I met Ashley Elkins six years ago at the wedding of a dear friend of mine. We immediately clicked, dancing and laughing the night away, intermittently stopping to learn more about each other. When I found out she was a flight nurse, I was both impressed and intimidated by this heroic person. As it turned out, God had even bigger plans for her in the years to come.
Ashley is now a nurse and Medical Coordinator for Arise Africa in Uganda. Here’s the story of how she left her amazing life as a flight nurse in North Carolina to start another amazing life among the poor and suffering in Uganda. Because she is someone who witnesses suffering and death each day, I really wanted to learn about how these things affected her faith in God. I wanted to know what this missionary would say if I asked her why the God we love allows such intense suffering every single day. I was surprised by her answer.
Enjoy. Hope it inspires you as much as it did me.
- Tell me a little about yourself: what’s your background, where did you grow up, when did you become a Christian, what was your career path, etc.
I spent my childhood years moving between the Southeastern and Columbus Ohio areas. My parents are from Zanesville, Ohio and we spent my middle school and high school years living there.
I was taught about Jesus as early as I can remember. When I was four years old, I was baptized.
I continued to grow in my faith, and when I was a sophomore in high school I hit a phase where I needed a lot of questions answered in depth. My youth pastor’s wife (who is today one of my dearest friends) was an amazing mentor to me and helped me walk through this time, and it was a time where my faith really became mine. Not my parent’s. Not my pastor’s. But mine. I have had many ups and downs since then, but I can say that my faith really became solid and affirmed that year.
I knew at the early age of four that I wanted to be a flight nurse. I really just love taking care of people. And, I quickly found out, that the more sick or hurt you were, the more I enjoyed taking care of you…twisted, I know. Actually, it was a challenge. A rush. I perform well under pressure. It’s rewarding to see people on the brink of death, and work hard to keep them here on this earth, if God allows. To be able to artificially support almost every organ and body system and then watch someone get better to the point of being able to walk out of a hospital was the best feeling in the world! While I was working there I met some fantastic people in Raleigh who were part of a Critical Care ground transport service who were beginning a helicopter transport team within the next year, and were hiring. I finally had my dream job. I applied for a position on the inaugural flight crew, and in November of 2007, flew my first mission. I absolutely loved everything about helicopter transport nursing, and I did this for seven years- up until the time I moved to Uganda.
- What do you do now? Tell me a little about what led you there.
In 2009, I began attending a church in Raleigh, North Carolina called Journey. I hadn’t been attending there very long, when one Sunday, the director of Arise Africa International, Pastor Godfrey Wanamitsa was visiting our church from Uganda. He was talking to our about his organization, which was planting churches, planning to start a Babies Home, Primary and Secondary School, and was doing agricultural projects and health outreaches. Furthermore, our church was planning to go for a two-week trip to Uganda that October and anyone wanting to go was supposed to sign up that day because the deadline was coming. I couldn’t believe it, but I felt the Holy Spirit nudging me to do this. Africa? Really? Next thing I knew I was at the back of the church writing a check for the deposit, and a few short months later (after only a few near freakouts and almost calling to cancel) I was on the plane to Uganda.
I loved everything about that first trip. The people. The country. The culture. The children. Arise Africa. The way God showed Himself to me. I signed up the next year to go again. By this time, my heart was pretty invested. I was sure this was more than a “good deed” or whatever. I felt myself extremely attached and drawn to what God was doing in Uganda, and it actually scared me. But not enough to keep me away. By this time, the Babies Home was open and was full of precious kids. I was smitten. I couldn’t wait a full year to come back. Four months later, a few of us planned a small trip to come and work with the kids. I was specifically working with medical, and the other girls were planning fun activities and crafts. When it was time to leave, I cried my eyes out. I began to wonder what it would be like to do this full time.
Another chance to go back in 2011 (trip number four in two years if you are counting!) came in July, and the resources just came flooding in out of nowhere. Some really amazing things happened on this trip, but this was the first time I began to verbalize with others that maybe God was leading me to full time ministry in Uganda. I met another girl named Dacia who had just begun serving full time with Arise Africa that summer and I shared my heart with her. (We are now really close friends and serve together full time!) I had so many fears but I really began to honestly start exploring my calling. It was fear that I would wrestle with for another whole year before finally surrendering completely. Two more two-week trips to Uganda would seal the deal. The seventh trip was on September 1, 2013, and that was the date that my address changed to Jinja, Uganda.
