Rachel is “slaving over a hot stove” when a group of people come running by. They’re eager to see “Mr. Bird,” though Rachel doesn’t know what this means. An old white man then appears outside the Price house, and introduces himself as Mr. Bird. Orleanna isn’t sure what to make of all this, but she invites Bird and his wife, a tall Congolese woman named Celine, into the house.
Rachel has been stepping up, taking on various leadership roles. But as we can see right away, she’s doing this in part to be dramatic—to get some respect for herself, not because she genuinely wants to help her family members.
Ruth May (who’s been feeling better lately) greets “Mr. Bird” with curiosity. Bird is calm and thoughtful. He explains that little has changed in the Congo since he was a missionary here. Bird proceeds to talk with Leah about the Bible. He points out that the Bible is the product of man as well as God, because it’s been translated and reinterpreted so many times by different people (Matthew, John, King James, etc.). Leah and Orleanna seem impressed with Bird’s freethinking ways. Bird explains that he has a large family, with many children.
Mr. Bird is a fascinating character—he has the same profession as Nathan, and yet he seems to be Nathan’s opposite in every way. Where Nathan trusts the Bible with a rigid, unchanging faith, Mr. Bird believes that the Bible must be adjusted to suit the needs of man. Bird is also a true family man, in contrast to Nathan (who, as we’ve seen, is basically indifferent to his family).
Nathan returns to the house, and greets Mr. Bird. Bird reveals himself to be Brother Fowles—Nathan’s predecessor in the village. Fowles seems more relaxed and easy-going than Nathan. He also mentions his respect for Tata Ndu, Nathan’s great rival for authority in the village. Nathan asks Fowles what he’s been up to, and Fowles replies that he’s been “rejoicing in the work of the Lord.” Nathan, who clearly dislikes Fowles’ personality, quotes a Bible verse about salvation, and Fowles names the chapter and verse without batting an eye. In spite of himself, Nathan is impressed.
Unlike Nathan, Fowles respects Tata Ndu—a pragmatic gesture more than anything else (Fowles seems to understand that it’s impossible to be successful in the village without getting the chief on your side). Fowles is also clearly a more intelligent and educated man than Nathan. This obviously bothers Nathan, who likes to pass himself off as a great authority on the Bible.
Nathan and Fowles begin a subtle contest in which Nathan quotes a Bible verse and Fowles expounds upon it, showing off his knowledge. Fowles uses his knowledge of the Bible to argue that the un-saved people of the Congo are still God’s children. Nathan counters that they are “enemies of God.” Fowles talks about the beauty of the natural world, and Nathan seems to get madder and madder.
This is an interesting scene, because it suggests that Fowles, for all his virtues, isn’t above showing off or competing. He knows he’s antagonizing Nathan, and seems to take pleasure in showing up his opponent.
Rachel notices that Nathan isn’t trying to make Fowles feel the least bit welcome in the house, and Fowles ends up leaving instead of staying for dinner. He leaves Adah with some books, and also offers some supplies to Orleanna. Before he goes, he tells Orleanna that he gets funding from the ABFMS, the American Baptist Foreign Mission Service. Orleanna points out that her family isn’t Baptist, but Fowles suggests, “There are Christians and there are Christians.”
Fowles clearly believes in a looser interpretation of religion than Nathan would ever adopt for himself—he believes that the specific differences between different sects (and, perhaps, different religions) are less important than the commonalities between them: the emphasis on love, compassion, and respect.
Before Fowles leaves, Orleanna asks him about Ruth May’s fever. Fowles admits that there are few good doctors around, but Celine suggests that the Prices talk to Tata Ndu, a man of “surprising resources.” Fowles’s last question, before he walks out, is about how Methuselah is doing. Ruth May explains that Methuselah has gone to “bird heaven,” and Fowles replies that this is the best place for the “little bastard.” This shocks and delights the Price children.
Fowles is a more likable figure than Nathan—he’s more “down to earth” and more willing to break and bend a few rules along the way through life. Fowles is an important character because he shows that there’s nothing automatically negative about being a missionary—it’s perfectly possible to preach the gospels while also being compassionate and friendly.