Margaret Nicholl was born on July 31, 1897 in Denver, Colorado. After graduating from Colorado Women’s College she felt the Lord calling her to missions work. She enrolled in Moody Bible Institute in 1917 and after completing a two-year course, she returned to Denver for nurse’s training which would allow her to qualify as a medical missionary.
She was one of Baptist Mid-Missions first missionaries and decided to go to the French colony of Ubangi-Shari in the Central African Republic (CAR). After studying French in Paris for a short period of time, she arrived in the town of Sibut in 1922 at the age of 25. There she studied the Sango language for a few months, before moving to the town of Bangassou to open and run a French school. She made it a goal to teach her students to read not only French but their native language of Sango. Teaching them to read Sango was a slow process which she nearly gave up on, but eventually she had one of her smartest students try to read the words of John 3:16 that she had typed out on a piece of paper. It took several tries of reading it out loud before it made any sense to him, but when it did, he was so shocked he threw the paper out of his hands and said, “That paper talked to me.” Margaret said, “Yes, that’s God’s message of love for you.” And then he looked up at her with questioning eyes and asked, “Does God know my language?” Margaret along with other missionaries worked hard to translate the Bible into the Sango language. Although the New Testament was translated by 1935, it took them almost another 30 years to complete the Old Testament.
During her first year on the field she met Guy Laird, a fellow missionary whose wife had passed away. She refused his proposal of marriage twice, but after falling in love with him and his son, Lawrence, they were married in 1924, fourteen short months after she arrived. She gave birth to Eleanor in 1925, Arlene in 1927, Marian in 1928, and Clifford in 1931.
Shortly after Marian was born, Margaret and her husband were approached by the French government, who having come to recognize the boldness of the missionaries, asked them about the possibility of opening up a mission station at Ippy. Ippy was an area inhabited by the fierce cannibalistic Banda tribe that the French had unsuccessfully sent three representatives to at different times only to have them be eaten by the villagers. After much prayer they agreed to go. The Banda tribe members observed them from the moment they arrived - how they slept, how they ate, how they dressed, how they bathed. Nothing seemed to be sacred, but Margaret just kept showing them love and allowing them into her home and life. The word Kota means big in the Sango language. If something was very big it was Ko-ota. They affectionately called Margaret, “Ko-o-ota Kota Mama.”
While her husband worked on building the church, teaching the Bible, and training those who wanted to learn more, Margaret focused on helping people medically. One of her first experiences on the field was watching villagers dance on a mass grave where 300 wives of a chief who had recently died were buried alive with him. She was fearless when it came to the Banda’s superstitious beliefs about death and many times showed her trust in God to protect her while she nursed the sick and dying. She made do with what supplies she had, but prayed daily that God would let her open a hospital so as to better serve the people. One particularly important chief, who Margaret was able to nurse back to health from his death bed, ordered that anytime she entered a village the talking drums were to be sounded and everyone was to stop what they were doing and come to hear her speak. Sometimes she would have 250 to 500 people gather within minutes of her arrival at a village to listen to her share the Gospel. God gave great liberty and protection as she showered the people with her love and her patience. It took 18 years for that chief to get saved, but because of his orders many came to know Christ as their Saviour.
Although they had many converts the church they established at Ippy remained small because every time they trained a convert in the Bible or in a trade they left to be a witness in another town. Eventually they had converts all over the country who were winning their own people to the Lord.
In 1945, when Margaret was 48 and her husband 61, he died of the dreaded sleeping sickness. It did not help that the nearest hospital was 75 miles away and the incompetent doctors misdiagnosed him several times. When he was finally diagnosed properly, he was administered too much medication which caused a brain blockage. She did not see her husband’s death as the end of her ministry in the CAR. On the contrary, it fueled her prayer, “God give me a hospital at Ippy.”
