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Gladys Aylward's "Impossible Mission" to China

Published Apr 28, 2010
Gladys Aylward's "Impossible Mission" to China

Have you ever been captured by an inner vision, something you knew that you had to do--but no one took you seriously? Gladys Aylward knew the feeling. As a teenager, she read a magazine article about China that changed her life. She kept thinking about the millions of people in that distant land who had not yet heard of God's love. She knew she had to tell them. She was told she would have to attend missionary training school first, which she did.

After three months the mission agency broke the news: she was not qualified for service in China. A youth with a mission Young Gladys couldn't accept that decision as final. She tried to serve God in other ministries, but her inner sense of calling to China continued to obsess her. She just had to go--even without a mission agency to send her. She began to save the meager wages she earned as a housemaid, confident that God would help her pay her way. Saturday, October 15, 1932, at the age of 30, Gladys Aylward left from Liverpool station in London for the long train ride across Europe and Russia.

Japan was warring with Russia and China, and travel in that region was dangerous. Her trip included several narrow escapes in the midst of war zones. Detained for a time in Russia, she ultimately reached Yangchen, China, and took up work assisting a retired missionary lady at an inn for muleteers. Aylward learned the Chinese language, a feat she called "one of God's great miracles." (The mission agencies had been sure she lacked the education for that.) Sharing the Gospel in the surrounding villages, she also began to take in unwanted children. Before long she had 20 little ones under her roof, these in addition to the 30 to 40 wounded soldiers that she cared for at a time.

100 desperate miles
Through the years, the band of children she cared for in the midst of repeated Japanese bombings grew to 100. Aylward adopted China as her homeland, becoming a citizen in 1936, and even spied on the Japanese, who put out a bounty for her capture--dead or alive. Reluctantly she had to leave her beloved inn, narrowly escaping the bullets of her pursuers. (She wadded her coat up as a shield while she ducked into some bushes; it was riddled with bullets.)

The devoted missionary led her 100 children over the mountains on foot--a perilous journey of over a 100 miles to the safer province of Sian. After 27 exhausting days and shivering nights she brought her children safely into Sian and collapsed. How had she made it? The doctors were amazed at this woman, who was suffering from typhus, pneumonia, relapsing fever, malnutrition, and supreme exhaustion. Once she regained her strength, she resumed her ministry in this new region, sharing the Gospel in the villages, prisons and among lepers. Throughout her years in China her ministry was characterized by a humble dependence upon God in a steady stream of extreme circumstances.

Insignificant and ordinary
At the end of her life Gladys wrote of herself: "My heart is full of praise that one so insignificant, uneducated, and ordinary in every way could be used to His glory for the blessing of His people in poor persecuted China."

An impressive "feet"
For centuries, the Chinese had observed the practice of foot-binding. From childhood, women's feet were tightly wrapped, preventing their normal development. At the time that Aylward reached China, the authorities were outlawing this practice. The local magistrate appointed Aylward, since she had normal feet, as a foot inspector--a position she used to spread her faith.

Hadn't she had enough?
After ten years back in England, Aylward returned to Asia. Unable to settle in the Chinese mainland due to Communist rule, she established refugee centers in Hong Kong and Taipei.

Does Britain need missionaries too?
Aylward returned to Britain in 1947, not so much because of difficulties in China, but because of a burden for the spiritual condition of her native country. She wrote, "England, seemingly so prosperous while other countries passed through terrible suffering at the hands of Communist domination, had forgotten what was all important - the realization that God mattered in the life of a nation no less than in that of an individual."

The miracle of China's church
With the communist takeover of China, Gladys Aylward and other missionaries had to leave. Christianity was suppressed. Would the church survive there? Only in the past few years have we discovered in the West that the church in China not only survived but enjoyed dramatic growth. It is estimated that between the Communist takeover in 1949 and the mid-1980s the church in China grew from 800,000 to as many as an estimated 50 million. This is one of the greatest surges of growth in all of Christian history.


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