Lilias never compiled a manual for “missions,” yet she pioneered methods and materials to reach the Muslims, considered by missiologists today to be one-hundred years ahead of her times. She never referred to herself as a “missionary” designating the title “worker” to herself and others united in this work, listing her vocation as “colporteur” (distributor of religious books) on the application form to grant access to North African. As for the normal indicators of mission activity – schools, hospitals, clinics – the political and national climate made this an impossibility.
No wonder she was “comforted” by observing the seemingly “desultory” activity of a bee amongst blackberry sprays “just touching the flowers here & there in a very tentative way yet all unconsciously life-life-life- was left behind at every touch as the miracle-working pollen grains were transferred to the place where they could set the unseen spring working. We have only to see to it that we are surcharged, like the bees, with potential life.” St. Francis had his larks, Mother Teresa her white-robed Sisters of Charity. Lilias had her little band of wandering, desultory bees drawing life-giving pollen from God, then lighting here and there over the face of Algeria – slums, villages, desert oases – touching a street urchin, a mountain woman, a Sufi mystic with life. . . life. . . life.
In retrospect, one can see how her first thirty-five years of life prepared her for a vocation – a passion – that would ignite and hold her heart to a land and a people for the remaining forty years of her life. Long before “foreign missions” even were, for her, an interest much less an option, Lilias had devoted her life to the needy of London, working eventually through the fledgling YWCA as a Honorary Secretary, a volunteer position. From her base at the Welbeck St. Institute, a hostel for woman, she reached out to the prostitutes at Victoria Street Station bringing them back for lodging, food, and training in respectable occupations. These ministries evolved into the development of the first public restaurants for the working women, Bible Study “at homes” for the more fashionable set, and a host of other services. While the famed John Ruskin precipitated the crisis that led to the determination of the role of art in her life (1879) it would be almost a full decade before she would respond to a call to North Africa. Lilias flourished in this city setting and expected to spend the rest of her life “loving London.”
God had other plans for her. At a time when foreign missions were gaining unprecedented interest with access to farther geographical regions, Lilias was concerned by her own lack of interest and prayed that God would give her a heart for regions of the world unreached by the Gospel. It was not long before the words “North Africa” began sounding in her soul. There was a sense of Divine Inevitability that when a missionary presented to a gathering at Welbeck Street Institute the spiritual need he had observed in Algeria just a few days previous and asked “Is there anyone here who feels God is calling them to North Africa?” Lilias would rise to her feet saying “It is me. He is calling me.”
The rest happened in an astonishingly short period of time. She applied to North African Mission Board only to be rejected for “poor heath.” Undeterred, she made plans to move forward working alongside NAM but independent of it. March, 1888, Lilias with two other friends of “independent means” set off from Southampton traveling by steamer and train towards their destination: Algiers!
Lilias later called it a “fools errand” writing, “none of us fit to pass a doctor for any society, not knowing a soul in the place or a sentence of Arabic or a clue for beginning work on untouched ground: we only knew we had to come. Truly if God needed weakness He had it!”
Their first objective, upon arrival, was to master Arabic, the language of the nationals – an imposing task, learning (and immediately speaking) it word by word. Next, was to gain access to the local Arab homes. From their rented flat in the French section they ventured into the Arab section of the Casbah (old city) gaining entrance to the homes through the children and into the cafes with Scripture cards written laboriously, one new word at a time, in their limited vocabulary asking the men to read them aloud for their understanding!
Their dream to live among the Arabs in the Casbah came to fruition five years later, in 1893, with the purchase of an old fortress-like house: Number Two Rue du Croissant. This would be the base of their ministry and the headquarters for many years to come. Their early efforts to reach the Arabs were varied and flexible, according to opportunity and response: Sunday classes for market and shoe-black boys being their first venture! Yet all the while they were reaching out to and developing relationships with the “locals” – children, women, men – in ways that today we would call “incarnational.”
As their numbers gradually increased, their horizons widened with the sight of the villages on the mountains and the great South lands beyond. They began to map winter journeys outward in these unreached regions, taking their first major itineration in 1893 and the establishment of a “station” in the hill country of Blida the following year.
Yet for every advance, in those early years, there were setbacks both external and internal. There were increasing political difficulties and suspicions followed by the French Entente, 1896, against England that blocked their freedom of travel within the country and forcing them to the most limited program in Algiers as the nationals backed away from them out of fear of association. Theirs was a challenge of an inner spiritual battle as intense as the outward, Lilias writing of the “testings on the battle-field where the inner life failed, the nerve strain of the climate, the pressure on our spirits of the Satanic forces with which all teems out here, the lessons which we thought we knew and which we had ‘turned back again and again to be learnt afresh.’” (Backward & Foreward)
Even during the hardest of years, Lilias maximized every opportunity however small through efforts that would win her the description of “indiscouragable” by Samuel Zwemer (the acclaimed “prophet to Islam”): employing the systematic work of young French “colporteur evangelists” in regions unrestricted to them; the development of hand-printed scripture and texts for limited distribution; the ongoing visitation in villages around Blida; the beginnings of translating portions of the Bible in the colloquial Arabic. The clouds began to lift with the removal of the Entente in 1903 following a positive visit to Algeria from King Edward.
