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Ruth Bell GrahamCelebrating an Extraordinary Life
By Stephen Griffith
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Stephen Griffith
All right reserved.
Mother does think of China as home. When she's coming out of surgery and she's still under the effects of anesthesia, she'll start talking like she's home in China. Those times in China were precious for her. -Gigi Graham Tchividjian
Her Heart's Still in China Anne Graham Lotz
Although Mother left China at age eighteen to go to Wheaton College and did not return until 1980, she never forgot China or its people-the land and people of her happy childhood. She read, studied, and interviewed those who might afford any clue about her homeland and how the Christian church was faring under intense persecution. She corresponded with a variety of people who shared her interest. China was in her blood. It became a passion that bore fruit-from individual Chinese friends whom she was able to get released from China through her contacts, to being present as my father sat with the leadership of China to explain to them what he believed about Jesus Christ, to eventually seeing her youngest son start a ministry to the Chinese church. She has seen the doors to China open dramatically to the West and particularly to the gospel, which is her life's one passion.
In 1989, my two sisters and I were privileged to accompany our mother back to China to visit her hometown, Huaiyin. As we toured the grounds of what used to be the Love and Mercy Hospital, Chinese officials told us their plans for the new hospital they were building. When it was Mother's chance to reply, she gave the gospel plainly and clearly. She has the heart of an evangelist. Although her gift is often overshadowed by my father's, Mother's gift is exercised effectively on behalf of individuals. At her deepest core is the desire for individuals to know Christ in a personal and intimate way. My father preaches sermons to the masses, reaching thousands; my mother talks to individuals, loving them one by one, showing her concern for them as people. Early in life spreading the gospel became her purpose.
When China was just reopening to the West, my mother spoke in a hospital where there were many staff members that served with her daddy. My mother told them, you can be a medical doctor and care for the physical needs of a person, but you also need to care for their spiritual needs. She gave them the gospel and told them how they could receive Christ by faith. I saw that boldness in her continuing not only what my grandfather had been about but what my father is about and what she's always been about but just not had as many opportunities to verbalize in settings like that. It was remarkable. We went back to see her childhood home and she could remember the streets and the houses. She wanted to see a house where some fellow missionaries were raised, and we found out it was a house church.
Many interesting things happened on that trip. I saw many things about my mother: her love for detail, her love of beauty. The Chinese people have such an eye for beauty.
I could see things around the house at Montreat, the way she arranged flowers, the way she's arranged something, the contrast of colors, that was coming out of what she experienced as a child growing up in China. It helped enrich my understanding of my mother to see the kind of atmosphere where my mother was raised. My grandmother went to China as a bride of six weeks, at a time when China seldom saw westerners. It was a difficult time. To cook or to drink water, my grandmother had to get it from the river and then boil it and pass it through cheesecloth five different times before she could even use it. It was hardship. She bore five children there and buried one. It's the kind of life you read about but hope you never experience.
My mother was raised by people like that: committed, strong, and fun.
Ruth's childhood was spent in the Chinese village of Tsingkiangpu, where her medical missionary parents had established a three-hundred-and-eighty-bed hospital. From the time she was a baby, Ruth was familiar with death and suffering.... Bubonic plague and other diseases were rampant. Death was a very real presence-not only death from disease. They lived in bandit country and every night some three hundred people were captured-some tortured, some killed. "I don't believe I ever went to sleep without hearing the sound of gunshots," she said. During the conflict between the Japanese and Chinese in the late 1930s, Ruth became accustomed to Japanese bombers flying over the house-so low she could see the bombs in the bomb racks. Today her daughter Gigi says, "Mother just doesn't know what it means to be afraid." -Julie Nixon Eisenhower
Ruth said there was hardly a night that passed that they didn't hear gunshots and fighting. But because Dr. and Mrs. Bell were so assured in their hearts that this was where God wanted them to be, they didn't dwell on fear. They felt God was going to protect them. So Ruth learned early on not to be afraid of these things. That goes hand in hand with her incredibly deep faith. -Maurie Scobie
* * *
Ruth's mother told me of one incident that occurred when Ruth was a tiny child in China. Bandits were approaching the missionary compound where they lived, and the shooting was getting closer and closer and louder and louder. Mrs. Bell hurried toward Ruth's room, intent on quelling her fears, and called out, "Ruth, there's nothing to be afraid of." She heard Ruth answer cheerily, "Who's afraid?"
