Eva Burrows’ conversation is liberally peppered with words like “marvelous”, “thrilled” and “excited”. At 72 years of age it is typical of her unflagging enthusiasm for God and the life she has been given – a fascinating life, by her own admission.
Educated in missions during her childhood in Africa, Eva did not make a commitment to Christianity until she went to university. After her conversion, she began to read about the work of the Salvation Army around the world and the large teachers’ colleges they ran in Africa and India. Her heart was captured by the work in Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia). It was a call she was to follow for the next 20 years.
“I loved working with the African people,” says Eva. “I learned their language and tried to get inside their skin and help them to receive the faith.”
The legacy of Eva’s long service in Africa is people who have taken her teaching and wisdom into their lives. Though Eva has never married, she is quick to point out that she has “hundreds of children” from her years as a missionary. They became Salvation Army officers, politicians, teachers and businesspeople. One student became Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Canada. Another girl, who became a building constructor in Africa, told Eva, “You used to tell us we could do anything if we set goals and lived a good life.” It seems her students took her at her word.
In 1986 Eva was appointed General of the Salvation Army. She says it was an amazing role that enabled her to move from “princes to paupers to prime ministers in one day”. The General, as international head, travels the world appointing national leaders and overseeing policies that fulfill the twofold mission of the Army: to preach the gospel and minister to the poor. Another important responsibility is to connect with governments to gain support for the Army’s work with the disadvantaged. It is in this part of the job that Eva was introduced to some of the most famous personalities of the 20th century.
When meeting with President Reagan to talk about the Army’s work, Eva asked him if she could pray for America and his leadership over the nation. He agreed because, he said, Lincoln claimed he always got his best ideas on his knees. “The US photographer later sent us this beautiful picture of the President at prayer with us,” remembers Eva. “That is the only known photograph of a President at prayer in the Oval Office. So that’s one of the thrills.”
Praying with leaders was not unusual for Eva. She also prayed with Fidel Castro in Cuba. “We talked about the Christian faith and he said to me, ‘Give me reasons as to why you should be working here. What can you do that I can’t do for my people?’ That was a fine discussion. At the end I asked, ‘Can I pray for Cuba?’ and he said yes. I had with me the leader of the Caribbean area and he prayed in Spanish for Cuba and for the President. It was very interesting. Castro said to me, ‘The last person that sat in your chair was Mother Teresa. I’ve let her come in and do her work, so you can come in and do your work too’.”
The Salvation Army often worked closely with Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity in Calcutta and it wasn’t long before Eva met with her as well. She asked Mother Teresa how she coped with the adulation and praise she received. Mother Teresa replied that it meant nothing to her, “but I think I’ve done something important. I’ve helped people talk to the poor and not just about the poor.”
Eva says Mother Teresa’s words struck a chord for her. “The poor are not just a conglomerate mass that give us a lot of difficulty. They are human beings like us and we need to talk to them, not just about them. I’ve always believed that, and I’ve always had a bias for the poor.”
Bridging Church and Community
While she was Commander with the Salvation Army in Melbourne from 1982 to 1986, Eva’s concern about poverty led her to set up Employment 2000. The program covered more than learning a trade; it also emphasized new attitudes and life skills. Spreading across the country, it has now evolved into the Army’s Employment Plus program-the largest employment agency in Australia.
Eva is keen on developing such close connections between community and the church. It is part of her understanding of the nature of missions.
“Jesus said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ That’s a mission statement for your life. If you really love God with your mind as well as your heart then you reach out towards others. When you have a vital relationship with God, something of the love that you feel for him, and he feels for you, comes through to other people. The Christian church would have far more credibility if all Christians lived up to that great commandment.
“You have to live in the real world. You have to try and understand where people come from. And that’s why I have a great belief in what I call ‘incarnational ministry’, that is, try to put yourself into the place of another person, try and understand them, see where they’re coming from. We have to try and identify with other people, especially the youth of today who have so many new ideas – try and understand them, not be judgmental but come right alongside them. The Holy Spirit helps us do that.”
Eva’s passion for missions and connecting Christianity with the everyday has also led to her involvement with the Christian Resources Exhibition (CRE), due to open in Australia this month [October 2001]. CRE began around the late ’70s, the vision of Englishman Gofpatric Home. Eva, whose association with CRE began in 1989, says, “It’s a marketplace with a difference because it’s a Christian resource and an ecumenical enterprise. It’s a marvelous atmosphere because everyone is there to see if they can learn something or find something to the advantage of their ministry and evangelism.”
The CRE brings together in one place the combined resources of different denominations and para-church organizations so that people can discover and access them easily. It has gained wide support in Britain and the concept has spread around the world. Eva anticipates it will be well received in Australia.
“The exhibits cover every aspect of Christian ministry – children, youth, family, marriage, music, dance, drama. There are displays where people can ask questions about a particular ministry, from preaching to drug work, youth work to how to manage your church more efficiently financially or how to design websites. Then there are the resources themselves–you can actually buy or order things, from cassettes to candles to carpet supplies.”
Eight years into her loosely termed ‘retirement’, Eva will have a special anniversary in London this year . She will celebrate 50 years of ministry since her ordination. She is still traveling widely – this year will include Sri Lanka, two trips to America and a holiday in the Greek Isles. She plans to “stand on Patmos and think about St John”. She is still speaking, preaching in churches and working for the International Bible Society.
It continues to be a fascinating life for someone who describes herself as “a bit old”–but only a bit, it seems.