Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Feast of Bernard Mizeki, Catechist and Martyr of Rhodesia

Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyr Bernard Mizeki: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mamiyeri Mitseka Gwambe was born in Inhambane, in Portuguese East Africa, which we now call Mozambique, in the year 1861. When he was twelve years old he decided to go into exile with some of his older cousins. They moved to Cape Town, South Africa. He worked as a laborer for ten years, working for white settlers, commuting to his home in the slums. Many of his neighbors used alcohol to treat their despair, which actually made things much worse, and he decided not to drink. This was one of the many ways in which he was different than his neighbors, along with his desire for education.

When he was about 20 years old, he enrolled in an Anglican night school run by the Cowley Fathers and administered by Baroness Paula Dorothea von Blomberg of Germany. He was a dedicated student with a gift for languages, and he learned English, High Dutch, French, and eight African languages. He was soon working as a translator, translating the Bible into indigenous African languages. He became a Christian and was baptized at St. Philip's Mission on Sir Lowry Road in Cape Town on March 7, 1886, with the Baroness serving as his godmother. He took on the name Bernard Mizeki at baptism. He worked as a houseboy at St. Bolumba's Hostel, a residential home for African men, and it was here that his talents in evangelism appeared. A few months later he was sent to Zonnebloem College where he was trained as a catechist.

In 1891, the Rt. Rev. George William Knight-Bruce, former Anglican Bishop of Bloemfontien was appointed missionary bishop of the new Diocese of Mashonaland. He needed volunteers who spoke the language to help with this pioneer missionary work, and Bernard Mizeki answered "yes" to this call. He travelled with the bishop into what was then called Rhodesia, but we now call Zimbabwe, a place very much in the news lately. Bernard served as the bishop's personal assistant and interpreter. Bernard eventually settled near the place where the chief of the vaNhowe people, Mungati, kept his cattle. He continued to travel to the city of Salisbury (now Harare) to work translating the Bible and Prayer Book liturgies into the seShona language. Mungati gave Bernard some land and he built his hut there. He built himself some furniture but then decided that he wanted to live as simply as his neighbors, so he took all his furniture and burned it. Bernard's daily routine involved prayer with his neighbors as a means of getting to know them, working in his garden, and studying local languages. He opened a school and opened his house so that his students could live with him. He later moved the school and mission station (with Mungati's permission) to a plateau near a grove of trees which supposedly housed the ancestral spirits of the Mashona poeple. The station prospered and the number of converts grew. Bernard respected the local religious beliefs, and, noticing that the Shona Spirit religion was monotheistic, he made connections between Christianity and the local religion, which increased his respect among the people. He was also respected by the Government official Llewellyn Meredith and a lay missionary, Douglas Pelly, although this connection to the white colonial government was not helpful to Bernard and probably had a part in his martyrdom.

Not everyone respected or liked Bernard Mizeki. The local witch-doctors saw him as a threat to their way of life, and Mchemwa, Mungati's son, despised Bernard. Bernard married Mutwa, granddaughter of Mungati and Mchemwa's niece, but this family tie did not help his relationship with Mchemwa. Although Bernard respected some aspects of the local religion, he didn't believe in the superstitious aspects, and he cut down some of the trees in the sacred grove, and carved crosses on some of the other trees. This angered the local witch-doctors, and they combined forces with Mchemwa. Mchemwa ordered Bernard's death, and one of the local religious leaders warned the Christians to stay away from the morning service on June 14. However, they all returned that evening. The Mashona rebellion was taking place, and Bernard was warned to flee, because Mchemwa had accused him of working as an agent of European imperialism. Bernard refused to leave, choosing to obey what he believed was his bishop's order to stay and work with the people there. On the evening of June 18, 1896, his enemies knocked on his door, dragged him outside, stabbed him with a spear, and left him for dead. His wife found him nearby, wounded but alive. He told Mutwa to flee, but she went to find him food and blankets to care for him. She saw a brilliant white light, which was seen by others as well. The light was shining all over the hillside where he lay dying. Witnesses claimed to have heard a great noise, like many wings of great birds. When Mutwa returned to where she had left Bernard, his body was gone. Mchemwa had taken his body and buried it in a secret place. He and his men then destroyed the mission station, leaving nothing but mud floors. Months later, Mutwa gave birth to their daughter and named her Masiwa, which means "fatherless one." At baptism her name became Bernadina.

Mchemwa and the witch-doctors thought that they had successfully ended Bernard Mizeki's ministry with the destruction of the mission station and his martyrdom. English missionaries had been working in the area for thirty years without even one baptism, but one month after Bernard's martyrdom, John Kupya, one of Bernard's students, was baptized, followed by Mutwa and many others. The hill on which Mungati’s kraal was located is now dominated by a large concrete cross.
The church is established in Zimbabwe and the place of Bernard's martyrdom is a site of pilgrimage in Africa, where large groups of people, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Protestants, come to pray and remember him on June 18, St. Bernard's Day. Next to his shrine stands Bernard Mizeki College. There are more than twenty memorials dedicated to Bernard Mizeki in South Africa alone, including many churches, and the altar in St. Cyprian’s Church in Langa, South Africa, is inscribed Bernard Mizeki si tandaza: Bernard Mizeki pray for us.

Bernard Mizeki was not afraid of those who would kill the body and he was willing to stand up and acknowledge Christ before others, even though his witness led to his death. His bravery, his faithfulness to the people whose lives were entrusted to his care, and his love for the Good News makes him an example of one who is a Witness, a martyr, a saint. May we all have the faith and courage of Bernard Mizeki.


Paul said...

Thank you for this great post. I was ordained as a Baptist on his feast in 1972. And, even then, I knew it was his feast because I was already "pre-Anglican."

David |däˈvēd| said...


I was told that I had latent episcopal tendencies.

Andy said...

Thanks Padre Mickey..

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