This attitude has been typical of her throughout her life. When she was a little older, she was so devoted to Christ that her all-consuming desire was to be a martyr for him. Every day she'd pray fervently and audibly that God would allow the bandits to capture and behead her.
Her sister, Rosa, hearing her, would pray in concern (and probably a little exasperation): "Lord, don't listen to her." -Betty Frist
The Formative Years John Pollock
The formative years of Rosa and Ruth in the troubled China of the 1920s, before either had reached the age of ten, were years of security, affection, discipline, and fun.
"I remember our home," said Ruth, "as rather large, gray brick, with a red tin roof and a large porch around two sides of the house. As you came in the front door there was a vestibule, with a table and a mirror on the left and a wooden seat around two sides where visitors could sit and be greeted. To the left was Daddy's study with an old roll-top desk and bookshelves containing his medical books and quite a row of Edgar Wallace detective stories. In the corner was a big, old safe. We kids used to crawl around the floor; sometimes we could find Chinese pennies that had been dropped when the money was deposited. We used to love to go hunting for pennies around the safe.
"To the right of the entrance hall was the living room, and it was blue-blue cushions, curtains, and flowered wallpaper. Mother had some furniture that her father had made, but most of it had been made by the local carpenter. A window seat overlooked the front porch, and two windows were at the far side with an upright piano between. In the center of the room was a table, and there were Chinese rugs on the floor, blue with floral designs around the edge, and a little fireplace in the corner of the room around which we sat on winter evenings. I always remember home as being the most comfortable place in the world."
The living-room fireplace burned coal from Shantung, and the dining room had a coal stove with a tin pipe to heat the room above. Each bedroom had a little tin stove fed by soybean stalks or odds and ends of paper. In winter the children had their weekly bath in a tin tub in front of the little burner upstairs: "The half of you that was away from the trash burner would freeze and the other half would be red-hot!"
The Bells usually ate American-style food. Although they enjoyed Chinese dishes frequently, the home was frankly American for the children's sake. One of the Chinese doctors said to Bell, "We don't mind you having houses larger than ours; we like you to have them. All we want to know is that the door is also open to us." And it was.
After lunch was served, both parents went to work at the hospital. Mrs. Bell had charge of the women's clinic and could be counted on to be out of the way for two hours. The two children then proceeded to scrap. These two little girls who afterward became such devoted sisters "hated each other. We fought all the time. When Mother was out of the way, we really tore into it. We fought verbally and with our hands and feet, and the servants used to line up and bet on who was going to win."
The children may have supposed their parents were in blissful ignorance, but when Rosa was twenty and Ruth eighteen and both in college in America, Nelson Bell remarked to his mother in a letter from China: "Their devotion to each other has been a comfort to us-they used to scrap like cats and dogs. Each is constantly writing something nice about the other."
Every evening the Bell family changed their workday clothes, ate dinner, and then gathered around the fireplace in the living room with its blue motif and fine old French etchings which Virginia had inherited. After dark the risk of kidnapping, gunfire, and banditry kept all citizens off the streets. Although a rare emergency might arrive at the gate escorted by a policeman or soldier, and Nelson occasionally drove to the city or to Hwalan on an urgent call, normally, except for the usual round of the wards after supper, he was free for family fun. They played party games, word games, and popular pastimes now forgotten, such as caroms, Crokinole, and Flinch. But their greatest relaxation was reading aloud. Nelson and Virginia had discovered this special pleasure as early as the winter of 1918, starting with Dickens and Scott. For Rosa and Ruth they began with favorites such as Little Lord Fauntleroy; as they grew, the girls enjoyed David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Ivanhoe, Kingsley's Hypatta, and many other classics. Sometimes it would be just "a frivolous tale." Virginia read aloud to the children at other times of the day when they were small; in the evenings Nelson read the larger share while his wife and daughters sewed or knitted.
