They begged him to leave, but he refused. He knew his life was in danger, but he would not leave those he had been teaching the Christian Faith, to those whom he had given his love. So he stayed, not knowing what would come next. His name was Bernard Mizeki. The year was 1896. Why did he stay?
An Anglican Bishop some 80 years later in an another part of Africa put it this way, “In Uganda, during the eight years in the 1970s when Idi Amin and his men slaughtered probably half a million Ugandans, "We live today and are gone tomorrow" was the common phrase. We learned that living in danger, when the Lord Jesus is the focus of your life, can be liberating. For one thing, you are no longer imprisoned by your own security, because there is none. So the important security that people sought was to be anchored in God.” (from Revolutionary Love by Festo Kivengere)Bernard Mizeki was anchored in God. He was born Mamiyeri Mitseka Gwambe in 1861 in the Inhambane district of Portuguese East Africa which we know today as Mozambique. When he was about twelve years old, he left his home and went to Capetown, South Africa. In his 20s, he began to attend classes at an Anglican school. Under the influence of his teachers, from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, he was baptized in 1886 and took on the name Bernard Mizeki. In his schooling, he mastered English, French, Dutch, and several local African languages.
After his baptism, he was trained as a lay catechist, one who taught the Christian faith to others. After graduating, he accompanied Bishop Knight-Bruce to Mashonaland, a tribal area in what is today Zimbabwe. In 1891 the bishop assigned him to Nhowe and there he lived among that tribe. He prayed the Anglican hours each day, tended his garden, and studied the local language so he could talk and pray and teach them in their own language, which also helped him cultivate friendships with the people.
With the chief's permission, he moved his huts onto a nearby plateau, next to a grove of trees believed to be sacred to the ancestral spirits of the Mashona. This angered the shamans when he cut some of the trees down and carved crosses into others. Although he opposed some of the tribal religious traditions, Bernard was attentive to the nuances of their religion and developed an approach that built on the people's faith in one God, and on their sensitivity to the spirit, while at the same time proclaiming Christ. In many ways, he reminds me of St. Patrick and what he did among the Irish, cultivating the faith in similar soil, helping them see the Christian faith in what they already knew.
Sadly, his life would not end so peaceably as St. Patrick’s did in Ireland. In 1896, when tensions reached a fevered pitch in Mashonaland, missionaries were ordered out for their safety. Bernard refused to go. On June 18, 1896, Bernard was killed by the local shaman and his huts and his mission destroyed.
And yet his work did not die with him. His pregnant wife survived and in fact, the first baptisms from that tribe followed his death, including his wife and child. He is revered among African Anglicans and is considered both a martyr and a saint.
In our reading from Leviticus, “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation and say: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. You shall not hate in your heart…You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”This was true of the life of Bernard Mizeki. Who refused to go down the road of hate, even when threatened by the local religious leaders. He knew his anchor was in God, that Jesus guided him onward as he loved everyone he was with. He tried to live that holy life in prayer and in love to whom he was called. And like St. Paul, he understood that his work was not for himself…
“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-- all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”The foundation laid by Bernard Mizeki was built upon by many other Christians in African in the decades since his death. He knew he belonged to Christ and he wanted to share that with others, in their own language and customs. And he was trying to live as Jesus had taught. Many shrines were set up to remember his work and his martyrdom.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus said “You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”Bernard tried to love his enemies even at the end, worrying more about his wife and those he taught, then his own life. He tried to be as Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
But of course, Bernard wasn’t, nor are any of us perfect. But Jesus calls us to work towards that perfection in how we live our lives. As one person has written on Bernard… “While attaining the highest, he yet comes within the comprehension of the lowest. He is not as saints and martyrs often seem to be – a being of a different order. He brings the crown of martyrdom within the compass of his people's understanding; he is bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh .... He stands for modern Africa. He stands true to type. In all the happenings of his life – save in the manner of his death – he recapitulates the story of countless thousands of his African brothers and sisters.” (Fr. Osmund Victor)Today, we are called to have a like faith and power of love that Bernard Mizeki had in Jesus, who “proclaimed that he followed the Holy and Loving Spirit, whom we call God and because of this, he had lost all anxiety and no one could ever disturb his peace and happiness.” (from an eyewitness to one of his teachings)
May we who rejoice in his triumph, may also profit by his example, for we walk with him, just as he walked with Jesus, working towards that perfection in that faith and love that drives out fear and anxiety. For we are anchored in God, who indeed helps us live in peace and happiness. Amen.