Come one, come all to the Welcome Hall – and come in your working clothes! (Amy’s slogan inviting people to Welcome Hall.)
“Give me the love that leads the way.”
As I stood on the top deck of the ferry last week, counting the buoys as we entered Belfast harbour, I couldn’t help recalling that two people exerting a weighty influence on my life were born or spent some of their most formative years here: C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast and Amy Carmichael, born in the village of Millisle in County Down, moved there when she was a teenager.
Amy Carmichael, yes, I’ve certainly leaned on her heavily for inspiration over the years: she was converted in Belfast as a teenager when her family moved there and at about 20, founded ‘Welcome Hall’ in the Shankill as a mission to reach Belfast’s mill-girls, many of whom worked in terrible conditions. When her family moved to Manchester, Amy again worked amongst the factory girls in the slums.
Amy sailed for Japan in 1893 to be a missionary. Her dream ended just over a year later when she returned home exhausted and unable to cope with the extreme climate. At this time she received a strong call to celibacy. Years later she described how she found a solitary cave to pray: “I had feelings of fear about the future. That was why I was there – to be alone with God. The devil kept on whispering, ‘It’s all right now, but what about afterwards? You are going to be very lonely.’ And he painted pictures of loneliness – I can see them still. And I turned to my God in a kind of desperation and said, ‘Lord what can I do? How can I go on to the end?’ And He said, ‘None of them that trust in Me shall be desolate’. That word has been with me ever since. It has been fulfilled to me.”
The following year Amy sailed to southern India and soon gathered a group of women whom she formed into a woman’s band, called the ‘Starry Cluster’. Under her leadership the women travelled around the villages, visiting homes and speaking to women and children who were willing to listen to the gospel. When two teenage girls who wanted to become believers escaped from their homes and came to her, the threat of violence forced them all to move to Dohnavur, on the southern tip of India. Amy lived there for the rest of her life.
In 1901 Amy rescued her first temple child. Such children were destined for a life of prostitution in Hindu temples. Over the years she rescued, and had brought to her, many other children in similar danger. A home was made for them amidst a community of believers, later called the ‘Dohnavur Fellowship’. Like Amy, many at Dohnavur chose to remain single ‘to attend upon the Lord without distraction’, as one of them said.
In 1916 Amy formed ‘The Sisters of the Common Life’ for single women like herself. In a book of guidelines for them Amy wrote: “There is nothing dreary or doubtful about this life. It is meant to be continually joyful.” She describes those who embraced this lifestyle as those, “being willing to follow the Lamb wherever he goeth”.*
Amy, called ‘Amma’ (mother), was not only a spiritual mother to many of her fellow workers but to her adopted children as well. Her aim was to train the children “to serve, to be evangelists and lovers of souls” and to send out teams to evangelize the people of southern India.
In 1931 Amy broke a leg which left her disabled for the rest of her life. For the next 20 years, confined to her room, she continued in her role as ‘Amma’ to the family as well as writing many books. In one of her books called ‘Ploughed Under’ she writes of the need of celibates to be spiritual parents. “Perhaps because there are so many perishing for lack of love in a world which can be hard and cold to birds which have no nest of their own, He wants some mother-hearts to be free to make nests for them, just as He wants some of His knights to be St. Pauls … and for Francis of Assisi there is need everywhere.”
“Why was it ever forgotten I wonder?” she wrote of celibacy. The word she received so many years ago – “It has been fulfilled to me. It will be fulfilled to you.”
Amy wrote of the importance of having a consistent and loving relationship with God and of allowing nothing to mar that bond. She wrote: “O, let us more and more deeply love the Forgiving Saviour and more and more walk softly with Him lest we grieve Him in any tiny thing.” Easy, second-rate choices would lead to a quenching of the fire of love; commitment to Jesus and His cause had to be total: “We are not called to be weaklings but warriors… It is all or nothing,” she wrote.
Amy longed that the Dohnavaur community model a very high standard of Jesus-like love and the first line of one of her verses begins, “Give me the love that leads the way.”
Amy’s legacy of compassion, obedience and devotion lives on – both in the books she has written and in the continuing community she established at Dohnavaur.
*I’ve never seen this book, despite searching in the British Library. If anyone knows where I can get a copy of it, please let me know!