He was 27 when he first joined the Operation Mobilisation (OM) ship Doulos to set sail to the Philippines.
Known as the largest floating library in the world at that time, the ship ended up being the vessel through which Ashley* would come to make a life-changing decision.
Then a young, budding interior designer, Ashley signed up for a short-term programme with OM.
“I took a three-week leave to board Doulos, which was the maximum amount of time off I could take,” he said. “Since I was a very short-term volunteer, I was assigned to be a greeter at the ship’s gangway.”
Sharing that his job was to welcome the visitors who came onto the ship, Ashley added that he would sometimes be positioned at the exit as well, to thank the guests for coming.
“After two weeks, I thought to myself that this was not something I felt called to do, so I made up my mind on my last remaining week that I would continue my work in architecture once the trip was over,” he admitted.
During that final week, however, God surprised Ashley.
On one of the islands where the ship had docked, Ashley had been accompanying a pastor for house visits to a village.
“In one particular house, a young girl of maybe about 10 years old shouted my name while she was walking out. I was shocked!” he recalled with bemusement.
“The other volunteers looked at me, but I was just as confused. I did not know her, but she knew me!”
GOD CAN USE ANYONE
It turned out that the girl had actually been a visitor on the ship – she remembered Ashley by his name tag as he had greeted her at the exit and given her a Christian tract.
“She told us that she prayed the sinner’s prayer found in the tract and gave her life to Jesus the same night,” he shared.
What happened next was equally surprising.
The girl’s mother and three aunts came out of the house to chat with them. And during the short conversation, all of them decided to accept Jesus’ gift of salvation.
“That day, I prayed and repented because I had a mindset of how I wanted to serve, but God was telling me otherwise,” recounted Ashley.
“I felt Him say, ‘If you’re willing, I can use you. Even if you’re just at the gangway or at the exit, by just saying welcome and thank you, I can still use you.'”
That divine encounter was what convinced Ashley that this was what he wanted to do full-time – to go out into the nations to share his faith.
WAITING FOR HIS TIMING
Shortly after returning to Singapore, Ashley completed all his projects at work and tendered his resignation. That same year, he went on Doulos again.
The two-year stint ended up sparking Ashley’s curiosity and passion for a specific country in South Asia. However, it would be eight years later before he would be sent out.
“While I wanted to serve in the field right away, my leaders encouraged me to equip myself first,” said Ashley, explaining his decision to enrol in a Bible college.
After he graduated from seminary, Ashley was approached to take on the role as a pastor because his church was undergoing a period of leadership transition.
Finally, in 2006, a door opened.
But even though Ashley’s long-awaited desire had finally come to pass, this first long-term mission trip was fraught with difficulties.
While living in a place where the public practice of Christianity was prohibited, he was overcome with a sense of isolation and anxiety.
“There were no churches, so my Sunday worship was made up of just me, my wife and 13-month-old son. We had zero Christian community,” said Ashley, adding that his closest Christian support could be as far as a 12-hour boat ride away.
“Back then, it was tough because we were so used to having fellowship and support in Singapore; then all of a sudden there wasn’t any.”
STRUGGLING WITH ISOLATION, ANXIETY
Then towards the end of the year, challenge after challenge came.
In October, Ashley received the news that his father had passed away. It was hard enough to make the decision to fly back alone to attend his father’s funeral without his wife and son.
After going back to the field, Ashley discovered that he had dengue fever! His fever even persisted for 11 days.
Around the same time, Ashley’s wife also found out that she was pregnant with twins.
“My wife and I both decided that it was not possible to continue this mission trip. It was too stressful, with a toddler and two newborn babies on the way. I was also diagnosed with anxiety.”
With all these factors in play, Ashley’s family decided to pack their bags and return prematurely in December – less than a year since they left.
“Our twins were delivered full-term – not even one week premature. It was amazing…”
Confessing that he had kept this part of his life under wraps for a long time, Ashley shared that despite all that they had gone through, he still felt a desire to return to the same country.
“It was truly a calling,” he said. By then, the family had formed friendships with a few locals who were open to knowing more about Jesus. Having left abruptly, Ashley felt a sense of responsibility towards his unfinished task.
“In fact, whenever we discussed whether we wanted to go back, we often cried,” he revealed.
The very next year, after much prayer and deliberation, Ashley and his wife found new confidence to return. They also received a series of confirmations that assured them that God would faithfully provide for their family.
One example was in the finances needed for the birth of their twins. As the chances of premature delivery for twins were high, the couple was initially worried about how they would be able to afford the expenses.
“Our twins were delivered full-term – not even one week premature. It was amazing. The provision of God is more than enough. God will truly not call us to a place we cannot handle,” he shared.
A RENEWED CALL
After going back to the same South Asian country, Ashley gradually recovered from his anxiety as well – until one day he realised he no longer struggled with it. His love for the country and its people also deepened.
Two years after he returned, Ashley received a call from a local friend asking for help.
