In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus makes some remarkable statements, about denying ourselves and taking up our crosses, about losing our lives in order to find them. So, one of the first questions that usually comes to mind is, how does that become reality for us. How do we live that out? Well, I want to share with you the story of a woman named Evelyn Brand as an example of one who lived out what Jesus was teaching his followers. Now, I will warn you that her story is very much a Mother Teresa type story and it would be easy for us to hear this story and think, “we could never live up to that kind of life or we could never do what she did.” But, that is not the point of telling this story. None of us are all called to duplicate someone else’s life. But, when the dominant message of our society tells us that life can only be found when we turn our focus inward, her story becomes a shining example of what happens when the focus of life is turned outwards and the true life that God desires for us is finally found. With that in mind, let us listen to Jesus’ teaching from the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, beginning at the 21st verse. Listen now for the word of God...
Evelyn Brand was born in 1879 and grew up in a suburb of London, England. Her family was very prosperous and so the house she grew up in was majestic, furnished in mahogany and filled with priceless heirlooms. As a young woman she wore dresses made of the finest silks and laces, while adorning her head with long-plumed hats. She had studied at the London Conservatory of Art where the male students used to compete for the privilege of painting beautiful Evelyn. With all of this in her background, you can imagine that it was quite a shock to her friends and family when she announced that she, along with her new husband Jesse were going to India to become missionaries.
“You are going where,” her friends asked her?
“We are going to India.”
“But, why would you want to go there?”
“We are going to establish a Christian church there,” Evelyn said.
“But, what do you know about being missionaries? You look more suited to be an actress in the theater than a missionary.”
“That may be,” replied Evelyn, “but, nevertheless, we are going.” And so they did.
Evelyn and Jesse went to India, and as part of their training for this endeavor, they both took brief preparatory courses in medicine. So that, when they first settled in at a missionary station on the plains of India, word got out that these new comers had some medical training. A steady stream of sick people lined up outside their door. Word of their help for sick people, spread far and wide, so that some people traveled for days just to get some help. Even the villagers from the nearby mountain ranges, came down onto the plains to get some help, which is how Evelyn and Jesse first learned of the tremendous need of those living in the hills.
“Jesse,” Evelyn said, “do you realize that some of the people who have come here for help have been walking for almost a week.”
“They are coming down out of the mountains,” Jesse replied. Apparently there is no one up there who can help them.”
“Then we need to go up there to help them,” she said. And so they did. The Brands moved up onto Kolli Malai where they learned that nearly 20,000 people lived with no access to medical training. They lived in a settlement built mostly by Jesse, who had additional training as a carpenter. The settlement included their home, but also a clinic, a school, an orphanage and a mud-walled church.
Evelyn and Jesse’s dream, in coming to India, was to establish a Christian church; however, despite all of their good work, their church was a complete failure. It turns out that a local priest who specialized in spirit worship, sensing his livelihood at risk, had broadcast a warning that any new converts to Christianity would incur the wrath of the gods. His threat was helped by the sudden appearance of a few poisoned cows. So, although Evelyn and Jesse conducted services every Sunday, very few showed up and no one dared to become a Christian.
Then, in 1918-19, an epidemic of Spanish influenza broke out worldwide, reaching even into the Kolli mountains, where it killed with such force that it shattered any sense of community. Rather than nursing a sick member back to health, terrified neighbors and family fled into the woods. Evelyn and Jesse, knew that those who were deserted would die of malnutrition and dehydration, long before they ever died of the influenza. So, they mixed a batch of rice gruel in an enormous black cauldron outside of their home and for many days kept it replenished. They went into the villages on horseback, spooning the gruel and purified water into the mouths of the forsaken residents.
Eventually, both the hostile priest and his wife fell ill. Everyone deserted them except Evelyn and Jesse who regularly took food and medicine into the home of this priest.
“I have misjudged you greatly,” said the priest one day to Evelyn and Jesse. They simply nodded their heads. It was not the time for pride and gloating.
“My son was to be a priest after me,” continued the priest, “but no one in my religion has cared enough to help me. I want my children to grow up as Christians. Please, he pleaded, get me some adoptions papers.” Evelyn and Jesse were a bit taken aback by this suggestion and didn’t really know exactly what it meant. They found out several days later, when a teary eyed ten year old boy, along with his feverish nine-month-old baby sister showed up on Evelyn and Jesse’s doorstep. The little boy held a packet of documents from the priest and his wife. The documents made it official, Jesse and Evelyn now had two children, as well as, the first two members of their six year old church.
Over the next several years their missionary work flourished. The little church grew to fifty members while they cared for about 12,000 people a year in the various clinics that they established through out the hills. Evelyn and Jesse had a son, named Paul, who at the age of nine was sent to London for his formal education. Six years later, the Brands made the decision to take a sabbatical year and return to London to be with Paul and the rest of their families. However, ten months before they were to make their trip, Jesse died of blackwater fever. He was buried beside the little church. Thirty-two men from the surrounding villages spent three days transporting a granite tombstone across the fields and up the hill to the churchyard. Evelyn was devastated and the grief she carried took its toll on her, so that when she did finally arrive in London that tall beautiful woman who once overflowed with energy and laughter, walked down the gangplank, hunched-over, gripping the railing all the way. At the age of fifty, she was prematurely gray and had the posture of a woman in her eighties.
