The wonder lies in the (desert) floor itself. It is a layer of crystallized gypsum, several feet thick, that underlies the sand of this district, and serves the land for all building purposes. You will see scattered along every roadside and built into every wall these beautiful crystals, several inches across, imitating flames of fire, or crysanthemums, stars or roses, as the case may be, and calcined and powdered they form the cement into which they are embedded. Between the Desert & the Sea
The long anticipated week in England is history now, captured in photographs, journal jottings, scraps of menus, programs and other memorabilia – and in memory. The purpose of this trip was the world premier of the Lilias Trotter documentary, “Many Beautiful Things,” at the Manchester International Film Festival. It was a thrill to see the film come to life on wide screen. . . to receive affirmations from a wide range of viewers. . . to share this culminating moment with the film maker and her husband, our patrons and their adult daughters. . . A never to be forgotten moment, launching the next phase: the presenting of the film to the public. More than two years effort coming to fruition – at last!
Yet there was another event, personal and private, that ranked high in my heart at the time and now upon reflection: the meeting of Eva Longley, the only former member of the Algiers Mission Band still living. While not a contemporary of Lilias, she lived in Dar Naama, Lilias’s home (and AMB Headquarters in Algiers) and, during those years, worked alongside the then older women who had joined Lilias decades previous. That alone would have made her a person-of-interest – but there was much more to the story and her unproclaimed role in preserving the Trotter archives. A story I learned considerably after my appropriating those very archives for the writing of the biography, A Passion for the Impossible. and compiling paintings and writings for A Blossom in the Desert.
A chance meeting with a friend’s son and a retired Arab World Ministries missionary connected me to a woman who, likewise, had based at the HQ in Dar Naama for many years. It was through a telephone conversation with this contact that I was told the history of the archives and given Eva’s UK phone number. Thus began a friendship via phone linked by our common regard for the life and legacy of Lilias Trotter. Over the past several years I would contact her with my endless list of questions: “Do you have any stories that her colleagues shared with you? Any mannerisms or qualities that might better illuminate her personality? Any foibles or weaknesses that would humanize her? After each “visit” I felt I knew Lilias better – as well as my new friend, Eva.
But the most illuminating story was, in fact, her crucial role in the preservation of the Trotter Archives along with related North African Mission/AWM archival material. During political unrest in the 1980s, missionaries left the country. Eva stayed on, working her day job at an embassy in Algiers. Every evening, for one and one-half years, Eva would attend to her greater mission: organizing the storage space filled with all manner of paper, books, pamphlets, journals, diaries and documents, keeping record until she was satisfied that she had secured a copy of everything of importance. As individuals visited her over those months, she would entrust into their care (and suitcases) these items to be deposited at their respective destinations. Ultimately they were gathered together in three large cardboard boxes and stored at the Arab World Ministries UK HQ in Loughborough. At peace that “her work was completed,” she felt liberated to leave her beloved Algeria and return to England to join her husband and eventually serve, together, in a new location in North Africa.
The six hours we spent together in London will be etched forever in my heart. This tiny but resilient soul in her early-8o’s, battled her way to the city whose transportation system was crippled by a 24 hour tube strike – with subsequent overload of buses and taxis. We sat in the tearoom at Selfridges for 4 hours and listened to her stories – and told her ours. Finally, we waited with her for two hours as one bus after another passed by, filled with passengers! (It would be another 2 1/2 hours before she made it back to her apartment the opposite end of London!)
Before leaving, she reached into a shopping bag and presented me with a smaller bag. I unwrapped the tissue and lifted from it an exquisite rock formation. “It’s called a ‘desert rose.’ They are found in certain arid desert regions of Algeria, made of sand and minerals (often gypsum) and shaped by sand and wind and water into lovely formations. I see it as a parable of our lives: to use the dry and hard things of life to create something beautiful.”
I looked at this beautiful woman, weathered with age and shaped by life experience: a desert rose. I felt the honor and privilege to be in her company, to be considered a friend, and to have collaborated with her (unbeknownst to either of us at the time) in the effort to preserve and present Lilias’s legacy of faith and beauty. And I thought of Lilias who had fallen in love with the people of this particular region – the Souf villages of hidden palms and beehive dwellings, the desert roses lining the roadsides, walls and underlying the sand of this district, and lovely “maidens” (wrapped in their indigo cotton drapery) “full of grace” and “frank sweetness.” “It wins our heartstrings in our rare visits, and it keeps them.” Little wonder that Lilias dreamed of ending her days amongst the Souf people. As one last gift to herself, before leaving the district in 1895, she took desert roses, fresh and sweet out of the ground, “. . . a pledge of the blossoming that is coming to the desert when the Lord is king.”
So I have my bit of Algeria on a shelf, above my computer, at our home in Florida. It reminds me of Eva, of course, and Lilias. And it speaks to me of all the Evas and Liliases of this world who, like them, have spilled out their lives in service for God – in far away lands and at home – simply being faithful to God and obedient to His bidding. Missionaries and ministers, yes, but teachers and plumbers and nurses and business owners and workers, mothers and fathers. In short, all people who radiate the love of God and convey it to those whose lives they touch – intentionally or inadvertently. People for whom there will be no “honorable mention” (at least in this world), no books nor films to highlight their good works. But for whom God can say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
We all can be “desert roses” – shaped by the hard and difficult things of life into something beautiful for God!