If Lottie had caught a reflection of herself in a crowd in a nearby pane of glass, maybe she would have seen what everyone else on the street saw. Within a sea of jet-black hair and piercing black eyes, one person stood out. Her hair, eyes, nose, skin, clothing, and expressions all betrayed her. And her world was not one the Chinese were fond of.
The Chinese considered white foreigners to be, quite literally, the enemy. Before Lottie arrived there in 1873, China’s opium crisis, fostered by British ships that carried the deadly analgesic to their shores, resulted in two wars.
China had the moral high ground, but Great Britain had superior military power. The humiliating defeats left once-proud China without Hong Kong, and Britain forced China to open its major coastal cities to foreign settlements.
The Chinese felt demeaned by the practices of foreign businessmen who moved into their country, and Lottie found herself guilty by association. “Foreign devil,” they called her mockingly. They ridiculed and persecuted her. Even after she learned their language and figured out how to use chopsticks, the wall that separated the now-famous Southern Baptist missionary from the locals she longed to impact with the gospel was foreboding.
At Least I Tried
The Chinese couldn’t be expected to meet her halfway. They hadn’t invited her. If she wanted to be in their country and have anything to do with them, she’d have to live by their rules.
Others in Lottie’s position might have shrugged their shoulders in defeat and said, “At least I tried.” Lottie, however, esteemed her life and calling enough to press forward into hard places. Removing that wall of separation would determine whether the people in her sphere of influence would ever hear the gospel or respond.
“Lottie esteemed her life and calling enough to press forward into hard places.”
So, with deep conviction and steely resolve, she decided to act. Brick by brick, she scraped and chiseled until she had inflicted sufficient damage to the wall and endeared herself to the Chinese people. Her plan didn’t come together all at once, but Lottie eventually hit upon six strategies that won the hearts of the people.
1. Lottie dressed like them.
At first, Lottie did not understand the effect her American clothing and hairstyle had on the Chinese people. Only after she moved inland to Ping’tu, Shandong, after twelve years on the field, and suffered from the bitter cold, did she ask a seamstress to make her the thick, wide-sleeved jackets worn by the local women. Lottie was shocked to notice that, almost immediately, children stopped taunting her, people stopped asking her if she was a man or a woman, and the women in the city treated her with more friendliness.
She did not have to change her identity or her theological foundations to win them over; she just changed clothes! This simple act accorded respect to the Chinese people’s customs and culture and opened their hearts to the foreigner in their midst.
2. Lottie became their cookie lady and friend.
Before they would listen to the gospel, Moon reasoned, they had to respect her as a friend. She got out of her house and interacted with the women in her neighborhood. She even made shortbread cookies for the children. Although the neighbors first feared the cookies were poisoned, no one got ill. Their defenses were eventually softened by Lottie’s simple gifts of food.
3. Lottie adopted their lifestyle.
In Ping’tu, Lottie lived in a small Chinese-style concrete house and slept on a fire-heated bed made of bricks. She suppressed her preference for American utensils and used chopsticks to eat, at least in the presence of the Chinese. Although Chinese cooking made her physically ill, she found a few dishes she could eat and did so to avoid offending her neighbors. She was determined to show them she was all in.
4. Lottie used her skills to meet their needs.
Moon and other missionaries started schools, even schools for girls who weren’t normally afforded an education. Lottie had taught in the American South prior to moving to China, so transferring her skills to the mission field was a natural inroad into the lives of the people of China who also valued education. Interaction with the students’ families afforded Lottie a wide audience for sharing the gospel that she might not have had otherwise. Throughout her thirty-nine-year missionary career, depending on her health and circumstances, she alternated between teaching and doing full-time evangelism work.
5. Lottie became their advocate.
Lottie’s foreign appearance and educational attainments worked to her advantage at times and gave her a local celebrity status that she used for good. She advocated with civic leaders for religious tolerance, rescued girls from being sold as concubines, and saved some of her students from foot binding, a barbaric practice that made Chinese women marriageable but crippled them for life.
6. Lottie put their needs before her own.
Times of famine have taught the hospitable Chinese people to show concern for each other by making sure their neighbors have had enough food. Lottie cared about people in this way too. When famine struck and food was scarce, Lottie, who had access to food, refused to eat it and let her Chinese neighbors have it instead. In the end, this would weaken her health and end her life.
An Acceptable Outsider
Lottie’s plan to endear the Chinese to herself was successful. The wall never completely crumbled, but it became penetrable. The people she lived among began to treat her as an acceptable outsider. Not only did they welcome her into their homes but they crowded into hers, listening to the gospel message that she passionately taught.
Adjusting her language, attire, and customs to more closely match that of the people she hoped to reach did not compromise God’s Word. It simply softened the sharp edges that divided their two cultures. As a result of her ministry, many chose to follow Jesus.
After all, if Lottie could love them as she did, it must have been easy for them to believe that Jesus loved them too.
Emily Stockton lives overseas and writes for IMB. You can follow her on Twitter @EmilyStockton.