Faith, passion, play, writing -

The S.O.S cry of millions - the faith and famine-relief legacy of Rosalind Goforth

I don’t know about you, but all the bad news of the day, reports of suffering and strife from around the world, is overwhelming and difficult for me to digest.  What a blessed life to have the luxury of being overwhelmed by hearing bad news, rather than being overwhelmed by experiencing famine, rioting, or financial disaster first hand.

One thing the 24/7 connection we have to news today does, be it through traditional media outlets or newer social media, is prove to us how small we are.  We, with our superior technologies so able to ‘know’ what’s going on in the world, don’t necessarily know what to do about the quantity of information constantly streaming toward us.

The reported headlines du jour can be numbing: famine in Somalia that only intensifies, madness in places like London as it burns, turbulent global economies causing unrest, cruelty of regimes like the one in Syria sending tanks upon its populace.

With our near-omniscience of human events what do we do about our seeming powerlessness amidst all the bad news? I guess we do what good people always have done: what we can.

I was encouraged this week when I received a document from a kind archivist at Wheaton. He sent me a copy of Rosalind Goforth’s first published article entitled “The S.O.S. Cry of China’s Starving.”

The article has convinced me this week that I need not be swallowed by the enormity of whatever bad-news issues I face, but in my smallness, just do what I can.

The S.O.S. Cry of China’s Millions c. 1920

Working in China in 1920 during one of the worst famines the country had ever seen, Rosalind Goforth was on a sickbed on the mountain of Jigong Shan because of a terrible bout of sprue (chronic dysentery).  Most of her friends were doing what they could to help people affected by the famine which afflicted much of central China.  Those in the know were predicting some 60 million people could die.  The toll on human life was unthinkable.

Weak and in terrible health (she lost some 40 lbs during the sickness) word spread through the village that Rosalind Goforth had received money in the mail from supporters at home.  The villagers surrounded the house, throwing rocks, and demanding the money for food in their hungry desperation.

Threatened by her sickness and the mob, Mrs. Goforth got off her bed, dressed, and faced the angry crowd, demanding calm.  She promised them that the next day she would spend the money so the village could eat.  Appeased, the mob dispersed and that evening Goforth got on her knees. She could help one village for one meal.  What about the countless others down the mountain pushed to the brink?

What else could she do but pray?

Years later, reflecting on the time, her daughter Mary recounted what agony of soul her mother had been in over reports of the suffering in the famine.  Families were throwing their children into the river so they would drown and no longer suffer from their hunger.  People were surviving by eating leaves, grass, and mud.

Mary Goforth Moynan recalled that:

It was a terrible situation. She had all these facts in her mind from letters. Well, she prayed, “Oh God, what can I do to help?” And the answer came like a voice, “Use your pen. Use your pen.”[She] sat down at her desk and she wrote an article. And it was just one page. She called it “The SOS of China’s Millions.” And it was translated into at least ten different languages. It hit the front pages of the biggest newspapers in the world. Now who but God could do this? He answered her prayer. She really wanted to help. And this is what God did.

The desperate prayer, answered so quietly, so simply, led to the letter which was read around the world.  It was a honest plea from one woman for help in any way that people could give – people who otherwise would not have known about the situation.

Moynan continues:

And all that winter she had stacks of mail come to her bedside, and in each one was a check. And she was able to give checks for five hundred dollars, a thousand dollars. And in the end, I forget the exact amount, but it would come to…close to the value of a million dollars that came through her hands alone. There’s no way of estimating how much money came in response to that appeal from the countries of the world, but it was wonderful how [it] did. It was tremendous the help that came to China at that time.

What is most striking about this story to me is that it was out of her desperation and her state of being overwhelmed that Rosalind Goforth was brought to the place of impossibility which brought her humbly to her knees in prayer.  The money that helped to save millions of lives arrived in China through a practical act.  Mrs. Goforth did what she could.  And others followed suit.

Not every life was spared.  There was unthinkable human suffering still.  But there was also unexpected, transformational relief for millions of people.  Her example challenges me to take my attention off the fact that there’s not much I can do, and through the humble lens of faith perceive what I can do and then do it.

Oh God, what can I do to help?

It’s on the wings of such prayers that redemption comes.  Food for the hungry.  Letters for the page. Relief for real people we’ll never even see.


Rosalind Goforth’s SOS was graciously provided by the fine people at Wheaton.  The quoted passages and anecdotal information come from an interview with Mary Goforth Moynan also available via Wheaton’s archives.

Want a practical way to create good news?  I, personally, was grateful for the opportunity to give a financial gift through Hope for the Nations to relieve some of the current hunger in Somalia via a food convoy organized in partnership with Amanda Lindhout’s Global Enrichment Foundation.  You can donate here.