God provided her with the funds needed to buy and ship eight tons of medical equipment and 20 tons of cement for the hospital’s foundation. Everyone thought she was crazy, but she knew she was called, and after being on the field for 30 years already, the hospital was finally being built. The hospital at Ippy ended up servicing missionaries, natives, and French government officials alike from the entire region. Its facilities included 60 beds, 2 operating theaters, and a library with over 1,000 English-language medical textbooks.
Margaret served her Lord in the Central African Republic for over 40 years - 1 year as a single missionary nurse, 22 years as a missionary wife, and 19 years as a missionary widow. She returned to the States in 1964 and passed away in June of 1983. From her first experience on the field where she had to make herself a home out of an old goat house until her final years where she had a working hospital, a nursing program that produced the highest quality medical staff, thousands of converts, and many churches started, she kept a faithful heart that consistently showed others God’s love. She is a true example of a lady of whom it can be said, “She hath done what she could”!
Her Story/My Story:
In 1952 Margaret was awarded the French Legion of Honor from the French government in Paris. She was happy to receive it, not for her own honor, but because she knew it would help better the relationships between the French and the missionaries. For the most part the French government officials had been quite antagonistic towards the missionaries, but had recognized Margaret’s great love and care for the African and Frenchmen alike. In her own words, “I had done nothing outstanding to receive this merit from the French government or anyone else. All I can say is that the French are just like anyone else; they respond to love. And I thank God that He has taught me to let Him love people through me.” So many times during her 40 years, the people had seen God love on her in small ways from providing a yearly supply of oats and prunes for her children through local Portuguese minors to the major miracle of getting the 28 tons of cargo for the hospital up the Congo River when everyone said it couldn’t be done. She in turn showered her love on anyone the Lord let cross her path in small every day ways like giving food to those in need, rocking a crying baby, lending a helping hand, or having a listening ear. She was always ready with a Scripture verse and a ready smile.
She was also awarded the Distinguished Alumni of the Year award from the Women’s College of Colorado in 1962 and the Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial award for the Daughters of Hadassah that same year. But, the award that meant the most to her came from the hands of the President of the Central African Republic in 1961. She was awarded the Central African Republic Knight of the Order of Merit, the highest honor of the republic. At the citation ceremony the gentleman officiating the ceremony started with, “When I was born, Mrs. Laird was there.” With each statement about different stories he was aware of – a birth gone wrong, a sick loved one, a hungry child - he ended it with “Mrs. Laird was there.” Before the award was given to Margaret, the president came on an inspection tour. Nothing was mentioned about her founding of a hospital that saved the lives of so many or of the French school she ran that taught the people to read in their own language. Instead the president was told how she allowed the Africans to play in her house and with her children, how she never fed her kids without feeding the village children who played at her house, too, and how she would take in babies and feed them until they were strong enough to go back to their parents. It was enough for the president to concur that she deserved the award. At the final ceremony the president of the country summed up her life with one final sentence and gave the reason for her great success, “We need to say nothing except Madame Laird is the mother of us all. We love her because she first loved us.”
In 1999 while serving as a missionary in Rotorua, New Zealand, the Lord made Himself real to me through one of His small creatures. I was going through a particularly rough time and decided I needed to find some solitude, so I locked myself in a cottage by a beach for a few days. I read the book of John over and over and poured my heart out to God. I felt like if I could just see His face somehow or feel His touch I could keep on going. On the third day I left the cottage and went for a walk. I cried to the Lord and told Him I had to know He was walking there beside me. Just then a fantail flew near and sang me a little song. I quickly took a picture hoping I had captured him as he flittered around.* The fantail is a very small native New Zealand bird. It flits around and only perches for a few short seconds each time it lands, and, although it isn’t an uncommon bird, you don’t often see them. The little fantail followed me down the long path to the beach that day. What a special moment that was, and I thought to myself, “God does know I’m here. He is walking beside me, and He loves me enough to let me know it.” Through the years, at different times, I’ve asked the Lord to show me a fantail again, and, knowing my human frailty, He has always obliged. It is a special treat and a reminder of God’s presence and His love as I serve Him.