“Evelyn, you can’t go back their,” pleaded her family when the sabbatical year was over.
“I must go back,” Evelyn insisted. “Who is going to take care of those people?”
“But you have done your part. Stay here and let someone else go.”
Evelyn smile. She knew they meant well; but, she had already made up her mind. “No one else is going to go,” she said finally, “which is why I must go back.” And she did.
Evelyn returned to the Kolli mountains, to her home. There, he soul was restored. She poured her life into the hill people. Traveling mountain trails on the horse that had belonged to Jesse, Evelyn continued the work of medicine, education, agriculture, and teaching the Gospel. She outlasted that horse, and broke in many more ponies over the years. While her son, Paul, stayed in London, to finish his education, living in the house she grew up in, Evelyn was living in a portable hut, eight feet square, that could be taken down, moved, and then rebuilt. She traveled constantly from village to village. On camping trips, into the countryside, she would sleep in a tiny mosquito net shelter that gave no protection from the elements. When storms came in the night, she wrapped herself in a raincoat and propped an umbrella over her head.
When Evelyn was sixty-seven, her son Paul returned to India as a surgeon. When he saw his mother he saw that the active years on the mountain had taken its toll. Her skin was weather-beaten, her body was infested with Malaria, and she walked with a limp. She had begun falling from horseback, breaking her arm, and cracking several of her vertebrae. “The horses are just getting too old for this,” she said. So, she got rid of the horse and instead she walked the hills, leaning heavily on tall bamboo poles which she grasped in each hand. The mission officially retired her at the age of sixty-nine, but that didn’t matter. She carried her work from the Kollis to four nearby mountain ranges.
At the age of seventy-five, Evelyn fell and broke her hip. She lay all night on the floor in pain until a workman found her the next morning. Four men carried her on a string-and-wood cot down the mountain path to the plains and put her in a jeep for an agonizing hundred mile ride over rutted roads. Her son Paul decided it was time for her to retire for good.
“Mother,” he said to her as she lay in a hospital bed, “it is good that someone found you. You could have lain there helpless for days. Shouldn’t you think about retiring?” Evelyn stayed quiet which gave Paul the opportunity to bolster his case. “Your sense of balance is no longer so good,” he continued, “and you legs don’t work well. It’s not safe for you to live alone up there where there’s no medical help within a day’s journey. Think of it. Just in the last few years you’ve had fractures on your vertebrae and ribs, a concussion of the brain, and a bad infection on your hand.” Paul paused to take a breath but then continued on. “Surely you realize that even the best of people do sometimes retire before they reach eighty. Why don’t you come and live with me, down on the plains. I can find plenty of good work for you to do, and you’ll be much closer to medical help. I will look after you mother.”
Finally, Evelyn spoke. “Paul, you know these mountains. If I leave, who will help the villagers. Who will treat their wounds and teach them about Jesus? When someone comes to take my place, then and only then, will I retire.” That was Evelyn’s final answer.
In her old age, Evelyn had little of the physical beauty left in her. The rugged conditions, combined with the crippling falls and her battles with typhoid, dysentery, and malaria, made her a thin, hunched-over old woman. Years of exposure to wind and sun had toughened her facial skin into leather and furrowed it with deep, deep wrinkles, which is why for the last twenty years of her life, she refused to keep a mirror in her home.
In his book, Pain, the Gift Nobody Wants, Paul wrote about his mother. This is what he wrote. “With all the objectivity a son can muster, I can truly say that Evelyn Brand was a beautiful woman, to the very end. One of my strongest visual memories of her is set in a village in the mountains, possibly the last time I saw her in her own environment. When she approached, the villagers had rushed out to take her crutches and carry her to a place of honor. She sat on a low stone wall that circled the village, with people pressing in from all sides. Already, they had listened to her praise them for protecting their water supplies and for the orchard that was flourishing on the outskirts. They listened to what she had to say about God’s love for them, nodding their heads in encouragement. They asked deep searching questions. Mother’s own rheumy eyes were shining, and standing beside her I could see what she must have been seeing with her failing vision: intent faces, gazing with trust and affection on one they have grown to love.
No one else on earth,” he continued, “commanded such devotion and love from those villagers. They were looking at a bony, wrinkled old face, but somehow her shrunken tissues had become transparent. To the villagers, and to me, she was beautiful. Granny Brand as they had come to call her, had no need for a mirror made of glass and polished chromium; she could see her own reflection in the incandescent faces around her.”
It was a few years later that Evelyn died at the age of ninety-five. Following her instructions, villagers buried her in a simply cotton sheet so that her body would return to the soil. Yet, her spirit lives on in a church, a clinic, several schools, and the faces of thousands of villagers across five mountain ranges in South India.
A co-worker once remarked that Granny Brand was more alive than any person he had ever met. By giving away life, she found it.