Paraclete associate, Sharon McElwain, has ministered in North African garbage dumps, survived pointed guns, and narrowly missed bombings. She credits her worldwide ministry to obeying God’s voice and not being afraid to start—even when it seems too late. I recently had the privilege of speaking with this extraordinary woman.
How did you meet Jesus?
It’s a lovely story, and I use it in testimony all over the world because it’s a picture to help people see how easy it is. I was nine years old at Maywood American Baptist Church (Maywood, CA). We were in the open session where the boys sat on one side and the girls on the other. The director held up a coin and asked, “Who would like a free gift?” I was totally shocked because I was very shy. I wouldn’t say anything to anybody, but I raised my hand. He said, “Come get it.” So, I walked up and got the coin. He said, “It’s just this easy to receive the gift of Jesus Christ into your heart. You just must accept the gift.” Afterward, we broke into boys’ and girls’ classes, and I asked my Sunday school teacher, “How exactly can I accept Christ?” We walked through it, and she asked me questions. Later, the pastor came to my home. It terrified me because he was a hellfire and Brimstone pastor. When he finished asking me questions, he told my parents yes, she truly accepted Jesus as her Savior.
But I didn’t grow. My family prayed at the meal, kind of a standard prayer. We did not do Bible study. We did not seek the Lord with issues or problems. I didn’t have that teaching or encouragement to do that for many years. I attended church all my life—choir, Sunday School, camp, all that stuff. I remember learning a little bit at a time. But it was quite late in my life before I realized that a personal relationship with Jesus and reading my Bible every day was everything I needed. And so, I changed my life. Now, I get up, make my coffee, sit by the fire, and read my Bible to start my day. I can’t hardly make a day without it. It’s just essential for me to see God’s character, see his promises, see the hope He has. He helps me discover answers to issues and problems I have.
What was your early life like?
Very poor. My grandmother bought a house in Maywood for $5,000. My uncles, my aunts, and my mom lived there. My father was in World War 2, and they sent him home to die. So, everybody from Georgia, both families, moved to California to be near him in Long Beach until after he died. Then, the Georgia family went back to Georgia. So, we were all living in this tiny three-bedroom house with just one bathroom. We had big family meals. Everybody walked down a couple of blocks to church. We were a very close family, but nobody was bringing in the importance of reading God’s word or seeking him about the issues and problems in our lives. But it was a good, loving family.
I went to California Baptist College in Riverside. My mom married three times. The last marriage was a total nightmare. I basically ran away from home and went to Blue Mountain College of Mississippi to finish school. My mom’s life became horrible. He had four kids, and my mom had three. I had two half-brothers and four stepbrothers and sisters, and nobody liked anybody. It was bad. I was the oldest and had a lot of responsibilities forced on me. It was not good. But I would not change a thing because of what God taught me. I knew he was with me and helped me through those horrible times. I wouldn’t change a thing.
You came from a background where the Lord was not a part of your family environment. How did you become a committed disciple? And how did you know you were called to ministry?
I think just over the years, with the issues that came up, I thought, “You know what? There’s got to be a better way than me trying on my own.” Because I was the oldest and given responsibility, I always felt like I had to fix it; I had to do everything. And I just thought, there’s something wrong with this. And I started reading the Word. It was difficult because I was a schoolteacher raising a family and working in our family business. I worked every summer either with the Child Protective Services or teaching swimming and sailing. I was working all the time. So it was difficult to fit it in. Sometimes, I didn’t even get my Bible time till just before bed when everything was quiet. But I started reading a study guide that said, “If you’re in a situation where you’re not growing, you need to change.” I realized how important it was to study and understand what God wanted.
I was a schoolteacher when God called me for the first time in 1991. I got a pamphlet from Campus Crusade. The challenge on the back asked, “How would you like to go to Russia and hand out Bibles?” I literally heard God say to me, “I want you to go.” So, I picked up the phone and told them I didn’t want to just hand out Bibles; I wanted to be sure people had a church or Bible study group. I didn’t want it to be, “Here’s a Bible. Bye.” I wanted some kind of personal connection with the people. They said, okay, you don’t need to go with that group, and you need to go with this other one. We went to Novosibirsk, Russia, in 1992. The Communist wall had just fallen. There were seven of us. We had to get the Bibles printed. Then, when the other teams came, we’d say, “Alright, you go to school 72 and show the Jesus Film at 7:00 at night. And you go to this other place.” We were in charge of the Summer.