The new “springtime of liberty” was a turning point for the struggling band of workers. With the purchase, in 1906, of a “great rambling old native house” in nearby El Biar amidst “a shady garden, crowning a hillside of vineyard and firwood and wild olive,” not only were they able to provide a place of rest for the workers during the hottest of summer days, but the expansion of unforeseen ministries: Conferences, Revision Committee meetings for colloquial translations of Scripture, a center for annual Rallies, the starting point for village work along the plateau, and a training place for the growing “mission helper” staff, camps for young girls, temporary habitats in the Arab Court for Arab families – and more. . . Dar Naama – “House of Grace” – would eventually become their official headquarters in 1925 when Rue du Crosissant was put up for sale at the end of their thirty-three-year tenancy. The addition of nine workers in 1907 triggered, for practical reasons, the official organization of their work under the name Algiers Mission Band.
The following years, though not without struggle, were marked by an increase of workers, ministries and strategies for more effective communication with their growing Arab “family” and expanding outreach. Her developing methods and strategies, visionary and groundbreaking, are worthy alone of study. It is nothing short of amazing how Lilias maximized their human resources over the increasing number of base-stations and sub-stations, rotating pairs of workers, seasonally, alternating the winter work in the southlands with the mountain and village visitation in autumn and spring. She found ways to connect the growing number of stations through the in-house magazine, El Couffa, and to build bridges to these ministries with their “prayer supporters” in England and beyond, through intimate round-robin journals illustrated with tiny drawings and photographs and, later, printed illustrated reports supplemented by urgent updates – all designed to make the land and the people “vital and living” to those who would never have personal contact with the work.
Lilias’ literary and artistic contributions are a subject in themselves (PEN & BRUSH) but it must be mentioned that those God-given gifts were put to full use in literature for Arab and French-speaking Muslims and for English speaking people alike. Here again, as in ever other area, she was tireless in developing Arab/French literature (Story Parables, etc.) to ever more effectively resonate with the eastern sensibilities of the nationals – reaching a peak of activity amongst the Band, during the war years, which they laughingly called “tractitis.” And one cannot write of Lilias without referring to her unique relationship with the Sufi Mystics in the Southlands and the book, The Sevenfold Secret, based on the seven “I AM’S” of Christ from the Gospel of John, written especially to reach this particular group of Sufis she believed to be true seekers after God. Her English writing was divided between communicating the vision for Muslim work and strong devotional leaflets and books born of out the practical realities of her own tested faith.
While Lilias did not crave the role of leadership – maintaining that one of the great joys of Heaven for her would be relief from leadership! – she did not shirk the responsibilities that came her way as a result of her vision for ministry and the organizational requirements to maintain and expand the same. She provides a compelling model for godly leadership for both women and men in the stewardship of time and resources in an increasingly complex organization. Not only did she provide the structure for the development and maintenance of work over a vast and varied country, but she had the added weight of recruitment and training of workers and “short termers,” the development of ministries to Arab families (becoming a matchmaker for Christian marriages!) which included training toward self-sufficiency through industrial farming and native crafts. All the while she kept before them the original, albeit sometimes tested, objective of the Algiers Mission Band: to evangelize the great outlying and unreached stretches of the interior as opposed to making the stations an end in themselves.
Lilias spent the last three years of her life confined to her bed at the headquarters in El Biar. Physical limitations notwithstanding, she continued to be involved in virtually every aspect of the band. Her room was the control station of the mission, her agenda book the log in which each maneuver was charted maintaining a vast correspondence as well as planning the schedule and order of business for committee meetings and rallies. She continued to be involved in policy and vision, plotting itinerations on the map spread before her and following the daily operations of each station. During this time she consolidated many significant writing projects – and set the mission affairs in order for a future without her. Perhaps the most poignant image from that time is of Lilias propped up against her pillows, praying her way through the stations and ministries throughout the country, a lifetime practice, and most certainly the key to her endurance and joy in the work.
The last summer months, with her remaining yet decreasing strength, she gave Sunday afternoon Bible readings from the Song of Solomon – studies on the lovely temple carvings – to the “family” gathered around her bed, in the sunlit and flower-filled room. August 27, 1928, she drew her last breath. She was buried in Algiers, the place she called home amongst those she considered family.
What was her legacy? At the time of her death the Algiers Mission Band was on solid footing: thirty members strong in fifteen stations and outposts, unified in mission and purpose. In 1962 the Algiers Mission Band merged with North Africa Mission later becoming Arab World Ministries as the work extended beyond North Africa. Recently, AWM has entered into a new partnership: Arab World Ministries of PIONEERS. She left a vital ministry as well as pioneered effective ways to reach the Muslims of the Arab World along with a wealth of literature yet it is impossible to document her influence in statistics. Her dream for a church visible was never realized in her lifetime but her diaries record scores, possibly hundreds, of national believers and there is witness today of worshiping believers – Lilias and her workers credited by many for planting the seeds that have germinated into the church today.
“Their works do follow them,” are words from Revelation penned on the final illumination of her devotional classic Parables of the Cross – a sprig of new life growing from the seemingly dead twigs of wood-sorrel. In writing of this truth she revealed her profound understanding of time in light of Eternity, prophetically supplying a perspective of her own legacy – and the legacy of all who invest in the kingdom of God: “God may use, by reason of the wonderful solidarity of His Church, the things that He has wrought in us, for the blessing of souls unknown to us: as these twigs and leaves of bygone years, whose individuality is forgotten, pass on vitality still to the new-born wood-sorrel. God only knows the endless possibilities that lie folded in each one of us!”