She was 56 years old and weighed in at just 90 pounds. Overlooking the burning intensity in her eyes, the mission board of the Presbyterian Church told her she was too old and too frail to go to the Belgian Congo. Maria Fearing (1838-1937) was not daunted by lack of permission.
Fearing sold her home and paid her own way, giving up the hard-won security that must have been so vital to a person who had lived her first 27 years enslaved in rural Alabama, becoming the first self-supporting missionary of the Presbyterian Church. The woman who once walked across the state to pursue an education now purchased a one-way ticket to her new life.
Leaving the tumult of the post-Civil War South may seem like an easy decision except the Congo was then under the control of the genocidal King Leopold II of Belgium and the situation was potentially more brutal. However, according to her mentee and biographer Althea Brown Edmiston, Fearing’s heart leaped when her feet touched African soil and she knew she was where she was meant to be.
While it was all too common for White missionaries at the time to go to other countries to “Christianize, colonize, and capitalize,” Fearing quietly yet firmly assumed the mantle of minister even before being officially commissioned by the church body who grudgingly agreed to her presence on the mission. Fearing was accustomed to paving her own way. The funds she had raised for herself with the sale of her house and the support of a women’s group from Talladega College sufficed for two years until the board finally began to pay her, though at only half the rate of other single missionaries for two years before giving her a full wage.
Fluent in the Baluba language within a year, Fearing and other team members established a school where Fearing, according to one colleague, was instrumental in creating an atmosphere where “young and old alike could talk, sing, play, and tell stories.” Fearing made her home and thus the station hospitable to all comers, creating a sanctuary in the midst of upheaval.
Like other Black, female missionaries, Fearing approached her work holistically, knowing faith alone is insufficient in the face of great gaps in education and healthcare. She went about working to help rectify those gaps for women in the Kasai region of the Congo, primarily through the home for girls she started. Girls who had escaped trafficking, or whose parents had died, or for other reasons found themselves alone in the world sought out her home as a place of refuge. Called “Mama wa Mputu” (mother from far away) by the girls in her care, Fearing saw the plight of women in the Congo as similar to the plight of enslaved women in the United States. She looked at education as a path to freedom for women and established the Pantops Home for Girls, using her savings and later her meager income to secure the freedom of girls who had been enslaved.
In her home, Fearing established a work-based pedagogy similar to what she herself had experienced at Talladega College where she had obtained her edu- cation. This model was innovative and later adopted by missionaries from multiple denominations. Before her arrival, “girls working for the mission received lessons only when their workload allowed and during the weekly meetings designed to attract local villagers.” Her pedagogy mirrored efforts in the U.S. by organizations such as the National Baptist Women’s Convention and the National Association of Colored Women, who knew that by lifting women out of poverty, entire people groups are lifted as well.
In addition to the school, which was primarily run by Fearing, the team of missionaries she worked with translated the Bible, the catechism, and a number of hymns into the local dialect, eventually setting up a printing press that was run by the indigenous people to produce bibles and other resources.
Maria Fearing left the upheaval of the Reconstruction era and all the backlash that followed and went to a country in the throes of just as great if not greater oppression. The situations mirrored each other in the severing of nuclear families, leaving children vulnerable. Both in her work teaching and as matron for Talladega College, then later in her second career teaching and fostering children in the Congo, Fearing gathered these children and gave them a place to belong as well as imparting skills to succeed and overcome. Retiring at the age of 80, she taught school in Selma, Alabama, and even through the Great Depression, sent money to her beloved mission in the Congo before her death at the age of 99.