Gladys Aylward, the small woman

A flash from my past came as I sorted through a stack of books which included one inscribed, “Property of the Jr. Missionary Band.” As a child I belonged to a Missionary Band. Our neighbor opened her home to weekly meetings of the Missionary Band. Bit by bit she read us “Gladys Aylward, the Small Woman.”

As a young teenager Aylward worked as a chamber maid in pre-WWI England. That was her life until she attended a mission conference and felt God calling her to China. China Inland Mission placed her in a three month training. Her academic agility in theology or Chinese did not impress the China Inland Mission leaders.

Aylward became a maid again, but this time she had a goal. For the next four years, she saved every penny she could to buy a train ticket to China. If the mission board would not send her, she would go on her own. Finally in 1930, at 28, she boarded a train and traveled for weeks across Asia to help Jeannie Lawson, a 70 year old woman, serving in China.

Lawson taught Aylward her first Chinese – a chant, “We have no bugs, we have no fleas. Good, good, good—come, come, come.” Chanting, Aylward snagged the lead donkey of any passing mule train and pulled it in the barn at their Inn. In the evening, Lawson and Aylward told Bible stories. Memorizing those stories in Chinese furthered Aylward’s language skills. Initially regarded with suspicion, the two gradually earned the respect of the community and leaders.

When Lawson died a year after her arrival, Aylward had learned enough language to manage on her own. She did wonder, “How can I afford to keep the inn? What can I do?”

The local official had a solution. He commanded her, “Go out in the district and check that the families no longer bind their daughters’ feet.” As a woman with “large” unbound feet, Aylward provided an example to the families. She received a fee for the task and daily opportunities to tell Bible stories. Individuals’ belief in Jesus Christ and local churches began to develop.

On one of her trips, Aylward saw a mother with a sickly child. She gave the mother nine pence and took the girl home with her. Nursed to health, she became the first of 100 children who came to live at the Inn of 8 Happinesses.

At one point a murderous prison riot broke out. The local official commanded Aylward, “Go in and get them to calm down.”

“They will kill me,” she protested.

“Your God is inside you. He will protect you,” the official said.

Aylward went. Inside the gate a man rushed her with a sharp knife ready to kill her. She insisted he hand her the knife.

He did.

“Now tell me why you are rioting,” she demanded.

“We don’t have food. We don’t have clothes or a way to keep warm.”

Aylward returned with food, clothes and work projects. She began a prison reform. The community began calling her “The Virtuous One.”

In 1938 the Japanese attacked China. Aylward and the orphans fled to hide in nearby caves to avoid a Japanese massacre. Seeking safety for the 100 children at an orphanage, Aylward trekked with them over the mountains. She and the older children carried the little ones. Random encounters with soldiers and strangers provided food, protection and a ride across the river to safety where they found the orphanage.

She faithfully continued to minister to the Chinese until her death in Taiwan. The little lady who could not pass the entrance class of China Inland Mission obeyed God, earned her own way, rescued children, began prison reform, helped erase foot binding and introduced many to Christ.

Those whom God calls, He enables.


About jottingjoan

retired former newspaper writer. Many children and grandchildren. One husband.
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