Some folks told her she was crazy. Why would she want to become a full-time missionary and move overseas, away from her family and friends? Why would she choose Liberia, a country recovering from civil war and an outbreak of a deadly virus? Why would this 50-year-old grandmother leave a secure job at TSYS with an $85,000 salary for meager pay in a dangerous setting?
Julie Alexander's answer is as full of faith as the questions are full of doubt: "I am safer in Africa in God's will than I am in Columbus, Georgia, out of God's will."
She already has been on two 16-day missions to Liberia. Instead of slaking her thirst to serve, those experiences only fueled her desire to dedicate her life to God's work. Now, she plans to move there permanently.
Alexander is trying to raise enough money to have $3,500 per month for expenses, including insurance and $500 per month for her ministry. Under the authority of Temple Baptist Church in Johnsonville -- about 10 miles in distance but 30 minutes driving time on Liberia's roads -- she intends to help Pastor Guanue Gbendah provide evangelical, discipleship and educational opportunities for women. Through training in literacy, health, childcare and business, as well as Bible study, she hopes to reduce the number of orphans by empowering women to raise their children.
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Proceeds from the African baskets she sells Saturdays during Market Days on Broadway also have helped a Liberian orphanage dig a well and put a roof on its kitchen.
Liberia is considered Africa's oldest republic. According to the U.S. Department of State, it was founded in 1821 by the American Colonization Society, a group of whites trying to deal with the growing number of freed blacks by resettling them in Africa. Liberia proclaimed its independence from the U.S. in 1847.
The country, on the continent's northwest coast, is roughly the size of Tennessee and has a population of about 4.6 million. It still is recovering from the devastation of two successive civil wars (1989-96) and (1999-2003), leaving an estimated 250,000 dead and an equal number of orphans, according to UNICEF.
Liberia also was plagued by Ebola this past year. Nearly 11,000 Liberians were infected and 4,800 died, according to the World Health Organization, which declared the outbreak over last month.
Alexander knows Liberia's history and the current situation. None of which dissuades her from heeding her calling - although she admitted with a laugh, "You tell God what you're willing to do, but when He starts telling you what He wants you to do, you get a bit nervous."
Although she declined to be specific, Alexander said, "Circumstances in my childhood and in marriage had left me in what I felt was a hopeless situation. My relationship with God through Christ not only freed me from my sinful past but helped me to find forgiveness for others. I have truly been healed from any bitterness anger and depression."
Alexander grew up in the Lutheran church and the farming community of Mankato, Kan., where her father, retired from the Air Force, was a crop duster.
"I considered myself a Christian, but I was missing Heaven by 18 inches," she said, "because it was all head knowledge and no heart knowledge."
Alexander described herself as a "mean girl" in high school.
"If I could find a reason to put somebody down," she said, "I would."
Married at 19, life became too much to handle. She took care of her 2-year-old son and her husband's chiropractic office while taking college classes.
"It was just a really, really bad situation," she said. "I became so desperate. I was just going to end it all."
While she mulled taking her life, she developed heartburn - and a hunch. A home pregnancy test confirmed her intuition and ceased her suicidal thoughts.
'God orchestrated all this'
Her second pregnancy also gave her the courage to divorce her husband, but she needed someone to care for her children while she obtained a master's degree in accountancy from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.
After struggling to hire a babysitter she trusted, she thought, "Maybe I could find a retired nurse or teacher." So she visited the local AARP office. The staff member took Alexander's phone number.
Patty Claypool was driving 50 miles to bring her children to a Christian high school in Manhattan. Tired of driving back and forth, she went to the AARP office and asked for tips on a job she could work while her kids were in school each day. The staff member gave Claypool the phone number of a woman who came by the previous day looking for a babysitter. That woman was Alexander.
Claypool, a former school bus driver, had impeccable references, so Alexander hired her - and got more than a babysitter. Claypool brought her Bible and brought the gospel alive for Alexander.
