By Sheri Mellema | Director of Church Partnerships
Lean in today as Director of Church Partnerships, Sheri Mellema, takes us back in history to understanding the heartbeat of Amy Carmichael and her love for orphans.
Every summer for as long as I can remember my daughter has challenged me to a tanning contest. Granted, I love being in the sun and I can tan with the best of them, but this particular competition is skewed from the get go. Although my dear girl sincerely pretends that I have a shot at winning, she knows in her heart that the proverbial prize is already hers. You see she is partially Hispanic and her skin is this rich, creamy, mocha brown that soaks up the sunshine. I, on the other hand, come from Eastern European descent and well…you get the picture!
My daughter is a teenager now and typical of all teenage girls, she wants certain features of herself to be different. She happens to have curly hair so of course she straightens it. At the same time, her friends with straight hair spend hours trying to loop their hair with curls upon curls. Similarly, there was a very young girl in Ireland who in 1870 prayed and asked God for blue eyes rather than brown. Her exact words were, “But what I can never tell you properly is the bewilderment that even now I can remember as if it were yesterday…Without a shadow of doubt that my eyes would be blue in the morning I had gone to sleep, and the minute I woke I pushed a chair to the chest of drawers on which there was a looking-glass and climbed up full of eager expectation and saw-mere brown eyes.” Thank goodness the clear and decided answer from God was, “no”. For this tiny Irish girl was Amy Carmichael and untold doors would be opened to her because of those determined brown eyes!
Amy Beatrice Carmichael was born on December 16th, 1867 in Millisle, Ireland. She was the eldest of seven children and was well loved by her devoted parents, David and Catherine. Flourmills had supported the Carmichael families and many other families in the community for over a hundred years. Everything in Amy’s life would have been considered commonplace with the exception of her deep and abiding sensitivity to the spirit of God. She recalls that her first memory of childhood included a nightly ritual: “After the nursery light had been turned low and I was quite alone, I used to smooth a little place on the sheet and say aloud, but softly, to our Father, ‘Please come and sit with me.’ And that baby custom left something which recurs and is with me still”. Amy also wrote of an early memory in a teashop with her mother. She remembered seeing a small girl outside the window standing in the cold with bare feet and a threadbare dress. It was raining and the girl looked forlorn. Later that day Amy wrote these words on a small scrap of paper:
“When I grow up and money have,
I know what I will do,
I’ll build a great big lovely place
For little girls like you.”
Undoubtedly Amy had no idea just how prophetic these words would become.
While going to school and pursuing artistic endeavors, Amy noticed the poverty and embarrassment that surrounded many of the mill-girls that were known to those in the community as “shawlies”. They were called this because they had no means to buy proper hats and were forced to pull their shawls around their heads. It was Amy who felt that they should be welcomed into the Presbyterian Church that her family had always attended and she relentlessly pursued the minister until he agreed to allow her to invite the “shawlies” into the Church Hall every Sunday morning. The work with the mill-girls grew into a congregation of 500 and soon Amy would request and secure funding for a hall of their own.
At the age of eighteen, Amy’s father contracted double pneumonia and was unable to recover. After his passing, everything changed as Amy and her mother struggled to make ends meet for themselves and the six other fatherless children in the family. Since Amy had already begun her ministry with the mill-girls, she now had many needs to be concerned with. And yet, her heart remained open to God’s still small voice. Amy and her family were introduced to Robert Wilson who was the cofounder of the Keswick Convention. He himself had suffered also as he had lost both his wife and a daughter. It was Wilson who introduced Amy to Hudson Taylor of the China Inland Mission and a well-known preacher named F. B. Meyer. Mr. Wilson was well liked by the Carmichael family and their visits continued. In fact, at some point they began to refer to him as “D.O.M.” which was their kind hearted acronym for “dear old man”. Eventually, Mr. Wilson became a significant mentor to Amy and requested that she come and live with him as a daughter since he now had only sons. After much consultation with her mother, Amy agreed and even after leaving Mr. Wilson for full time ministry, he was her ardent supporter until his death.
As I reflected on Amy’s incredible willingness and bravery to leave her family and everything she knew to come alongside an elderly man who wanted the presence of a daughter in his life again, I was markedly impressed. My thoughts drifted back to one of the poems that Amy wrote. Her single-mindedness of purpose is striking.
