“Life is pitiful, death so familiar, suffering and pain so common, yet I would not be anywhere else.” Gladys Aylward
She was born in north London in 1902 to a poor working-class family. She didn’t fare well at school and quit at age fourteen to work in a penny bazaar. At eighteen she “accidentally” followed a group of young evangelicals into a church meeting where she first heard God’s invitation.
Nearly a decade later she read a story about the millions of people who had never heard the Gospel in China. She felt an immediate call and sought training at the China Inland Mission (C.I.M.) in London. Her limited education, and lack of theology studies and language training, led to rejection by the committee after only three months in the program. Her only hope was to toil away each day saving every penny she made.
Gladys Aylward was all of four-foot-ten with dark hair and never felt at home amidst the tall blondes of her homeland, and she knew God was calling her to go to China. She took work as a housemaid, and sitting alone on her bed in her new quarters, she placed the few coins she had on her Bible and cried out, “Oh God, here’s my Bible! Here’s my money! Here’s me! Use me!” At that moment her mistress called her to reimburse her for her travel fare. Those three shillings became a sign from God and the beginning of her fund toward a ticket to China.
Even then she couldn’t afford to go by sea but would need to take the cheapest route possible overland by train. So, she scrimped and saved pence after pence until she almost had enough. She discovered that cheap shoes could be purchased for only threepence (three pennies) out of a bin at Woolworth. Gladys sold her good, comfortable leather shoes and then sorted through the bin finding two shoes in her size, but they were both for left feet. Not deterred, she bought them anyway saying, “It’s all for China.”
Can you put your feet into her two left shoes for a moment? Have you ever traveled down an unknown path or road, and began to get anxious because you didn’t know what to expect or even if you would succeed? My daughter Corrie and I decided to climb some trails to a waterfall a few weeks back. It was extremely hot, the trail was steep, I was out of “hiking condition”, and after a while I started to question the value of every next step. Did I really want to do this? Could I even do this? I stopped repeatedly to catch my breath and almost gave up, when suddenly we turned the bend and we were standing at the foot of beautiful falls. The trip back down was just as long but was easy and rather delightful.
We are now over halfway through 2020, and instead of being able to see with perfect vision, the months have brought every unimaginable challenge and difficulty possible. One day we’re anxious and the next fearing for the future; one day we’re angry and the next battling outright rage. When freedom and rights are stripped away, and injustice seems insurmountable, it’s easy to begin to lose sight of Jesus who is in our midst providing our balance, strength, and core. Let’s take a walk with one who traveled far worse roads in two left shoes and is now part of the great cloud of witnesses who overcame.
Gladys learned of a 73-year-old missionary in China named Jeannie Lawson who was seeking a young person to help her continue her work.
Gladys wrote to her, and the two agreed to meet at Tientsin. She would need to go by train through Europe, Russia, Siberia, Manchuria and finally by steamer to China – but that route was nearly impossible because there was an undeclared war between Russia and China.
In October of 1930 she set out with one pound and nine pence ($1.09) sewn into her corset and carrying two suitcases. Ten days later, she crossed into Siberia and everyone else exited the train as a railway official tried to convince her to get off, but she couldn’t understand him and insisted on staying on. For hours she rode along as the only passenger until the train halted and the lights went out. Gladys was now alone at the front line of the war. She had no choice but to walk the many miles back to the last stop through the Siberian winter in her two left shoes carrying her bags through the freezing snow, trusting God to protect her from the wolves that howled nearby.
She made it safely only to discover that her paid ticket was now useless, and an official had misunderstood the word missionary on her passport and changed her profession to machinist. Officials in the town were desperate for skilled factory workers so they wanted to keep her in Russia, but an English-speaking woman warned her to get out of the country immediately and arranged for her escape by the first ship out headed to Japan.
After arriving in Kobe, Japan, Gladys learned that Jeannie Lawson was in a mission in northwest China, many weeks away along an ancient mule trail. The wild and mountainous country was unpenetrated by Christianity and filled with bandits along the lonely roads, and primitive people who thought all foreigners were devils. But the long mule ride would come in handy for Gladys; when she finally found Lawson, together they turned their house and courtyard into an inn for the muleteers that traveled those same mule paths.
At the “Inn of Eight Happinesses”, (based on the eight virtues: Love, Virtue, Gentleness, Tolerance, Loyalty, Truth, Beauty and Devotion) it was Gladys’ job to stand in the road when a mule train appeared shouting, “We have no bugs, we have no fleas, good, good, good, come, come, come,” and then grab the head of the lead mule to pull it into the inn. Mules entered quite willingly expecting food and rest, and the other mules readily followed, leaving their drivers no choice but to stay. They read Bible stories at night to the guests, who would then spread the news of the inn as they traveled the country.
But tragedy struck a year later when the 74-year-old Lawson fell off a balcony and died. Then God made a miraculous way. A government decree had been passed in China, prohibiting the tradition of binding the feet of girls at birth. The local Mandarin needed a woman with “big feet,” who had not been crippled by the custom to travel throughout the province to speak to every village and verify that binding was no longer being observed. Her only request was that she could also tell the villagers about Jesus, and the Mandarin agreed.
The tiny Gladys became the paid “Inspector of Feet”, traveling the province on a mule accompanied by two soldiers. And after several years of watching God use Gladys so powerfully, the Mandarin came to faith in Jesus. One day Gladys saw a poor woman selling a dirty little girl by the side of the road. Gladys didn’t want to leave the little girl to be sold, so she bought her for a few pennies and took her home. She was the first of hundreds that Gladys rescued.
In July of 1937, the Sino-Japanese war began, and within a year the Japanese bombing reached Gladys, destroying the town as well as her inn. She was rescued from beneath the rubble and established a makeshift hospital and small Christian communities in the region, even visiting villages under Japanese occupation for several years. A young Chinese Colonel and member of Chiang Kai-shek’s intelligence service hired her as a spy to report all that she saw.
The war left many children orphaned, and most of those lived with Gladys in the bombed-out inn. Eventually, she found herself in charge of more than 200 children, including five that she officially adopted. Eventually, the situation grew worse, the Chinese army was preparing to retreat, and Gladys learned that the Japanese army had put a price on her head because of her intelligence work. The Japanese arrived that very night and Gladys barely escaped the city with the children as a bullet grazed her shoulder.
Her options were few, so she decided to take the group of orphans to Sian over the only route open, a treacherous path over the mountains and across the Yellow River. She set off with 100 children, aged four to sixteen, following mule tracks. On the 12th day, they came to the fast-flowing Yellow River which was deep and about a mile across. Gladys was unable to decide what to do. A young orphan girl looked across the unpassable waters and asked Gladys if she believed the story of Moses when he took the children of Israel across the Red Sea.
A sickly, exhausted Gladys replied, “I’m not Moses and this isn’t the Red Sea.” The child responded, “But God is the same God! He can open the river for us.” The words were more than enough to renew her faith, and as she knelt to pray and sing with the children, the noise attracted a Chinese patrol who was hiding in the area. After seeing their plight, the soldiers signaled to the Chinese across the river, and boats were sent to carry them to safety. They continued their journey by foot and by rail, then crossed another mountain range until they finally arrived having traveled for 28 days. Gladys collapsed from exhaustion, delirious with typhoid fever. Gladys would serve thirty more years until, at age 67, she caught influenza and died. She was known to the Chinese as “A-Weh-Deh” or ‘Virtuous One’.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of [weeping], they make it a place of springs…They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.” Psalm 84:5-7