Living as an alcoholic for 28 years, Ali (not his real name) was a divorcee whose children refused to acknowledge him as their father.
Coming to know one another through Ali’s work as voice actor for a Christian film, Ashley had been meeting up with Ali regularly.
“He knew that I helped bring addicts to a Christian rehabilitation centre, and he wanted to be brought there,” said Ashley.
At the rehabilitation centre, Ali’s heart was moved when a pastor prayed for him. After completing his rehabilitation, Ashley and Ali began studying the Bible together.
A few months later, when both of them took a trip back to Ali’s hometown, Ali asked to be baptised at the beach!
In the year that followed, Ali’s life was gradually transformed. While it was Ashley who helped Ali to set up a tea shop, Ali earned the trust of his community through the honest way he ran the business.
He started to take up other odd jobs like fishing to help people in his village. His tea shop also expanded from four to eight tables.
“His wife heard about it and couldn’t believe it until she went back to see him. They remarried, and one of Ali’s sons even told us that he wanted to be like his father,” said Ashley, fondly recalling these events with tears in his eyes.
The pair remained close for many years, but Ali eventually passed away due to health complications from his years of drinking.
GOING WHERE GOD LEADS
“In 2009, our ministry had to come to an end due to the political climate in that country. Despite that, we continued to seek God on where to go and decided on a neighbouring South Asian country,” said Ashley.
“It was quite a natural decision because that country had the biggest diaspora population of the people group we were serving previously.”
Moving there in 2011, Ashley started a successful cafe that became well-known on Tripadvisor for its warm and friendly atmosphere.
For the next five years, he and his family ran the business until they left in 2016 to be closer to home because of Ashley’s ageing mother and their children, who were about to start secondary school.
“I created a cafe because I wanted to create a cosy space where we could reach out and interact with the locals,” explained Ashley.
Indeed, through the friendships formed, many of the customers came to learn about his faith and accept Jesus into their lives.
“The cafe was also a place where we could provide jobs for many in need,” he added.
They would employ recovering addicts, people with special needs and homeless youths. Many of the staff also went on to be hired by cafes abroad.
“I used to think that I wasn’t going to use my interior design education after I left the industry, but my design skills came in handy when we started the cafe. We saved on costs as we didn’t need to hire a contractor,” said Ashley.
His background also gave him the know-how to look into the financial feasibility of the project.
Ashley elaborated: “It wasn’t just about using interior design. God used a lot of things I learnt, such as creative thinking and project management. I also managed to make use of my pastoral experience to care for the welfare of my staff.
“As I look at how God shaped and prepared me, I saw how our past will never be wasted. He can always use every single thing in our lives.”
A LIFETIME OF LEARNING TO SURRENDER
Now 51, Ashley oversees OM team leaders who serve across 16 countries in East Asia, South-east Asia and South Asia.
“It’s a big change because we were on the ground for about 10 years. But my new role as area leader is very different because it involves a lot of meetings, planning and strategy discussions,” he shared.
While some may think that Ashley managed to achieve all these accomplishments because of his skills and talents, Ashley pointed out that this wasn’t true.
“When you surrender to God, He can use your talents and your past – whether positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant. This was all by the grace of God,” he recounted.
“The way God calls and prepares us is unique. We just need to be open to obey God’s leading when an opportunity comes.”
In fact, Ashley first felt a prompting to go out to the nations less than a year after he came to the faith.
Recalling the conference where he heard for the first time that some people groups had never heard of Christianity before, Ashley said: “I felt very emotional when I heard this from the speaker… I made up my mind and told God, ‘where You call me, I will go.'”
Surprised by his reaction, his church community recommended that Ashley wait a bit longer to see if this burden would last. Two years later, when that passion was still there, he jumped at the opportunity to go onboard Doulos.
“The way God calls and prepares us is unique. We just need to be open to obey God’s leading when an opportunity comes,” encouraged Ashley.
“It is really about a lifetime of learning how to surrender and have faith to keep trusting in God.”
Affirming that God would provide the means to sustain those who have been similarly called to share their faith overseas, Ashley said: “He will also continue to keep you through your own challenges and ups and downs.
“It’s about willingness, more than it is about where and how we can serve. If we’re willing, God will open the door.”
*The interviewee’s full name has been withheld for specific purposes.
Are you willing to let God use you to reach those who have never heard about Jesus? If you’d like to serve the Lord with your professional and business skills, drop OM an email at [email protected]
To commemorate their 40th year, OM Singapore has also published a book, Unchanging: On Mission With a Faithful God, capturing 40 stories of Singaporeans who love God and His mission in many parts of the world. You can purchase the book here: www.sg.om.org/book
- What does serving God mean to you?
- Are there some aspects of your life, such as your career, that you struggle to surrender fully to God?
- How can you allow God to lead you towards His purpose for you instead?
- Is there a nation or people group God is prompting you to reach out to?