You know the song “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”? That hymn was based on the writings of Trotter. I do know that Noel Piper has written about Trotter. Richard Foster has written about Trotter in a section of a chapter in one of his books; an older generation who was connected to missions knew about her. But she was really content with full-blown obscurity.
Yeah, that is such a striking theme in her life story. Many people live lives before God that are relatively obscure, but the fact that she had the choice of fame and actively turned away from it, there’s a part of me that wonders, was she someone who we would describe today as a bit “extreme” or “prone to fanciful ideas”?
And who knows what they said about her in her day? In her time it was even more unusual to forsake marriage and having children. She applied to and got turned down by several missions agencies; they didn’t want to represent her because of her health, as she had heart problems. She didn’t want the normal things that women of her day wanted, and she ended up essentially self-funding her 40 years in Algeria. She had inherited money from her family that was a very well-to-do London family. At the end of her life, at age 75, as she was dying, her money was running out, so her money ran out at the same time that she died. That’s extreme.
The Algerian context was one of the harshest of all the mission fields. It was very slow progress. Whereas I think in some of these other big female missionaries, like Mother Teresa or Amy Carmichael, there’s still an organization that exists. For Lilias, the Algerian government stamped out any efforts by missionaries, such that today it’s illegal to be a Christian in that country.
But I’ve talked to former missionaries in Algeria who have done some estimates of underground Christians, and the estimate is that anywhere from 50,000 to 75,000 Christians worship in the underground church, primarily in the mountains. There were other missionaries who came after Lilias, but what I’ve been told is that she and her mission band laid the groundwork for Christians in Algeria today.
There’s a quote at the end of the movie: “Her efforts seemed on the surface to be like water on the sand; they would sink down and evaporate immediately.” Lilias knew what she had been called to do, but she never saw a church built, she never saw her artwork hang in a major museum, she never saw these external outcomes of success, and yet she maintained her joy.
It’s a bit Abrahamic in that sense. Is the fact that Lilias was a woman something that drew you to her story, as a woman of faith and an artist?
Most definitely. I’m drawn to telling stories about women as the protagonists, because they make up such a minority in all films. So I was drawn to it because I want to do my part to tell stories about women.
But also these questions about, what is the measure of true success? That’s a core question we explore in the film and that Lilias’s life speaks to, because she measured her success very differently than we do. Artists, writers—the whole point of what we do is to have people see it, and to, quote, “make an impact.” I would put missionaires in there as well. Anybody who’s trying to create something and make an impact on human thought or hearts, the hope is that you actually see impact. Lilias is this example of long-suffering and patience and commitment to a call regardless of external outcomes.