I am currently serving as a nurse and Medical Coordinator for Arise Africa. My duties are very broad and ever expanding! I oversee the health and wellness of our 57 children ages 0-13 that live in our Babies Home, and assist with daily administrations. We also have a Secondary School, which houses over 200 children, ages 13-24. Arise Africa has over 200 churches throughout Uganda and hosts international teams several times per year. I am responsible for leading the medical portion of these teams. I am also involved in community preparation and follow-up. Of course I am also available to serve the health needs of our many staff, pastors and their families as well.
- What was it that encouraged you to make the jump from your career to Africa? Why did you do it?
Making the jump from Flight Nurse to Missionary Nurse was difficult. I struggled mostly because I listened to so many other voices than the one that mattered…His. If I were to do it all over again, I would tune them all out, and only listen to His. I have amazing people in my life who love me. In my family, I am the only girl and the oldest. Naturally, my family is concerned for my safety, health, well-being, and financial security. But truly, I have now put in a full year and have seen Him take care of me in all of these situations. My faith has been stretched to new levels. He has never failed me, and I know he won’t start now. Because of this, I know Him and love Him so much more than before.
Why did I do it? I remember at one point I was really wrestling with God over this decision. I realized that I could either say “yes” to what He was calling me to do, and walk forward with the boldness, grace, and blessing that His calling afforded me, or I could say “no” and try to live my own life, unsatisfied, disheartened, and quite frankly, disobedient. I knew that if He had placed this calling on my life from the foundation of the earth, that He would empower me to do go forward in it. I wasn’t willing to miss out on the amazing adventure of walking this road with Him because I was afraid, and thankfully, He gave me the faith to overcome my fear…and…I’m still here!
- What did you give up to do this?
If you would have asked me this question a year ago, I would have had a totally different answer. I would have told you I was sacrificing my comfortable apartment, my great job, my lovely city with fun stuff to do on weekends and great places to shop (I loved living in Raleigh by the way!) my church family, my sweet dog and then of course my amazing friends and family.
But recently I was telling my friend, that most of that stuff doesn’t feel like a sacrifice to me anymore. I don’t care about shopping or going to the movies. I don’t mind that I can’t hit the drive thru. (Even though I do have random cravings for Chick Fil A and Starbucks now and again) What will bring me to tears on a regular basis is how much I miss people. My friends. My family. I can’t just call my favorite people up to go out for coffee or to come over for supper. And so many of them have faced some very difficult situations since I have been here in which I would normally be there walking with them every step of the way. So what feels like the biggest sacrifice is the relationships I left behind at home.
You realize that nothing else matters more than your relationship with God and your relationships with others. He has been very gracious to surround me with an awesome support system here too and for that, I am beyond than grateful. And, now when I am in the States, I make the most of each moment I have with family and friends.
- What are the joys? What makes it worth it?
My greatest joys usually come in the surprisingly simple. Sometimes it’s in a little one who isn’t normally social who shouts, “Auntie Ashley!” and runs to be held when I arrive at our home. Or when our boys are beaming with pride to show us the brilliantly engineered mini-village they’ve built out of trash and recycled materials out back. Other times it comes in tears that I can’t hold back as I kneel in the hallway with our kids for evening prayers and listen to all 57 of them pour their hearts to Jesus aloud, thanking Him, praising Him, and asking Him for His protection, blessing and wisdom. It can show up around a dinner table with rice and beans. Three Americans and four Ugandans. Talking and laughing about cultural differences and enjoying the family that God brought together under one roof. I have found it along the banks of the Nile on a Sunday afternoon, laughing until it hurts with a good friend just recounting stories of God’s faithfulness. Surprisingly simple, yet always full to overflowing.
6. What’s heartbreaking about it? What’s the worst part?
There are so many heartbreaking things about being a medical professional in a third world country. Knowing the possibilities that exist in the first world is the most difficult. So many times I have come across a sick child and thought… “If only we were in the U.S.…” all the while knowing that because we aren’t, it will end in death for this child unless there is Divine intervention. Or for the lack of $4, I have seen a post partum woman be thrown out on the street to bleed to death. Abandoned babies. Severely malnourished children. Eleven-year old girls sold into marriage. Children with chronic diseases screaming in unrelenting pain. These things are incredibly overwhelming. It is very tempting to want to throw in the towel because we can’t possibly be even making dent in the sea of need that exists here.
But then I think about that starfish story. Where thousands of live starfish washed up on the shore a man went out and one by one began throwing them back in to the sea before they died. Everyone was laughing at him saying it was crazy…it wouldn’t make a difference. He was just wasting time. And as he picked up another starfish and threw it in, he said: “It made a difference to that one.” Then I remember that I am just responsible for “that one” who is in front of me at any given time. To do for “that one” what I wish I could do for all of them.
- Does the suffering you witness cause you to question God’s goodness? How does it impact your faith? What would you tell someone who might ask you why God allows it?
If I can, I want to give you a very real answer to this question…maybe not the expected “missionary” answer! So many times, people expect us to say that we just see so much of God in our daily lives that we never question His goodness or never question Him at all. If I can be perfectly honest, I will tell you that I have never had more questions for God until I moved to Africa.
There’s just no catchall, churchy cliché that works here for the injustice that is evident in everyday life. I can get on a plane, leave Uganda, and in 24 hours, literally step off into another world. I can drive on perfectly paved roads, walk on nicely cemented sidewalks, and shop in ridiculously abundant stores. I will never be literally starving or naked. I won’t be thrown out of a hospital if I am bleeding to death because I can’t afford to pay, and if I am in a hospital they will feed me food and give me medicine whether my family comes to care for me or not. All children have a right to a free education. I have the ability to call for an ambulance, fire truck or a policeman at any given time. I don’t have to fear that every mosquito bite will give me malaria, or every drink of water may give me typhoid. Running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity are rights and standards of living.
But for the majority of people that live around me here in Uganda, this is their reality. There is so much suffering. And the real victims are the most innocent ones. Babies. Children. Orphans. Defenseless ones.
Recently, as I held one of our little girls who was having a pain attack from her Sickle Cell Anemia (a condition that flares up and causes pain that has been compared to the intensity of labor pain in different areas of the body) ,she was just flailing in the bed, inconsolable. No medication would work. No massaging could soothe her. She was screaming in agony. And she began to call for her mama. A mama who long ago walked away from her because of her illness. Yet the little girl cried out in desperation like any child would for her mother. A mother who will never come. Injustice. In moments like these, I can’t always hold it together. In this particular moment, I broke and screamed at God through hot, angry tears that had been held back through pretend strength for way too long.
“This isn’t fair!”
But He didn’t strike me down or banish me from His presence. Instead, like a good Daddy does, it was as if He gathered all of me into His lap. I felt Him say so gently, “You are right, it isn’t fair. I never wanted it this way.”
This is a good and perfect God. He is just and fair, no matter how it feels in these moments. There are way too many other things shouting His goodness, from creation’s glory to redemption’s story, that for me to question His goodness makes me the unfair one, not Him. So ultimately, I find that questioning God helps grow my faith because it draws me into Him when I have nowhere else to go. I can’t rely on my all my training and technology because here, there is very little of that. So I go to Him all the time now. I am realizing that He was always the life Giver in the land of monitors, heart transplants and trauma centers too. We just fool ourselves into thinking we get to play His role because of all our knowledge and fancy equipment.
If living here has taught me anything, it is that prayers do change things, and that if He says you will live to see one more day, you will. And if He has marked this day as your last, you will not take another breath despite all the best efforts of the most brilliant people trying to save you. When I question Him, rarely do I receive answers that satisfy me. Most often I am humbled. But I always feel that he wraps me up so tenderly in those moments, knowing how broken I am by what I am seeing and experiencing. Somehow, He is letting me in on a little glimpse of His own heartbeat-one that is always full of tender compassion and mercy for all who suffer.
