“I dare you to swing that lead weight as close to my face as you like. If I don’t flinch, you have to agree to come with me to church, and on top of that you have to promise to behave!”
Her dare was accepted by the group of youth surrounding her on her way to church, and as the ringleader swung the heavy lead weight closer and closer to her face without her even inching, they finally agreed to go to church with her.
It seems like an unusual start for a missionary, but the more I find out about Mary’s life, the more I find it completely in keeping with her character! The daughter of a God-fearing woman and an alcoholic father, Mary’s experience of living in astute poverty and the grit and courage she developed as a result served her well when she applied to the Foreign Mission Board and was accepted to go to Nigeria at the age of 28.
It was quickly evident that Mary was no ordinary missionary though! She cut her hair short, abandoned the Victorian dress styles that were unsuitable for the hot climate, and was known to climb every tree she could find. It amused me to read that as her cotton clothing often stuck to her when it rained, one male missionary even insisted on walking in front of her so that he didn’t have to look at her (for modesty’s sake)!
More remarkably though, instead of the safe mission compound in Duke Town, Mary longed to do pioneer work and live among the locals. Other missionaries thought she was foolish, as she was “just a woman”, and the Okoyoung tribe she desired to go to was considered too dangerous to work with — male missionaries had already been killed. Anyone else might have been afraid, but as Mary famously said, “When you think of the woman’s power, you forget the power of the woman’s God.”
When Mary finally started work with the Okoyoung, it was an uphill battle. The villagers were steeped in superstition and spiritualism. When accidents or disputes happened, they fed the accused poisoned beans. If they died, they were considered guilty, and if they managed to survive, considered innocent. Boiling oil was used to punish the guilty. When a person died, the villagers often went on a drunken killing frenzy to avenge the death, even if it was of natural causes. And more horrifically, it was believed that when twins were born, one of them was possessed with an evil spirit, and hence both were usually killed or abandoned and left to die.
Rescuing these twins became one of Mary’s main missions in Calabar, eventually adopting and raising many of them despite the risks involved. She was often chased and threatened, and some rescued babies even got stolen back from her and killed!
However, despite the initial opposition, Mary’s legacy grew and grew through her 39 years of ministry, eventually earning her the unofficial title of the “Queen of Calabar”. She was firm about what the Bible taught, yet never forced religion down the throats of the natives. She became so well-respected that the locals often came to her for counsel, even being trusted to settle disputes in difficult situations (no longer with poison beans), which would have been unthinkable years ago when the Okoyoung banned all missionaries and killed those they saw!
As I reflect on Mary’s life, it is obvious to me that her life was one marked by bold confidence in God’s power and an unwavering faithfulness to the call He had placed on her life. Sometimes when I read stories like these, I feel small as a Christian and ask if what I’m doing for God is enough. Yet if I am to take anything from her story, it only shows me that when we trust in God’s power above our own, we are able to do much more than we imagine.