“Look, children! I can see the
The small missionary woman
stood on a rocky mountainside in Northern China with a hundred
Chinese children straggling around her. The children were tired,
filthy, and very hungry. They had been walking through these
mountains for twelve
“Ai-weh-deh, my feet hurt!”
“Ai-weh-deh, when will you
“I’m hungry, Ai-weh-deh!”
The smaller children’s voices
were a chorus of complaints. Most of them were orphans who knew
no mother but this Christian missionary, whom they called “Ai-weh-deh.”
Ai-weh-deh, “The Virtuous One”, bent over wearily. “Come, Ling,
it’s your turn to ride,” she told a small boy.
When the enemy Japanese marched
into their city of Tsechow two weeks ago, she had been wounded
by a bullet in her back. Ever since, she had felt so weak and
tired! But the children from the mission orphanage must be taken to safety, so Ai-weh-deh had
volunteered to lead them through the mountains to the Yellow
River. On the other side of the river, there would be a train
that could carry the children to another mission in Sian, a
safer part of China.
“See, children!” she encouraged
the group. Down there is the village of Yuan Chu, and beyond it
is the Yellow River. See it shining in the sunshine!”
“But it’s so far away, Ai-weh-deh.
And we’re so hungry!”
“In the village of Yuan Chu,
they will give us food, and then we will arrive at the Yellow
River. When we cross the river, we’ll all be safe,” the
missionary answered calmly. ‘Now let’s sing a song as we march
down to the town.
The mountains were wild and
barren and everyone’s thin, homemade cloth shoes were worn out.
They had had no food for the last two days, and very little
water. Often the rocky slopes were so steep that the bigger
children had to form a
human chain down the mountainside and pass the younger ones down
from hand to hand. But when Ai-weh-deh tried to rally them with
a hymn, they would march along, singing bravely.
‘Iam Jesus’ little lamb,
Happy all the day long I am!”
They sang as they followed the
path down through the foothills into the town. After sleeping
the cold hard mountainside for so many days, it was wonderful to
see a town and houses!
But as the refugees entered the
town, they were in for a disappointment. The town of Yuan Chu
had been badly bombed. The streets were littered with rubble
from broken houses and nearly all the roofs were gone from the
buildings. The whole town was silent, still and empty!
The children ran from house to
house, their shrill voices echoing in the deserted streets.
“Here’s someone, Ai-weh-deh! We
found a man!” Two of the older boys called.
The missionary hurried up to
the lone old man, sitting beneath a tree. “Old man, this is Yuan
Chu, isn’t it?” she asked loudly.
“Yes, this is Yuan Chu.”
“But where are all the people?’
“They’ve run away,” the old man
croaked. “The Japanese soldiers are coming, so everyone went
across the Yellow River.”
“Why haven’t you gone, too?”
Ai-weh-deh asked him. “Do you want to come with us?”
“I’m too old to run,” the man
answered. “I’ll sleep here in the sun until the Japanese arrive,
and if they kill me, who will care? All my family are dead.
He squinted at the children
crowding around him. “Where are all these children from? You are
a fool, woman, to bother with so many children. The gods
intended for a woman to have only a handful of children, not an
“I am a Christian,” the
missionary answered quietly, “and my God helps me care for all
who need help. How far is it to the river?’
“Three miles,” said the old
man. “You can follow the road to the ferry, but there will not
be any boats there. The Japanese are coming, and everyone else
has already crossed the river!”
Ai-weh-deh blew her whistle,
and the children lined up around her. “Come, children,” she
ordered, “it is only a little farther to the river. We shall all
bathe and wash our clothes there, and we shall catch a boat and
be safe on the other side. "Good-bye, old man!” she called, but
he had already fallen asleep once more.
The refugees trudged down a
dusty path to the river’s edge. There were reeds along the bank,
and little sandy beaches where the children could splash and
paddle in the shallow water. These children, who had grown up in
the mountains, had never seen so much water! They ran into it
with excited shouts, their hunger forgotten. The river was about
a mile wide, running swift and deep in the center. But there was
no sign of any boats!
“Where are the boats, Ai-weh-deh?’
one of the older children asked.
“They must come across every
now and then,” she answered. “Maybe we’re too late today. We’ll
spend the night here on the bank, so we’ll be ready to meet a
boat tomorrow morning.”
The children and the missionary
huddled together on the sandy bank, as the moon rose above the
Yellow River. It was beautiful, quiet and peaceful, but Ai-weh-deh
was worried. Why were there no boats? Was the old man right? Had
they come too late? When she finally fell sleep, she dreamed of
cruel Japanese soldiers in their round steel helmets, marching
closer and closer.
When she awoke the next
morning, the children were already playing in the water. They
explored and poked in the reeds and shallows along the banks,
still amazed at the huge river! But curiosity would not fill
their hungry bellies for very long. Somehow she must find them
food. She called the oldest boys and told them, “We must look
for something to eat! Go back to the town and search the houses.
