This week, there is a great festival taking place, drawings tens of thousands of people. It’s not a pop concert, or a political rally. It’s taking place in Marondella, Zimbabwe. For this week marks the anniversary of the death of Bernard Mizeki, who gave his life as a martyr, serving the Shona people of Africa.
We brothers of the SSJE have a special devotion to Bernard because he became a Christian through the ministry of our brotherhood in Cape Town, South Africa. We used to run a school there and as a young man Bernard attended night classes. It was through meeting and talking with our brother, Frederick Puller, that he became a Christian – and was baptized on March 9, 1886.
He longed to teach the faith to others, and so he was commissioned by the bishop to work as a lay catechist – and sent out alone to the village of Nhowe in Mashonaland. There, he built a mission complex, studied the local language, opened a school, and we read “prayed the Anglican hours faithfully every day.” His deep faith and life of prayer, and his love for the people won their hearts, and over the next five years many were baptized and the church grew rapidly.
But in the year 1896, uprisings began against colonial rule. Many nationalists regarded all missionaries as working for European colonial governments, and Bernard was warned to flee. He didn’t know what to do, so he prayed. And then he saw a man, old and wracked with sores, whom he some time ago, had rescued, and taken in. How could he leave him to starve? So he wrote to the local priest and said, “These people are suffering. The Bishop has put me here: here I must stay. I cannot leave my people now in a time of such darkness.”
Two days later, On June 18 at midnight, men arrived at the door of his hut. Three men were standing there. They dragged him outside. Two of them held him down, while the third drove a spear into Bernard’s side. His wife and her friend ran away thinking he was dead, but Bernard was not dead. He managed to pull himself up a hillside to a spring, where he washed his wounds. His wife heard his cry and found him there. He said to her, “Although I am dying, my work, and the work of other teachers and priests has not ended.” She and her friend went to find some food for him, but mysteriously they seemed to see a brilliant light, and a sound of what they described being like “many wings of great birds.” When they returned, the spot where Bernard had lain was empty. His body has never been found.
But his life and death has been a huge source of inspiration to millions, and he is revered throughout Central Africa as a witness to the gospel of Christ. And this week, thousands will gather for seven days at the site of his martyrdom.
But not quite the site! You may know that the suffering carries on. The Anglican Church in Zimbabwe has been suffering terribly these past years, under siege from a renegade bishop. A supporter of President Mugabe, he has unleashed violent repression against faithful Anglicans. They have been forced out of churches, priests have been attacked, and violence is a daily experience. You may remember the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit there last year, and his courageous encounter with the President, and vocal support for the Anglican Church and the Bishop of Harare Chad Gandiya. (Two years ago our brother and bishop Tom went to support and encourage.)
Not only have they been barred from worshipping in their churches, but also barred from worshipping at the pilgrim shrine of Bernard Mizeki. So the thousands of pilgrims this year will be forced to meeting at another site – some distance away.
We brothers, I think, feel very proud of our connection with Bernard. Thankful for our predecessors who as brothers spent their whole lives serving the people of Southern Africa. [In 1996, the 100th anniversary of his martyrdom, several SSJE brothers went to Zimbabwe for the celebrations.}
There is something rather wonderful to see how the life and witness of Bernard Mizeki was transformed by Christ, through the ministry of our brothers – something wonderful to see how his life and martyrdom continues to inspire and give courage and hope to the church today in Zimbabwe – something wonderful in how his life can be an inspiration to us, too, today.
So what was he like? What gave him his strength and courage? I think the church in Zimbabwe would answer that in words from Paul’s Letter to the Romans Chapter 12 v.12. It is this verse which is the theme for the pilgrimage in Zimbabwe. In this verse Paul exhorts Christians to be three things – and these three things underpinned Bernard’s life and witness.
First, “Be joyful in hope.” Those who knew Bernard spoke of his extraordinary joy. When he faced the task of starting a mission in a new country, where he couldn’t even speak the language, he said, “It is my joy to serve God, because God has done so much for me.” So where is joy in your life right now? Be joyful in hope. Where does the gift of hope figure in your life? What do you hope for?
Then, secondly, “Be patient in affliction.” Although Bernard was urged to leave the village, where he was not safe, he remained. “I cannot leave my people now in a time of such darkness.” Is God asking you now to remain – to be patient in affliction? Is there something you long to run away from in your life, but God is calling you to face – to stay, to abide, patiently in affliction?
Then thirdly “Be faithful in prayer.” I love the image of Bernard, setting up his mission station, building a school, growing his vegetables, teaching faithfully. But what I most love is the image conveyed by these words, written of him, “he prayed the Anglican hours each day.” Something very moving about that. Every day, several times a day, he would stop, to pray the office. Maybe he rang a bell. Others would join him, sit by him, and imitate him – and pray with him. “Be faithful in prayer.” Do you perhaps long to be more faithful in prayer? Is God inviting you to a deeper and more vibrant life of prayer?
These three things underpinned Bernard’s life:
n Be joyful in hope
n Be patient in affliction
n Be faithful in prayer.
Maybe they can underpin and transform our own lives.
May the prayers of our brother, Blessed Bernard Mizeki, catechist and martyr, strengthen us and inspire us, to God’s praise and glory.
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