Twenty-six year old Gladys Alward was working as a maid in London when God called her to be a missionary. From the first she was convinced she was meant to serve in China, so she applied to China Inland Mission (CIM). After three months of schooling, the principal told her she wasn’t welcome to continue her classes. She wasn’t getting good grades and he thought it was unfair she should take the place of a younger, more qualified student.
Gladys was disappointed, but the saying, “Big things come in small packages” fitted her to a T. Though only five foot tall, she possessed an incredible amount of determination. If CMI wouldn’t send her, she’d go herself. She became a housemaid for Dr. and Mrs. Fisher, two missionaries who had just returned from China. While they were pleased with her work, they felt she had too much enthusiasm for ministry to be stuck cleaning. Gladys then became a “rescue sister” in Swansea, a port in south Wales. A rescue sister patrolled the streets at night looking for young women who had left their villages and come to the city. Often they didn’t bring enough money and when it ran out, they became prostitutes to earn money. A rescue sister’s goal was to find the girl before a sailor did. The mission running the program paid the girls to stay somewhere safe, then sent them back to their villages.
While Gladys loved her job, she knew this wasn’t where she belonged. She needed to get to China. She worked and saved and worked some more, until she finally had enough to travel to China. A seventy-three year old missionary named Jeannie Lawson was looking for a young woman to help her. Gladys jumped at the chance and packed her bags, despite the fact Russia and China were at war with each other. After a long journey full of detours, the threat of being captured by the Russians, and false endings, she arrived in Yangcheng and met Jeannie. It took time for Gladys to get used to Jeannie, who was sharp, matter-of-fact, and not very sympathetic to her young helper, who wasn’t prepared for the Chinese’s response to her. They threw mud at her and called her a “foreign devil.”
The women came up with an unique way to tell others about the gospel and earn a living. They turned their home into an inn, which they called The Inn of the Eight Happinesses. There were no proper roads where they lived, almost everyone traveled by mule or walked. When the muleteers went past the inn, Gladys grabbed the bridles and dragged them into the courtyard. Once the mules were in, they didn’t want to go and nothing would induce them to leave. So the muleteers had to stay. But soon the inn grew in popularity and she didn’t need to do that for long. After Jeannie died she continued to run the inn and took on a new task – a foot inspector.
In China when a baby girl was born, the parents would bind her feet tightly with cloth, because men didn’t want women with big feet. The toes were bound under the foot and various bones broken. As a result, women couldn’t walk far distances A law was passed banning foot binding and the mandarin asked Gladys to travel around and make sure the law was enforced, since no men would do it and she had unbound feet. She agreed. Not only would she be apart of ending the cruel practice, she’d have a perfect opportunity to share the gospel. She left the inn in the capable hands of a friend and set off. Over the years she earned the name of Ai-weh-deh, meaning virtuous one. She was first called that after she stopped a prison riot where the prisoners were murdering each other and no one else was brave enough to go in and stop it. She also began to adopt children so they would have a good home. Around the same time she became the first missionary to become a Chinese citizen.
In 1937 Japan invaded China and bombed Yangcheng. The people fled before the vicious Japanese, who were known for their savage treatment towards the Chinese. One time they locked a man’s family in a house and set fire to the house. Gladys herself was wanted. So in 1938 she and over one hundred orphans fled over the mountains to Sian. They didn’t have enough to eat and Gladys often went without food so the orphans could eat. At all times they were on the watch for Japanese soldiers. Once they arrived at Sian, the children took shelter in an orphanage in a nearby city. After she made the journey she collapsed and taken to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with typhus, pneumonia, malnutrition, and exhaustion. Miraculously she survived and went on to open and run other orphanages. Once she visited England, then went back “home” to China. She died in Taiwan in 1970 at the age of sixty-seven.