When we think of the great mission pioneers, we often remember them for their decades of faithful service, building churches, translating scripture, and leaving a legacy that lasts. But not all missionaries get there. Some only serve very briefly and leave little more than a gravestone.
The Tibetans in the early 20th century were a collection of mostly unreached tribes, inhabiting an enormous landmass, spanning Tibet proper, but also parts of the provinces of Gansu, Yunnan, Qinghai, and Sichuan in China. Missionaries working amongst the Tibetans had experienced steep resistance from the local Buddhist leaders, often in the form of deadly raids on mission stations.
This, in addition to the harsh climate, poverty, banditry, military unrest and the remoteness of the area, made working with Tibetans no walk in the park. Hudson Taylor famously claimed that trying to convert Tibetans was like trying to enter the den of a lion to rob her from her cubs. Still, after many tries, a mission base was formed in the remote Tibetan town of Batang, which is now part of Sichuan province.
It was a unique mission base, where the idea of holistic mission was practiced before it became fashionable. There was a kindergarten, a school, and a hospital. Beggars could learn a trade and were taught skills such as weaving, soap making, shoe making and gardening. Realising that much of the poverty was a result of the aridness of the land, the missionaries started a project to dig a 5-mile canal, bringing water to the area. This was very successful, and fields and orchards were planted as a result.
Albert Shelton was the head physician and had for many years prayed for another doctor to join them. The answer to prayer came in the form of a young doctor from Tennessee, Zenas Loftis. He made the long journey inland to Batang and kept a diary of all he encountered. Shortly before reaching Batang, he came across the lonely grave of another missionary, by the name of William Soutter.
Soutter had died there ten years earlier, on his way to preach the gospel in Batang, the same town Loftis was making his way to. Soutter had tried for some time to enter Tibetan areas, first from India, and when this was unsuccessful, he had tried to come from China. After studying Chinese for some time, he was finally on his way to Batang when overtaken by typhoid. His fellow missionary sent for assistance, but this arrived too late. He was buried on the road to Batang. His dying words had been: “I should have liked to have lived a little longer, but Thy will be done; only send another to take my place.” He was 34 when he died.
We might expect that Loftis would think himself to be the fulfilment of that wish of the dying missionary, but another sentiment is expressed in Loftis’ diary. He records that day “O my Master, if it is Thy will that I fill a lonely grave in this land, may it be one that will be a landmark, and an inspiration to others, and may I go to do it willingly, if it is Thy will.”
The young doctor arrived three days later at the Batang mission station, began learning Tibetan right away and started seeing patients. The isolated mission community was overjoyed to have him there as the need was great. He saw hundreds of patients in those first few weeks, due to a double outbreak of smallpox and typhus in the area. While caring for his patients, Loftis contracted both. To the great distress of the community at Batang, he did not recover. Only two months after passing Soutter’s gravestone, his own was erected.
As this news reached America, another young doctor, William Hardy, volunteered to take his place and several others joined him to Batang, inspired by the sacrifice of Loftis. Finally, the mission post in Batang began to see an abundance of fruit and people turning to Jesus. As was so often the case in mission work, the road to revival was marked by gravestones.
Even now, work in Tibet is difficult and dangerous. A lion’s den, where spiritual power encounters and persecution are the reality of those proclaiming Jesus. Our book ‘Leaving Buddha’ is a testimony to this. But the Holy Spirit is working and prompting people from the Chinese house churches to follow in the footsteps of the missionary pioneers. May all of Tibet see the light of Jesus.