As for why God allows such horrible suffering that seems to be so incredibly pronounced here? I don’t know. I mean, I have a most likely theologically correct answer that satisfies my intellectual question about suffering in general, but I have not been able to answer the question of why the West gets abundance, and Africa and Southeast Asia and many other impoverished nations live on scraps.
But there is one thing I do know. I have seen Jesus so much more clearly without the distraction of the “blessings” possessed by Western culture. I have experienced thick movements of the Holy Spirit in an all-night prayer meeting that was entirely in a language I could barely understand in a mosquito-filled, concrete-floored schoolroom more than I ever have in an air-conditioned American church. I have experienced more joy in a worship service just because of a lady who can’t help but shout to the Lord at least twice every Sunday: “Because I spent 25 years as a crazy woman wandering the streets out of my mind until Jesus found me, brought me back to my right mind, and lets me come to this church every Sunday. Who am I?!” Amazing things become rather ordinary stories here. I have seen demons leave in Jesus’ name, and miracles of healing happen before my eyes. In this desperate, dark and hopeless place, He gives more grace.
- What are your needs right now? How can we help?
As you can imagine, the needs are many! For me personally, I am funded completely by private donations. I am currently running on 60% of my needed budget so I am looking for more people to join my financial support team to enable me to continue serving full time here in Uganda. My website and blog with further info is www.ashleyinuganda.com. I am also looking for committed people to join with me to pray. Pray for the ministry God has me in. Pray for the ministry of Arise Africa and all of the missionaries and staff that God has brought together here.
Also, we have a child sponsorship program, and we have many children without sponsors. Our Babies Home currently houses 57 children, and in order to provide food, education, medical care, and staff to provide care for them, the cost is $35 monthly per child. Arise Africa International is currently in progress with the help of Journey Church of getting a 501c3. In the meantime, Journey Church is handling donations for us, and all of your donations whether for me personally or for Arise Africa will still be tax deductible. You can read more about the ministry of Arise Africa International by visiting our website www.ariseafricainternational.org. Also, follow us on Facebook and Instagram @arise_africa!
We have a very big Mission Outreach to Western Uganda coming up next month. All missionaries and lead staff will be camping out for 8 days in Western Uganda holding crusades, door to door evangelism, medical and childcare training, women’s ministry, discipleship training and more. We are praying for a big movement of God to end out the year well! Add us to your prayer lists please!
- Why do you think more people don’t do what you’re doing? What should people know about this life you’ve chosen to live?
I guess the reason that more people don’t do what God has called them to do is out of fear…fear of what they are leaving behind and fear of what would lie ahead. I think that God has called more people to actively engage in reaching the world for Jesus, and they have refused.
That being said, I don’t necessarily mean He has called them to Africa. All of us that claim to be Christ followers are called to be radically obedient, radically sacrificial, and radically different than those around us. We are all called to be “on mission” wherever we are and we are called to participate in bringing the gospel to the nations. It’s easy to look at people like me as a missionary to Uganda and think somehow the calling I have on my life is somehow special because I was called to a different continent. But if He redeemed you then He called you too.
We aren’t saved by good works, but the Bible makes it very clear that the evidence of our salvation is that the overflow of what Jesus is doing in our lives is that we want to share it with others. It may be that He has called you across the street to that struggling single mom. Or to that “sketchy” neighborhood that everyone you know never lets their kids play in. Maybe He is calling you to minister to the elderly whose families have forgotten them or to women selling themselves on the street. Maybe He is calling you to start a campus Bible study or mentor vulnerable youth. Whatever it is, He has called you to do something. It all matters and it is all important.
I think it is vital for every believer to see themselves as a “missionary,” whether they are working a full time job at the office representing Christ well in the U.S. and volunteering at a homeless shelter on the weekends, or serving overseas in a full time ministry capacity…we all need to begin taking this task Christ left us with seriously because we still have a lot of work to do. If you are called to do ministry domestically, then pray and give financially as God prompts you to the advance the gospel in places that have never heard and to bring relief to brothers and sisters all over the world who are working hard and suffering in harsh conditions. This is how the church can actually accomplish the mission that is set before us. To love and serve those around us and also to be sure that we aren’t forgetting the global purpose and command that Jesus left with that will usher in His coming!
