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James Torrell '11 spent two months volunteering on the Africa Mercy.For James Torrell, who graduated from Asbury University in May, the path to the West African country of Sierra Leone began in Garden Valley, Texas.

Torrell spent a year in Garden Valley completing an internship after high school, and nearly every day he would wander across the street to a coffee shop on the campus of Mercy Ships, an international non-profit that operates hospital ships around the world. By the time his internship was over, the vision for participating in a medical mission trip with Mercy Ships was firmly anchored in his mind.

Last summer, the vision became a reality through a program called the Asbury University Initiative for Servant Leadership.

Established in 2004, the Asbury Initiative has awarded grants of up to $10,000 to more than 100 students to perform volunteer service in the areas of international community, social and economic development, public wellness and treatment, literacy and education, and other public services in developing countries. The grants are awarded through a competitive application process to juniors, seniors and graduating seniors. For more information about the Asbury Initiative, visit

Torrell spent two months aboard the Africa Mercy, Mercy Ships’ floating hospital off the coast of Sierra Leone. Below, he recounts a few of the experiences of grace and transformation that he encountered at sea.

Q: Describe your work on the Africa Mercy.

A: In order to be able to work in a medical position on the ship, you have to have had two years of experience in your specific profession before coming to the ship. I went to EMT school after graduation in May, but I wasn’t able to get a job before I left for the ship, much less two years of experience. I was fully planning on scrubbing the floors, cleaning the bathrooms, cooking food, or whatever else they needed me to do as a “steward.”

James and Osman, a patient on the ship, became fast friends.Now, while I was very much involved with the steward side of things — I worked in the kitchen two-to-five days per week, depending on the week — God had much more in store for me. When I flew into Sierra Leone, I met a woman on the flight who was wearing a Mercy Ships shirt like mine, so we began talking. She had never been to the ship before, but she was a Canadian doctor who had been practicing for more than 30 years, and she was going to be the main post-operation physician for the rest of the field service in Sierra Leone. We became fast friends. Any off day I had was with Dr. Fleming in either the hospital or admissions screening tent, helping to take vitals, do malaria tests, tuberculosis screening and general exams to make sure that patients were healthy enough to go through with their surgeries.

I didn’t do anything that was out of my scope of practice as an EMT, but just getting to see how Dr. Fleming worked and learning from her was such an incredible experience. I also was able to spend a lot of time at the post-operation center, called the Hope Center, hanging out with the patients who still needed physical and occupational therapy, dressing changes and regular check ups. That was also a big part of my time there, and going to the Hope Center was probably my favorite thing to do.

Q. How did your experiences with Mercy Ships complement the education or spiritual development you gained at Asbury?

A. At Asbury, I was a psychology major, and pretty much all of my open electives were spent in the science building with classes like biology, chemistry, microbiology, immunology, organic chemistry, anatomy and physiology. I was able to gain medical knowledge and retain it much faster because of my science background.

Also, living in community at Asbury really taught me a lot about being able to just sit down, meet someone exactly where they were at, and just hear their story. A lot of times I didn’t even know how to respond to some of these peoples’ stories. Sierra Leone has been through 12 years of civil war. The war did not affect just one group of people — everyone has lost family, many have lost their homes and tribes, many have been raped or had their arms or legs cut off, and so many more were forced to be child soldiers. After the war ended, everyone just had to move back in together. No one ever talked about it, no one ever apologized, no one addressed the fact that the man or boy living across from them killed their father, or raped them, or cut their arms off, or burned their hut down.

I had a drive to love people with a love so far beyond me that I had never experienced before. These people didn’t need my advice, and they didn’t really even need my food or money or clothes. They needed to know love, and love like they had never, ever experienced before.

Q. Do you approach ministry differently because of the trip?

A. In that culture, it is all about relationships. There is no substitute for it, and nothing higher in their eyes, than calling someone their friend or brother. Building relationships with the locals in Freetown and then getting to share the Gospel with them in a way that relates to them and their culture was how I did ministry, and I loved every single minute of it.

Q. What does the future hold for you? Work? More school? Travel?

A. I plan to apply for Physicians Assistant school next year, but in the meantime, I’ll try work in a hospital, probably as an Emergency Room technician since I have my EMT certification. I want to shadow lots of different PAs and start to build relationships and networks in different areas of medicine. And yes, lots and lots of travel. There is so much more to see around the world, so many people to meet, and so many more adventures to have.

Asbury University gratefully acknowledges the establishment of the Asbury University Initiative, which was established in 2003 with a gift of $1 million from Phyllis McRoberts ’53 West and her husband, Stephen R. West, in honor of the life and ministry of Ernest M. Steury, M.D. ’53 and Mrs. Jennie Sue Crace ’54 Steury who served as missionaries in Kenya with World Gospel Mission. In addition to the Wests’ gift, the Asbury Initiative may receive other gifts in the future from donors who want to further its purpose. For more information about donating to the Asbury Initiative, please contact: