Isobel’s heart was moved as she listened to J.O. Fraser’s plea for workers to come and share the gospel with the Lisu people of China. She sat attentively as she learned of the Lisu who had not heard of the living God who loved them and Jesus who could save them from the judgment of their sin. In fact, the Lisu didn’t even have a word for forgiveness, mercy, repent, compassion, or justice in their language. On the other hand, there were hundreds of words to describe the most efficient way to skin a person alive. Living in fear of spirits, the Lisu were extremely superstitious, using mediums to contact the spirits and practicing witchcraft to appease them. Brokenhearted for these people she had never met, she told the Lord, “I’m not a man- but I’d go! Oh, I’d go!”
Only a few years prior, Isobel Miller (often called Belle) would never have dreamed of leaving the comforts of home to share Christ with those who had not heard. It was the Roaring Twenties, and Belle was enjoying every minute of it. A sweet and popular honor student at the University of British Colombia, she was making a name for herself both in the theater and through dance. Belle was born on December 17th, 1901 in Toronto Canada. Although both her parents were Christians, her dad even being a lay Presbyterian preacher, Belle was a self-declared agnostic after being patronized publicly by one of her professors for believing the creation story. After an emotional breakup with a young man whom she had once hoped to marry, Belle began to spiral into depression and recognize that the world could not bring her joy. One night, Belle contemplated suicide, but instead cried out to God to give her peace. It was through this that she began to turn back to the Christian faith and came to know Jesus as her Lord and mature in her faith.
Now, in 1924, her encounter with Fraser had left her unable to return to the ordinary. She explained to her parents her desire to reach the Lisu, only to have them regard this desire as fanatical, and even selfish. “Over my dead body!” cried her mother. Her mother, the president of the Women’s Missionary Society for many years, was not opposed to missionaries- just opposed to her daughter being a missionary. Her parents had done all they could to give their daughter the finest education and provide her with the greatest comforts, and yet now she was throwing it all away. Not only did they view this as ungrateful, but Belle was currently the only breadwinner for the family, her brother being unemployed and her dad having lost his life savings in a bad business venture. Unexpectedly Belle lost her mother during an operation, but learned that the night before her death; her mother had told a friend that Belle had “chosen the best way.”
Belle continued in obedience to what she knew God had called her. She packed her bags and headed to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. While she was there, a young man named John Kuhn caught her attention. They were opposites to be certain. Belle was passionate and impulsive, and John was prudent and full of common sense. Yet they both had the same vision and heart for China. In 1926, John left for China with China Inland Mission (CIM), but they continued to write each other for 2 years while Belle stayed in Canada as God prepared her for the foreign field. In 1928, after CIM’s requested 2 years of new missionaries staying single, Belle headed to China to be married to John.
After arriving in China, John and Belle first settled down in Chengchiang for the first couple years of their marriage, although “settling” may not be the appropriate word. Belle probably would have described them as quite uncomfortable. The Lord taught Belle just what dying to herself looked like. Unaccustomed to the diet, the customs, the lack of personal space, and all the while adjusting to the life of a newlywed, Belle was faced with the cost of leaving the comforts of home. She was elated that she was able to share the gospel with the first visitors into her home, but sat horrified when one of the Chinese women blew her nose onto Belle’s nice quilt, while another allowed her child to spit up all over her nice rug. After choking down her frustration, she immediately realized that her valued belongs needed to go, or else she was tempted to value her possessions over the people themselves. Although constantly struggling to die to self, as Belle and John would travel in the villages and preach, she would watch the Chinese hearing the gospel for the first time and remember it was all worth it.
The Kuhn’s then moved to Tali, Yunnan from 1930-1932 and then to Yongping, Yunnan from 1932-1934 under the mentorship of J.O. Fraser. They continued to do itinerary work sharing the gospel as well as training new missionaries to go into unevangelized areas. In 1934, the Kuhn’s finally arrived in Lisuland; 10 years after Belle first had her heart set to go to the Lisu. They learned that during the rainy season, the Lisu villages practically came to a stand still. Belle took advantage of this time and set up the Rainy Season Bible School, teaching the gospel and the very basics of Christianity to the Lisu. As people began coming to know Christ, she trained them and sent them out to surrounding Lisu villages that had not yet heard the gospel. Thanks to the Rainy Season Bible School, the Lisu Christians were also missions minded crossing into other tribes with which they had once warred in order to share the gospel
Although there were certainly difficult times, Isobel saw incredible fruit amongst the Lisu people. In 1950, during the communist takeover of China, Belle and her family were forced to flee over the snowy mountainous pass into Burma. At the time of their escape, 16 years after the Kuhn’s began working among the Lisu, 3,400 of the 18,000 Lisu were believers and 7 other tribes had been evangelized directly by Lisu missionaries. Today, there are 200,000 Lisu Christians- part of the legacy left by Isobel and other missionaries laboring among the Lisu.
After leaving China at the age of 50, Isobel had a decision to make, whether or not to continue to work among the Lisu that were living in Northern Thailand. As she wrestled with the decision, she cried out “Lord, I’m tired! I’m 50. In the past 20 years I’ve seen wars, I’ve been separate for months and even years from my husband and children, I’ve been sick to the point of death. Going to Thailand would mean learning a new language and a new place and a new culture. I want to sit in a rocking chair on a porch somewhere and rest!”
She felt the Lord gently respond, “Belle, do you really choose ease?” That was enough to get Isobel back to the Lisu, where she labored the rest of her life.
Isobel’s life is a reminder that God has proven Himself sufficient for those who have gone before us in reaching the nations with the Gospel of Christ. Isobel was used by the Lord not because she was or flawless or better trained or less apt to selfishness, but because she considered Him worthy of her life and responded in precious obedience.
Isobel Kuhn: Canadian Girl who felt God’s call to Lisu people of China by Lois Hoadley Dick
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Green Leaf in Drought
Nests Above the Abyss
Ascent to the Tribes: Pioneering in North Thailand