Surely the people left a few scraps of food behind. Look
and bring any food you can find.”
The boys headed back to the
deserted village and Ai-weh-deh sat on the riverbank. She
watched the sun climb up the sky, as it reflected blindingly on
the wide stretch of water. If only a boat would come!
The big boys returned, carrying
what food they could find: a few pounds of moldy grain in a
basket, some dried noodle dough, and several withered peppers
and onions. It wasn’t much, but they boiled it all together in a
big pot of river water over a fire of dried reeds, and carefully
rationed out the soup into the children’s bowls. When they had
all had some there was none left for Ai-weh-deh, but at least
the children were fed.
All day, she sat quietly
watching the children and listening for the dreaded sound of
airplanes that might bring the enemy with their bombs and
machine guns. At night, the children whimpered before they went
“Ai-weh-deh, we’re hungry!”
“Ai-weh-deh, when are we going
to cross the river? When are the boats going to come, Ai-weh-deh?”
She prayed then and comforted
them as best she could. Surely tomorrow a boat would come!
They ate the last crumbs of
food on the third day at the bank of the Yellow River. The
children were tired of playing in the water, so Ai-weh-deh told
them stories and they sang songs together. Her eyes hurt from
staring over the water in search of a boat.
Little Sualan crept close to
her. “Ai-weh-deh, remember the story of how Moses took the
children of Israel to the Red Sea? And how God opened ‘he water
so the Israelites could cross safely?’
“Yes, I remember,” the
missionary said softly.
“Then why doesn’t God open the
waters of the Yellow River for us to cross?”
“I’m not Moses, Sualan,” she
replied, looking sadly at the little girl.
“But God is always God, Ai-weh-deh.
You have told us so a hundred times. If God is God, He an open
the water for us!”
“Let us kneel down and pray,
Sualan,” Al-weh-deh agreed. “We need to have faith! Maybe soon
our prayers will be answered.
At that same moment, a small
band of Chinese soldiers was creeping along on the same side of
the Yellow River. They were scouts, sent by their army to look
for signs of the Japanese, and they were frightened and
watchful. When darkness fell, they would signal their comrades
on the other side of the river, and a boat would be sent to
ferry them back to safety. But now, it was their duty to explore
the enemy territory. Suddenly, their young officer heard a
far-off sound! Was it a plane? He glanced nervously around the
cloudless sky. Where were the Japanese planes? Usually they
patrolled this stretch of the river, firing their machine guns
at anything that moved. But for the past several days there had
been no planes.
“That noise isn’t a plane,” one
of his men suggested. “I think it sounds like singing.”
The officer crawled cautiously
to the top of a hill of sand and lifted his binoculars to peer
in the direction of the strange sound. “Wah!” he grunted in
There on the sandy river bank,
was a great crowd of children! They were all seated in a circle,
singing loudly. Was this a Japanese trick?
Signaling his men to stay
hidden, he walked along the beach toward the children. Some of
the children saw him and shouted with delight. “Ai-weh-deh!”
they screamed. “Here’s a soldier. A Chinese soldier!”
Then the officer saw a small
woman, who rose to meet him. Although she was dark-haired and
dressed in Chinese clothing, he knew she was a foreigner, a
“This will soon be a
battlefield,” he told her sternly. ‘What are you doing here? Are
you in charge of all these children?”
“Yes, I am in charge of them,”
Ai-weh-deh replied. “We are waiting to cross the river!”
“I think I can get you a boat,”
said the officer. It is small, and we will need to make three
trips to take you all across. If a Japanese plane comes by when
you are in the middle of the water, they will kill you!”
Standing at the water’s edge,
the officer put two fingers in his mouth and gave a piercing
whistle. From across the river three answering whistles came,
and small figures of men appeared with a boat which had been
hidden in the reeds.
“I can’t thank you enough,” the
missionary told him. “You are God’s answer to our prayer!”
With shouts of glee, children
piled into the boat. The soldiers rowed rapidly to the other
side, and then returned for more. On the last trip, Al-weh-deh
and Sualan climbed in together.
“You see, Ai-weh-deh?” chuckled
the little girl. ‘God is always God. He opened the Red Sea, and
He can also make a way for us through the Yellow River!”
Historical Note: Ai-weh-deh
and her hundred children escaped from the Japanese soldiers
over fifty years ago. The children had many more adventures
on their way to the mission in Sian, but they all reached
safety at last.
Ai-weh-deh’s real name was Gladys Aylward. She
was an English woman who spent seventeen years as a
missionary in China.
Gladys Aylward's courageous
journey in 1938 was reported back in the United States,
inspiring millions of readers. Two decades later, Alan
Burgess wrote her story in the book, The Small Woman.
And in 1958, Ingrid Bergman played the part of
Gladys Aylward in the movie "The Inn of the Sixth
To order this
Missionary Stories with the Millers,
Don L. Martin at Green Pastures Press.
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