"God orchestrated all this," she said.
In September 1992, Alexander was saved while attending a service at Claypool's congregation, Manhattan Baptist Church.
"It was like the load of the world was lifted off of me," she said. " Jesus' death became personal for me."
While she put her personal and spiritual lives on track, Alexander's professional career also soared. She worked as an auditor and manager in Kansas City, Mo., at prestigious firms such as Deloitte & Touche and Arthur Andersen. Those jobs fed her bank account well but left her soul empty.
"I just never had any satisfaction," she said. "I didn't have career goals. I never wanted to be a partner one day or make x-amount of money. None of that stuff ever meant anything to me."
In her prayers, she would tell God, "After I raise my kids, I'm going to give my life to you." And she wrote that vow in her Bible.
Her son went to live with his father, and Alexander wanted to live near her family too. So she and her daughter moved to the Columbus area, where her sister resided with her family and closer to her retired parents in Gulf Shores, Ala. TSYS hired her in January 2005 as a senior auditor and analyst.
'Fell in love with those kids'
While she researched local Christian schools, Alexander discovered she knew Greg Powell, then the associate pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Columbus, from Kansas City. That was a God sign for her.
Alexander became increasingly involved at Grace Baptist. She volunteered in the vacation Bible school and the bus ministry, which transports high school students from disadvantaged homes to church services.
"I just fell in love with those kids," she said. "I think, because of some of the pain that I had in my childhood and had overcome, I can look at some of these kids and really empathize with some of the things they have to go through."
In the fall of 2011, Alexander heard an ophthalmologist and his wife give their testimony at Grace Baptist. They sacrificed a comfortable lifestyle in Atlanta for a mission to Zambia - and she wondered why not her.
"God was really working on my heart," she said. "I thought I could go to Africa too, but I was 47 years old. What are you going to do? You're going to throw away your career? Your daughter's here, your family. So I was giving God a lot of excuses."
During a missions conference at Grace Baptist in February 2012, the Bible text study was from Exodus. Alexander explained, "God told Moses, 'Go get my people,' and Moses was like, 'Oh, I'm not eloquent of speech. They're not going to listen to me.' And God said, 'Who made your mouth?' So I was listening to that preaching and was like, 'Why am I even offering any excuses?'"
Alexander referenced another Bible story, the story of Jonah, when God commanded him to go to Nineveh, and look what happened to him.
"I personally don't want to be in the belly of the whale," she said with a laugh. "I don't want to know what that would look like."
But as an auditor and analyst, she was trained to be cautious. She wanted to have all the answers, explore all the possibilities, before making a move. She wanted a guarantee.
Then she heard a missionary declare, "I can show you these pictures, and we all can get emotional, but it's about obedience to God, and if God has called you to do something, you need to obey."
Alexander recalled, "I just knew at that moment, if I don't go to Africa, I'm going to be living a life of disobedience."
The only question left was where in Africa. One of the last presentations was from a couple going to Uganda. During the slide show, Alexander's eyes focused on the elderly white-haired woman amid the orphans. She felt the Holy Spirit say to her heart, "Who's going to take her place?" And she replied, "Here am I. Send me."
In the spring of 2012, her boss at TSYS mentioned the plans the company had for her career, and she thought, "In good conscience, I can't let them spend thousands of dollars training me and then come in and give them a two-week notice."
So she told him, her goal was to become a full-time missionary. But her father took ill and came to live with her in Phenix City, so her plan to move to Liberia was delayed.
Alexander's father died in August 2012, and even though they knew she was on her way out, she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from TSYS.
"My whole department came to my dad's funeral," she said.
Alexander told her boss she would go on a mission in March 2013 and not return to TSYS so she could prepare for a permanent move to Africa. Her co-workers took up a collection and donated to her mission.
"It was a great send-off," she said.
