Gladys Aylward was a working-class young woman in England who, denied the opportunity to study to be a missionary with an established organization, saved her own money and set off for China in 1932. Alan Burgess wrote The Small Woman based on conversations he had with Gladys and, presumably, letters she wrote. I don't know how it would qualify against today's standards of non-fictional biographies, but it is a beautifully written and fascinating account of Gladys's life and experiences in China.
The journey alone was perilous and eventful, but finally she reached China. Most of her missionary life was based out of a small town named Yangcheng in the remote mountains, two days' travel on a mule track from the end of the road.
The city stood far off on its mountain peak like a caste in a fairy tale. Its high walls grew from the natural rock, and delicate pagodas and temples, still only silhouettes, but made more mysterious by distance, rose high above the walls. Against the satin sky of late afternoon it gave her an impression of unattainable beauty. Weary as she was, Gladys felt her spirit lifted up at the sight. As they drew nearer she saw that, among otherwise barren mountains, there were two quite close to the city that were covered with trees and dense foliage. The trail passed over one, tunneling through green shade until it came out into the hard sunlight again and climbed steeply to the East Gate. On all sides, from that altitude, glorious panoramas of mountain and valley rolled away into the distance. Gladys was enthralled by the natural grandeur. She had never suspected that such a place existed.Gladys joined a missionary with whom she had conversed by letter, Jeannie Lawson. They opened an inn where they told stories to (eventually) eager muleteers after the evening meal, stories of a remarkable man named Jesus.
She realized now how circumscribed her life in England had been. In Edmonton, she could only see as far as the end of the street; in Belgrave Square she was confined eternally to "servants' quarters" in a rigid caste system. No such thing existed in China.I think, perhaps, it didn't exist for her, but it's a powerful reminder of the great expanse of the world we cannot know entirely even now in a time of much easier travel and communication.
Gladys didn't just serve the people in her community, she became a part of her community. She impressed the mandarin who gave her a government position and sometimes even asked her advice. After many years, she became a Chinese citizen. When Japan invaded in 1938, she suffered along with the Chinese. She wrote to her mother:
Do not wish me out of this or in any way seek to get me out, for I will not be got out while this trial is on. These are my people; God has given them to me; and I will live or die with them for Him and His Glory.During the war, she often spied for the Chinese military while on her wanderings between villages. At a meeting with General Ley, a Roman Catholic priest of indeterminate nationality who took up arms and led a guerrilla force against the Japanese, they discussed the conflict between the peaceful role of a missionary and the love of a country unjustly invaded that calls forth action, even bloody action.
"We shall kill many Japanese," he had said unemotionally--not as an ordinary military commander might have announced, "We shall cut their lines of communication!" or: "We shall capture supplies!" or: "We shall hit them hard!" He had gone straight to the heart of the matter.
"We shall kill many Japanese," he repeated. Their eyes met across the lamp. She understood, and he knew she understood, this agonizing dilemma of his Christian conscience. She, too, in the quietness of her prayers, had tried to find some clear path to follow.Later in the war, she begins a journey with a hundred orphans, attempting to lead them to a place of safety. Facing hungry, exhaustion, cold, and fear, they trekked across the mountains, following Gladys. At one point, they arrived at a river, a river too wide to cross but bereft of local peasants offering boats for travel across. With no other option, they sit and wait for days. One of her older charges asked Gladys why God did not open the waters as he did for Moses.
She looked wearily at the pretty, childish face, the ingenuous wide eyes. "I am not Moses, Sualan," she said.
"But God is always God, Ai-weh-deh. You have told us so a hundred times. If He is God He can open the river for us."
For a moment she did not know what to say. How to tell a hungry child on the banks of an immense and wide-flowing river that miracles were not just for the asking? How to say, perhaps we are not worthy of a miracle? How to say, although I can face a mortal enemy wherever he may beset me, I cannot open these vast waters? I have no power other than the power of my own faith.
She said: "Let you and I kneel down and pray, Sualan. And perhaps soon our prayers will be answered."Eventually, their prayers are answered and they are ferried across the river and allowed to continue on their journey.
The mountains in their long years of sun and wind and rain must have seen many strange sights, but it is doubtful that they have seen anything more unusual, or more gallant, than this column of children led by a small woman with a tear-stained face, caroling with such shrill determination as she led her band onward toward the promised land.Gladys saved those children. She was prevented from returning to China by government authorities. Eventually, set up an orphanage in Taiwan, where she lived and worked until she died.
I often wonder about missionaries, how they might serve best in today's world, and I think Gladys Aylward offers a glimpse into the most fulfilling life of a missionary. Gladys didn't wander from place to place. She didn't have to "fundraise," though I imagine her friends and family sometimes sent her money. Instead, she established a business, took on jobs, earned a salary along with her converts and those they evangelized. She wasn't a foreigner living among the poor or the heathen; she was a woman living in a community with which she formed a vital and loving relationship.
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