In December of 2007, my dear sweet Grandmother went home to heaven early one Monday morning. Within a few hours I determined it would cost too much to go home for the funeral, and decided to take a walk in the park just down the street from my home. Since my grandmother loved flowers, I took my camera along hoping to take some pictures for a remembrance of the day. As I passed through a grove of trees a bird nearly hit me as it swooped down and then landed on a branch above my head. When I turned to look, it was a fantail. I couldn’t believe the Lord’s goodness, and I hadn’t even asked Him for one. I grabbed my camera and prayed it would sit long enough for me to capture this moment. Of course, it flittered away and back again as fantails do. Since fantails are rarely seen in groups of more than one or two, I thought it must be quite fast because it seemed to be in one tree and then the next and then back again. All of a sudden, I looked up from my camera and realized it wasn’t just one fantail, but many, many fantails. They filled the trees that circled around me wrapping me in God’s love. I was able to take many photos that day, and one little fantail in particular stayed long enough and let me get close enough that I was able to take a video of him.*
When I felt the Lord moving me to Thailand, I was so disappointed that I’d no longer be able to see my special “I love you’s” from the Lord, but many of my friends and church members gave me fantail decorations so I could see them in my new home. Just a couple days after I arrived in Thailand I happened to be looking out a window when I saw a bird fly to the wall that separated the properties below me. It was black and about the size of a Robin, but flittered around back and forth; then its tail fanned out just like our precious fantails in New Zealand. I was eager to check the internet for what kind of bird this might be and found out that fantails are not just native to New Zealand, but there are over 50 species of fantails all over the world. Thailand has five different ones, but the type I see most often has a cross that appears on its tail feathers when they are fanned out. The Thai word is นกกางเขน pronounced noke gangcane and means the Cross Bird.* When I see them I am reminded not only of Jesus’ great act of love He did for me on the cross, but also for all the little acts of love He shows me every day.
Study: Little Acts of Love
It is easy sometimes for missionary ladies, especially ladies with small children, to wonder what “great work” it is that they are doing for God. Even I, as a single lady who appears to have hours upon hours to devote to the work, sometimes look at my life and think, “What great thing have I accomplished for the Lord?”
When I was a young missionary, it was all about making plans to do great things for God. As I’ve gotten older, I have realized that it is not the grand gestures or the great accomplishments that matter for eternity, it is the little acts of love. It isn’t the amazing banquet that you were able to coordinate or the library you’ve meticulously catalogued that will be remembered. It isn’t the perfectly orchestrated Sunday School class or the beautifully crafted decorations in the church that will be remembered. It is the little acts of love you show on a daily basis that will make the difference in the lives of the people you are called to serve. As Margaret said, “How can they know the sincerity of the message unless there is the evidence of love in the little lowly things done by the person who gives the message?”
So it is I find with God, as well. It isn’t the grand gestures He makes towards me or the miracle prayer requests that He answers every now and then that continue to touch my heart on a daily basis. It is the small acts of love He shows me daily to let me know that He sees me, He hurts with me, He cares for me, He walks with me, and He loves me.
I Corinthians 13, that great chapter on love, tells us that everything we say, every bit of wisdom or knowledge we impart, every bit of faith we show, and every material thing we “suffer” without so that others might have is as tinkling cymbals, sounding brass, and has no profit if we do it without love.
I John 3:16-18 say, “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?
My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.”
Take heart my comrades, anyone can show little acts of love no matter what other limitations you have in your life at the moment. Search for opportunities or ask God to bring the opportunities to your doorstep that will allow Him to show His love through you.
The people we are called to serve don’t need the grand gestures.
They need the little acts of love.
Originally written for baptistmissionarywomen.blogspot.com
* Photo by me on the beach walk.
* Photo by me at the park on the day my Grandma passed away.
* Stock photo - www.surfbirds.com
Resources & Book List:
They Called Me Mama, Margaret Nicholl Laird. 1975. The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.