- What fulfills you in this season?
It took me awhile to be able to answer this question because this has been a difficult season. I have realized more than ever that while God allows me to see Him in so many different areas of my work, and to enjoy many aspects of my day to day routine, there has been only one thing that can satisfy me and fulfill me in these difficult days, and that is Him alone.
In October, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease, and I have been struggling with unpredictable and relapsing symptoms that have required me to alter my schedule quite drastically for the past several weeks. I have felt so unproductive, and for me and my very type-A personality, that equals unfulfilled. God has really drawn me into Himself and is teaching me that all of my fulfillment needs to come solely from Him. If I am relying on my ministry, checking off to-do lists, other people or any other thing to fill up places inside of me, I will always come up empty. But if I learn to find complete and total fulfillment and enjoyment in Him alone, then I can pour out from the overflow of that place into the ministry that He has called me into. It will only be then that I will truly be His hands and feet. Only then, will I truly be effective, and only then will He be getting all the glory.
- In our culture, where people are obsessed with selfies, money, materials, and whatever they can gain for themselves (even in the church), how can we get more people to understand that the suffering of others is real and that they can be a part of alleviating it?
My prayer is that there would be a radical shift in the culture of the church. Somewhere along the way we have allowed, ourselves to buy into the idea that the church is a building or an organization that is meant for us, one that is supposed to host programs for our kids and Bible studies and dinners on Wednesday nights. We are supposed to have small groups and hang out together and be social. Sometimes we will do nice things for our communities, but really, we will focus on us. Just invest in our families.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with programs or youth group or small groups or families. I am certainly not suggesting that we don’t study our Bibles. But there is one thing that we seem to forget. That building that we show up to on Sundays and Wednesdays or any other days is not the church. It’s a building where the Church meets. Jesus said that WE are the Church. You and me…we are the Church. And while we certainly need to be sure that we are fellowshipping together and studying the word of God and encouraging one another regularly, if that is the only thing we are doing, we are missing out on our purpose.
We have become far too self-centered as a church, only seeking an experience for an hour a week. We want bigger sanctuaries, better sound systems, nicer audio visual equipment, and heated baptismals but somehow we manage to justify this with our current world hunger statistics. Many Christians begin shifting in their seats when preachers start talking about giving more money to help this or that cause. Don’t I already give enough? Those pictures that flash up on the screen at church of starving kids in Africa with big bellies and flies all over them don’t have any effect on most people any more because they’ve seen those images hundreds of times and those images don’t have names, faces, and stories. Even if they do, and people put their phones down long enough to listen to them, they’ve never held them. They’ve never stayed up all night with them fighting malaria, wondering if the fever would break and if they would survive. They’ve never had to say, “I am so sorry there is nothing else I can give you,” to a mother who is so desperate for help for her sick baby. They’ve never had to go and pick up an abandoned baby at a police station with nowhere to go and no one to care for him.
But it’s not just world suffering the church is disconnected from…they aren’t even doing anything about the suffering in their own communities. So many opportunities are missed on a daily basis to show the love of Christ to those suffering around us. The people of Jesus Christ should be the ones on the front lines ready to serve, help alleviate suffering, and bring hope. But we are way too busy looking like the rest of the world to notice the least of these. We need to pray that the Holy Spirit revives us and changes our hearts. That he would give us a boldness to counter culture and begin to reject this idea that serving yourself is the road to ultimate joy.
My prayer is that this would be the generation of Christ followers that would desperately pray and then actually act on behalf of those who are suffering silently all over the world so that they will know that Jesus loves them, and died to set them free. It is far past time that we step out of our nice buildings and actually “be” the church that Jesus intended us to be.
Reminder: If you want to help, please visit these websites!!
- Further info and updates on Ashley: http://www.ashleyinuganda.com
- Further info on Arise Africa: http://ariseafricainternational.org/
Consider donating as a Christmas gift, or maybe even consider sponsoring a precious child, providing for their needs for only $35 a month. But above all, keep Ashley and those she ministers to and treats on a daily basis in your prayers.