About the nights, Ruth said, "I can never recall going to sleep at night without hearing gunshots in the countryside around the house." If warlords or bandits were quiet, it was a neighbors' quarrel or robbery or even an accident. "I remember one tremendous fire in the city. We went up to the third-floor attic window where we could see it and hear the explosions. We thought the city was being invaded. The whole skyline was lit up. Later we learned that some barges containing five-gallon tins of oil had caught on fire and the oil tins were exploding.... I think the greatest tribute to Mother's courage is that we children never sensed fear and we ourselves never had any fear. This is bound to reflect your parents. If they had been nervous, we would have been nervous." (adapted from A Foreign Devil in China)
Growing Up in China Rosa Bell Montgomery
Mother and Daddy sheltered us from as much as they could, but what they couldn't, they were just matter-of-fact about. So we didn't dwell on those things. For instance, Ruth once found a baby on the streets that had been thrown out by her parents. She quickly realized the child was not dead although there were flies crawling over the poor little naked thing. She went back to get help but unfortunately the baby later died. These were the type of things we saw all the time as children. But there were also so many joyous occasions and happy times that things balanced out.
I remember one Sunday afternoon Mother and Daddy were sitting on the side porch because that was the shady side at that time of the day. Sunday was a day we had to behave ourselves. Mother and Daddy never took anything from us that they didn't supply us with something better. Sunday was a day that was set apart different from the rest of the week. So on Sunday we didn't sing secular songs, we didn't read secular books, and we didn't play secular games. And we were supposed to be quieter than our activities on other days. But Sundays were full of things we could do. Mother saved all the Sunday school papers we could read on Sunday. We played Bible games on Sunday. We learned to sing harmony around the piano. It was a really happy day. We never dreaded Sunday.
This particular afternoon they were sitting quietly enjoying each other's company. Ruth and I were supposedly playing nicely out in the yard. Ruth had a creepy-crawly bug of some kind. One glance at it and that was enough for me. I don't remember what it looked like except it was awful. Well, she started to chase me with it. I screeched and hollered and the more I screeched and hollered, the happier I was. We went round and round the yard until Daddy said, "Rosa, come here right now." He set me down to behave myself. It was all Ruth's fault, and she didn't get bawled out.
Those kinds of things were irritating. But I could be just as irritating back to her.
In the early days, we were antagonists. When Mother and Daddy were at the clinic in the afternoon we would get into it. The servants would stand around and place bets on who was going to win. So they just egged us on.
The older we got the better friends we became. Even with our fighting it was just with each other. Let someone outside be critical and we were instantly at the other's defense. So we were constantly looking out for each other as sisters; as friends we were antagonists. One of the nicest things she did for me was while we were in college. It was Christmastime and we were going to stay on campus for the holidays. I can't remember why, but I was sad and Ruth knew I was sad. She went out and bought a little tree, before they made artificial trees, and made ornaments. She cut out a picture from a Christmas card, a star from silver paper, and a whole bunch of little things like that and strung them on the tree and presented it to me. What a sweet thing for her to do, and I even appreciated it back in those days. It was such a loving thing. And she was always doing loving things. I can't fault her on that for one minute.
Parental Discipline John Pollock
If the Bell children were naughty, they were spanked or switched, whichever was appropriate. "Punishments were generously dished out, but we knew they loved us." They-and the two younger children later-were disciplined without being repressed. With two adoring parents who always "seemed very young," who never punished in anger or selfishness, the children did not feel nagged or scolded. Rosa and Ruth regard the strictness as one reason why they recollect childhood with such happiness.
Defiance or disobedience met inevitable doom. Elbows on the lunch table were swept off in a trice. Virginia was chief disciplinarian, but Ruth joked, "It seems to me they ganged up on us."
"We could not divide and conquer them," added Rosa. "If we asked Daddy for permission to do something and he said 'No,' we might go to Mother and say, 'Mother, may we do thus and so?' And instead of saying 'Yes,' she would say, 'What did your father say?' 'He said no.' 'Then why did you come and ask me?' Then we'd do Daddy the same way. We'd ask Mother, 'May we do thus and so?' And if she'd say, 'Absolutely not,' we'd go and say, 'Daddy, may we do thus and so?' 'What does your mother say?' 'Well, she said we couldn't.' 'Then why did you ask me?'
"But if it was something that we really and truly wanted to do very badly, and Mother had said no and we couldn't approach her any further on the subject, we'd say, 'Daddy, this is something that is very important and won't you reconsider?' He would give it his attention. And if he felt that it was all right, he would check with Mother first. They would hash it out together without us eavesdropping. If there was a good, substantial reason why we couldn't be indulged, the answer would continue to be no. But if it was reasonable that we should have our way, they would say, 'We have discussed it and have decided you may do it.'" (adapted from A Foreign Devil in China)
Excerpted from Ruth Bell Graham by Stephen Griffith Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Griffith. Excerpted by permission.
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