From prayer that asks that I may be
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fearing when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher,
From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy soldier who would follow Thee.
From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way went the Crucified,
From all that dims Thy Calvary,
O Lamb of God, deliver me.
Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay,
The hope no disappointments tire,
The passion that will burn like fire,
Let me not sink to be a clod:
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.
These words take my breath away! How is it possible that a girl at such a young age could have been so dedicated, so enraptured with loving God and loving others? What kind of a girl asks for the lack of fear to follow God into hard choices, lack of comfort, suffering and undeterred faith, hope, and passion? Further yet, what kind of a girl leaves her home not long after her own father has died, to comfort a different father? An extraordinary girl I would have to say! And I would venture a guess that she was seldom concerned with curly versus straight hair or tanning. Coming from a beauty clamoring society like ours, that’s a hard pill to swallow.
As a matter of fact, the only time that she was concerned with the color of her skin was when she finally arrived in the country that was to be her home for the rest of her life. After being rejected by the China Inland Mission for a form of neuralgia and then being sent home from a stint in Japan because of health issues, Amy came to reside in India. This became her true home, the place that bestowed upon her the name of “Amma” which is the Indian word for “mother”. This was where she loved and served beloved Indian children!
Initially, Amy was consumed with rescuing young girls who were destined to become temple prostitutes. It was not uncommon for Hindu parents to take their beautiful young girls or even infant girls to be offered as “gifts” to the Indian gods. The tragic truth is that they were then groomed to become dancers, singers, and prostitutes for the temple priests. Eventually after several years passed, Amy also provided a haven for the many boys who were born as a result of the temple practices. And this is exactly when Amy Carmichael’s brown eyes became a bright gift from Heaven. Amy’s biographer Frank Houghton writes, “But in India it is a distinct advantage to have brown eyes, for blue eyes are foreign, and therefore to be remarked upon. ‘I know why God gave Amma brown eyes,’ said one of her boys. When she was discovering the facts about the temple children, she used to stain her hands and arms with coffee, and visit places to which foreign women would never be admitted. Of course she wore Indian dress, but if her eyes had been blue someone might easily have penetrated the disguise.” So not only did her brown eyes become an asset but she also found a clever way to darken her skin so as to more closely resemble those around her. If only our current day efforts to change our looks were for such noble reasons.
It was said that Amy would travel for miles through dust and heat just to save one child. She worked tirelessly for years rescuing children who had essentially become orphans once removed from the temples. She gave them refuge in what she eventually called the Dohnavur Fellowship. The children loved her and she persistently taught them about the One who could love them better than even she could. Of training the children she remarked, “In our mountain ravine, just above our swimming pool, a small tree grows on the rock in mid-stream. When the river is in flood and a roaring torrent pours over the little tree, whipping off its every leaf, it stands unmoved. Its roots grip the rock. We wanted the children to be like that. ‘Give them time to root,’ we used to say to our advisers. ‘We are training them for storms and floods.’”
Ironically, it was Amy who was about to experience the storms and floods of life crashing into her yet again. On October 24, 1931 when she was sixty-four years old she prayed these words: “Do with me as Thou wilt. Do Anything, Lord, that will fit me to serve Thee and help my beloveds.” Later that day while inspecting a piece of property, Amy fell into an unmarked hole and suffered a broken leg, a dislocated ankle, and a twisted spine. These injuries would leave her mostly bedridden for the next twenty years of her life. In true “Amma” fashion she wisely used those years praying, writing letters and books, and training those who would serve after her.
The attraction to be near her never waned. Both children and adults were drawn to her great love. Elizabeth Skoglund wrote the book “Amma” in which she says, “In truth it was God Himself in her Who was the attraction. But as Amma, she who was never married and had no biological children became mother to hundreds of children throughout the years and thus formed one of the greatest works in the history of the Christian Church.” Amy Carmichael truly left a legacy in caring for vulnerable children.
We'd love your comments!
What it is that stops us from such radical, devoted love?
How does fear prevent us from making the “hard choices” rather than taking the easy way out?
All quotes taken from:
“Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur” by Frank Houghton
Published in 1953 by S.P.C.K. in London, England
“Amma” by Elizabeth R. Skoglund
Published in 1994 by Baker Books in Grand Rapids, MI