by Linda Ryan
I’d never really considered it, but the church calendar is more than just a way of marking off days of the year like a regular calendar. For each day there are specific readings: those for following the Daily Office, others for the day’s liturgy, and, for many days, there is an event, saint, or group of saints, to be commemorated or feasted. The educational part is finding a saint (or group) I’d never really heard of (outside the Daily Office) and reading about them. It’s also possible to see something in their lives and struggles that help me with my own. It’s like an exercise in identifying what makes a Christian life and how I can learn from the person or persons to live it more fully.
Take the saint for today, a man born in Mozambique named Mamiyeri Mizeka Gwambe who became a lay catechist and martyr in what was Northern Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. He began working for a Portuguese storekeeper in his native village and learned the language the storekeeper spoke. He seemed to be gifted at languages because wherever he went, he learned not only the local tongues but also European and Biblical ones. He sought education from the members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE, also called the Cowley Fathers) and wanted to become a priest but that was denied him because of his race. Instead, he became a lay catechist and God-propelled teacher, translator, and missioner. He was baptized in 1886 with the name Bernard.
Bernard established a mission to the Mashona in Northern Rhodesia, establishing this at the village of the local chief and at the request of the Bishop of Mashonaland. He lived a simple, normal life, becoming part of the village life and eventually the school teacher for the children. With the chief’s permission, he moved the complex close to a grove of trees sacred to the Mashona, but angered some of the local religious leaders when he removed some of the trees and carved crosses in others.
Bernard used the faith of the Mashona who already believed in one god, Mwari. He also utilized the deep spiritual lives the villagers already had to teach Christian belief and practice. The mission lasted from 1891-6 and was tremendously effective.
All missionaries were considered to be European colonial government agents, according to many of the black African nationalists. They began an uprising in 1896 and Bernard was warned to flee for his own safety. He refused, believing that Christ had sent him there for a purpose and that he would not leave the people Christ had led him to. On June 18th, he was speared outside his house and mortally wounded. His wife and a helper ran to get blankets and food for him but later reported that there was a blinding light coming from the place where Bernard lay. When they reached the spot, Bernard’s body was gone. It has since become a place of reverence and devotion and a great Christian festival takes place there each year.
Bernard was a bridge-builder, not a wall-maker. He lived a simple life, loved the people he shared a village with, and taught children and adults about the greatness of God. He refused to leave when things got tough and it became the place of his martyrdom. This was a true martyrdom, not a false one where people feel they are being persecuted and injured because others disagree with their beliefs and positions. Bernard didn’t seek his own greatness, but was rather invested in proclaiming the greatness of God.
How different things are now for us here in the United States. We hear about building walls. Preachers and would-be prophets proclaim the gospel of fear and segregation, individual rights and approval of the elimination of “undesirables,” overtly and covertly. Even those supposedly presenting the will of God have seized on a small group of verses and have made an entire doctrinal platform of them. “Love your neighbor,” a central tenet of the gospel of Jesus and the work of Bernard Mizeki, seems to have had a clause added, “…Unless they are not ‘like us’ and oppose ‘our’ rights and our ‘control’ over ‘our’ country.”
We have martyrs in our own land, not always religious ones, but ones who represent those whom some of us fear, hate, or find inconvenient or somehow unworthy of sharing our rights and privileges. Unfortunately, children get caught in the crossfire, as do innocent people simply out to have a Bible study, enjoy an evening out, or even attend school or social events. We aren’t just talking about building walls around on our southern border but walls that separate communities and groups of people from those who are different.
Bernard didn’t build walls between people. Now we want to put our own stamp on everything. Recently we heard that now gigantic corporations want to “sponsor” parts of our national parks, of course, branding them with their own particular logos. It’s like setting up a kingship where the individual or corporation is the ruler over something God created and of which we are only stewards.
So what is the answer? What can I learn from Bernard, given the differences between us, including time and place? Of course, courage and perseverance in the face of danger is a big thing, even if it has death staring me in the face. Then there is bridge building by finding commonalities and working with them. A big thing is love; Bernard loved the children of the village and their parents saw that. It brought many of them to Bernard, to learn from him and to enjoy his company. So many lessons, most especially remaining faithful to God and not building our own kingdoms or following those who seek to do that very thing.
“Should a man like me run away? Would a man like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in.” I think Bernard Mizeki would have agreed with Nehemiah. In fact, he became the example of Nehemiah’s words.