunkenness, the offering of sacrifices to spirits and the murder of people named by the nganga as sorcerors. He drew further criticism when he married one of the chief’s adopted grand-daughters. In 1896, when anti-colonial sentiment had led to attacks on Europeans, Mizeki received instructions to withdraw from Mashonaland to the safety of a mission compound. He replied that the Shona people were suffering, adding, “I cannot leave my people now in a time of such darkness.” Soon after he was dragged from his home and stabbed to death.
Reading about Mizeki’s life and ministry and tragic death, challenged the way I look at my life. Mizeki’s simplicity, faithfulness and obvious love was what impacted people’s lives rather than the glitz and self-promotion that are so often highlighted in our culture today. Life for him was about serving His Saviour and the people God had called him to, even if it meant serving in obscurity and ultimately facing an untimely death. I want that kind of eternal perspective to rescue me from the self-seeking “live for the moment” message that bombards us today. His biographer closes his summary of his life’s impact with these words: “In 2005, despite Zimbabwe’s internal political tensions, massive shortages of food and fuel, and an unemployment rate of 80 percent, almost twenty thousand attended the annual festival [that remembers his sacrifice for the Shona people].”
May God give us faith and courage to learn from his example!
In awe of Him,