Alexander was accepted by the Baptist Missions to Forgotten Peoples, based in Jacksonville, Fla. After going through the vetting process, she was invited to join a 16-day mission in March 2013 to Liberia - not to Uganda but still Africa.
Her eight-person group volunteered at an orphanage in Paynesville, a half-hour drive outside Monrovia. She ministered to the children. She played with them. She sang with them. She told them Bible stories. Then her group helped build a children's rescue village in the bush. Her task was to keep the water purified.
"The infrastructure in the country has been destroyed," she said. "There was no electricity. We purchased generators, so we had some fans."
Alexander added with a laugh, "God moved me from Kansas to Georgia to get me ready for Africa, because I hate humidity. You are dirty, you're sweaty, you're taking a bath out of a bucket, but I loved every minute of it."
Because she loved the people. A woman at the orphanage told her group, "You are an answer to a 20-year prayer."
During her second 16-day mission to Liberia in April 2014, Alexander walked by a home where a baby was left crying on a pile of rocks. The mother was dead, she was told, and no family was left to be the caregiver, so neighbors wanted Alexander to take the baby to the orphanage. But she learned that the 15-year-old sitting on the porch was the mother - and Alexander's reaction went from horror to compassion.
"She had no money, no way to care for the child, and she was hoping to get an education while we took care of the child," Alexander said, her voice cracking and holding back tears. "All I could think of was, 'Where would I have been if I didn't have the Lord?'
"As I spent time with those women, I thought, because of being an auditor, I'm a root-cause analysis person, and I realized these children aren't orphans; they are abandoned by women who feel like they have no choice. These are women without hope, and they're desperate, and I know what that feels like because I was there 20 years ago. I was willing to abandon my son out of desperation. So these women aren't criminals; they need my help."
'You have to let go'
Although email and text messages and social media will keep Alexander connected to family and friends, she concedes her departure will be a sacrifice for them as well.
"It is emotionally difficult," she said, "but I tell myself, 'God knows what He's doing.'"
Alexander's decision doesn't surprise her daughter, Danielle, who knew her mother had been preparing to make this journey. Still, the reality isn't easy to accept.
"It's definitely taken an emotional toll, just knowing she isn't going to be there as much when my kids are growing up," said Danielle, who lives next door along with her husband with their four children, ages 3 and younger, including twins. "We've had emotional conversations about it. But I'm very proud of my mom, and I'm so excited for her. She's such an amazing mom to me, and she gets to share that with other children. The mothers over there are just scratching by and sometimes forced to abandon their children. She's going to help them."
Danielle also understands one of the ways to love a person is to not hold them back.
"In a selfish way, I want her to stay," she said. " My mom told me she feels guilty about leaving, but I tell her, God forbid, if anything should happen to her, I comfort myself knowing we will have eternity together."
Alexander's pastor, the Rev. Jeremy Rands of Grace Baptist Church in Columbus, praises her for rising above her difficult childhood and divorce to serve a greater good.
"She has used what some would look at as defeats and turned them into blessings to minister to people," he said.
Rands acknowledged the risks Alexander will be taking, "but all of us make decisions that others would question when the Lord puts it in your heart to do it."
So when she raises enough money to make her move, Alexander figures she doesn't need to have everything else figured out. She'll follow her heart and God's call.
"It has to be open-ended," she said. "It's huge. The things I've learned and continue to learn during this period, I don't have to make plans. This is God's work, and He already knows how He's going to get it done. The plan is there.
"It's just like with Abraham. He told Abraham to go, and Abraham went. You have to let go."
Before she surrendered, she kept asking herself, "How is this going to work?" Then she realized, "You step out of the boat and onto the water, and then all that stuff reveals itself."
HOW TO HELP
Alexander is selling African baskets during the Saturday morning Market Days on Broadway in downtown Columbus to raise money for her Operation Liberia mission project. She also is available to share her testimony and speak about her mission. To schedule her for your group, call her at 706-577-3945.