Today I took two school assemblies in the same school – one for the infants, the second for the juniors. We are on a series about ‘saints’, which we have renamed ‘heroes of the faith’. This week I was stuck for ideas, so I put out a request on Facebook and Twitter for ideas, and received plenty of suggestions. Many I shall store up, but I loved my friend Sally Patterson’s suggestion that I tackle Gladys Aylward.
Not only was she a great woman of faith, I have an indirect connection. I come from the same part of north London as her, and my grandmother was friends with her. My grandmother too wanted to be a missionary, but was turned down on health grounds. It didn’t stop Aylward, though, any more than the other objections about her lack of educational ability to cope with Bible college training. She is a great example of faith in following God’s call despite the circumstances. If you ever want an example of the maxim ‘It’s not so much your ability but your availability that counts with God’, then she is an excellent illustration. This small, frail woman whose academic limitations meant she had been working ‘in service’ travelled by train across northern Europe, including Siberia, to reach her destination in northern China.
She is well known for her campaign against foot-binding – the Chinese practice of bandaging girls’ feet to prevent them from growing in the mistaken and cruel belief that small feet were beautiful. This is a woman from a small evangelical church (Tanners End Free Church), practising social justice at a time when such campaigning was largely thought worthless in evangelicalism, because such concerns were ‘liberal’ and we should just get on with rescuing people for heaven before the Second Coming.
Furthermore, what would she have to say today to some of the practices in the contemporary beauty industry? I think she would be pungent.
Then there is her courageous work of leading a hundred children on a hundred mile trek across the mountains to safety from the threat of Japanese soldiers. No comfortable life for her. It’s not Joel Osteen style religion.
She certainly was a feisty woman of faith. She was horrified that Ingrid Bergman was chosen to portray her in the film ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness‘. She wasn’t impressed with Bergman’s lifestyle, and therefore considered her unsuitable. Perhaps today we would be too dazzled by the celebrity culture. Not Gladys Aylward.
A friend of mine was a doctor, and a son of a doctor. His father once visited Aylward in a Southampton hospital when she returned to the UK once. She asked him to get out his Bible. But she told him not to read one of the ‘comforting’ passages. She wanted to hear something stirring!
O for more Gladys Aylwards today.
You can still sometimes come across old copies of her biography, ‘The Small Woman‘ by Alan Burgess.
Here is a video clip – not an excerpt from ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness’, but the trailer to a cartoon film on DVD for children about her.