It is the 7th of March 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1866.
Today we remember a giant in the church in Southern Africa and missionary to the Shona people in modern Zimbabwe. His approach to evangelism is worth noting, as is the story of his death.
Bernard Mizeki was born Mamiyeli Mitseki Gwambe in 1861 in what was then called Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique today). Around the age of 10, he traveled to South Africa, where he worked various jobs from gardener to dock worker. It was here that he was introduced to the work of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. These were high church Anglicans who had set up a mission school. While attending this school, he became a Christian and was baptized on the 7th of March in 1866.
He was baptized on the feast day of St. Perpetua, a 3rd-century African martyr. He took the name Bernard Mizeki and soon entered a mixed-race college in South Africa where one "Fraulein Blomberg" took a shining to the quiet but pious and sincere young man.
With the help of Fraulein Blomberg, Mizeki was soon assigned to a new diocese and mission in Mashonaland. Mashonaland is today in what we call northern Zimbabwe. It was an important mission at the time as it was more inland than most. Cecil Rhodes and the British worked from the coasts and tended to live by maximizing "missionaries and then an empire." Mizeki would gain the trust of the local chief and even marry one of his daughters. But the English's imperial push would soon put this young man in the middle of a dangerous situation.
Mizeki was known for his singing voice, love of children, and linguistic ability. (He spoke 8 African languages as well as English, Dutch, and Portuguese.) In 1895 when an epidemic of Smallpox broke out, Mizeki gained the trust of the village by physically vaccinating most of the village with supplies from the British. He was also careful not to dismiss their tribal religion but instead to show them how "Mwari," the god they worshipped, was actually Yahweh, the Father of Jesus.
According to the locals, he made two mistakes in integrating himself into the Shona community. The first was when he got married. He was married by an Anglican official. Despite being a native African, it was thought unbecoming for the chief of a village to have his daughter married by an outsider. And secondly, when Mizeki's school proved so popular, they decided to move it across the river to a larger plot. But to do so, Mizeki felled many trees with spiritual and ancestral ties.
As the colonial incursion kept marching inland, all Anglican priests and Englishmen were called to evacuate their villages and head for a fortified location. Mizeki refused to leave. On a later Sunday, he rang the bells for the church, but no one came. One day in the summer of 1896, Mizeki was lured from his home and fatally stabbed with a spear. Before he died, he asked that his wife and new child would be baptized. They later were.
But what happened to Mizeki's body? Eyewitnesses claim that where his body lie was enveloped by a bright light and the whooshing of sound. And then his body was gone. Maybe it was a hallucination. Perhaps it was a hoax. And maybe it was an experience so far outside of my own personal context that I should reserve judgment and simply listen to and report from the people who recorded the event. After all, Christians are supernaturalists. And sometimes, the supernatural works in ways we can't explain.
Regardless of the best explanation, the site of his death has become a shrine, and Bernard Mizeki has become a symbol of faithfulness, of a compassionate missional spirit, and indigenous hero for the African church. We remember the day of his baptism, on this, the 7th of March in 1866.
If you are observing Lent, today is the 7th Sunday in Lent. One of the lectionary readings for today is on the foolishness of God from 1 Corinthians 1:20. The reading for the Almanac today is a poetic interpretation of this theme from Luci Shaw. This is her "The Foolishness of God."
or perish. Thrust out now
the unseasonal ripe figs
among your leaves. Expect
the mountain to be moved.
Hate parents, friends, and all
materiality. Love every enemy.
Forgive more times than seventy-
seven. Camel-like, squeeze by
into the kingdom through
the needle's eye. All fear quell.
Hack off your hand, or else,
unbloodied, go to hell.
Thus the divine unreason.
Despairing now, you cry
with earthy logic – How?
And I, your God, reply:
Leap from your weedy shallows.
Dive into the moving water.
Eyeless, learn to see
truly. Find in my folly your
true sanity. Then Spirit-driven,
run on my narrow way, sure
as a child. Probe, hold
my unhealed hand, and
bloody, enter heaven.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of March 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by the Bishop of Random Lake, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.