And it literally changed, changed, changed my life. I had a heart for people and a heart for missions. I still get emotional because it was such a life-changing event. I went back the next summer, and we had to haul the big reels of the Jesus film to each location for showing. It was very hot. I was sweating all over, hauling that stuff and setting it up in a big theater. Hundreds of people would come. They had no food. The medical system was gone. Everything was a mess. And one lady said, “We don’t need food; we need Jesus.” They had nothing but would come up and give us gifts. It was so life-changing, I can’t tell you.
K, a Russian Jew, was my translator. He and I were in charge of getting food for the team. That task took us several hours. While others were napping, we went out. Maybe we could find five Pepsis with the caps mostly on, maybe a loaf of bread, maybe a half dozen apricots or bananas, and take them back to the team. We would sit in a circle and pass the Pepsi around. Everybody took a drink, but nobody got sick. It was just amazing how God provided. We all lost weight, but that wasn’t on our minds at all. It was the people. Sometimes we would be reading the spiritual laws. I’d start with one or two people. Then, I’d look up, and there’s four, and then I’d look up again, and here’s eight, then 12. When I got to the end, I’d ask, “Who would like to ask Jesus into your heart?” Almost every person listening would raise their hands. And it was so touching. I’d never experienced that in my life. I grew up in a Christian family, but nobody witnessed. We went to church, and that was it. This was a totally life-changing event.
After two summers in Russia, while still a schoolteacher, I went to Asia for another two summers. Then I went to Slovakia for a summer. But the school where I taught went to a year-round schedule, so I couldn’t do the summer trips anymore. About that time, my husband divorced me. I applied to Asia, asking that they let me come and be a schoolteacher. But they wouldn’t take me because I was divorced. That broke my heart, so I started teaching school again. Then, in 2003, Christian friends in Campus Crusade invited me to come to Fort Collins, Colorado. I went there, and Dave (Cru staff member) started introducing me to all the directors of the world. I said, “Dave, I’m divorced; they don’t want me.” But the people said, “I want you to come to Morocco and teach school,” or “I want you to come here and teach school.” Most of them wanted me to teach. But one of the directors, Henry from France, said, “Sharon, will you pray with me?” As he started praying, I once again heard the Lord say, “I want you to go.” So, I quit my job. I sold my horse, my car, my furniture. This was July 20th, 2003. I was in France, and God had raised all the money I needed by November 2003. That’s how I started working in the 1040 window. But I was teaching Christians in the country, so I wasn’t dealing with any of the non-believers. I did that till 2009.
I wanted to go back and work with the non-believers. I had CRU contacts in central Asia. So, I wrote them and said I can teach English, I can teach quilting, I can teach anything else you think I can do. I’m willing to come and be your servant. God provided around six trips a year. I started buying quilting material. When I would speak in churches, people would say, “My grandma died, and I have a whole house full of material. Do you want it?” I was bringing home carloads. I haven’t bought material in years because of people’s generosity. Even now, I just got a $500 gift to buy sewing machines to give to the women who need them. People have been gracious in giving, helping me, and encouraging me all through this.
What does your current ministry look like?
I still go all over the world. Sometimes, when I speak in a church, somebody from Peru will say, “Oh, you’ve got to come to Peru.” So, I have been outside of Asia to Peru and Haiti. But if God says, “I want you to go,” I go. I’m 79 and hoping that God will continue to use me as long as he can.
My current ministry is mostly with quilting. I go to Garbage City in North Africa. People literally sit in the middle of garbage and sort it. That’s their life. They live there, and they die there. I’ve been going there for over 15 years, once or twice a year, seeing the same people. We started out by being very careful with the Old Testament. And then, when the people trust me, I go to stories in the New Testament. They will sew for a while, and then we take a break. I tell a story, and then I ask them questions about the story. And then we sew a while more. At the end, I ask them how I can pray for them. We have different conversations during the time. Because of the stories, they bring up questions. So, I share Jesus. I see the change in the peoples’ lives, but not just because of me. No. The Campus Crusade people work with them every day. They train about cleanliness and how to treat their kids. The women used to come into class cussing and slapping their kids around. That was breaking my heart. On Wednesday, I normally have the kids in the morning and the ladies in the afternoon. And I give talks. I tell stories to the kids, then have them act out the story. But with the ladies, I talk about how to raise their children in a godly way. It all depends on however the Holy Spirit it leads. Sometimes, I give a message on fear and anxiety. Normally, the day is one or two classes of just flat-out quilting and telling stories. So, I don’t eat anything until around 4:30 every day because it’s so dirty I can’t eat there. I must wait until I get back to Cairo to eat. And then I go to my room and prepare for the next day.
If I know that the sewing machines are going to be taken care of, I buy sewing machines for the ladies. But if I don’t feel like they’re going to be taken care of, I don’t waste the money. But in any case, I leave all the materials for them and give them a gift as well. We get lots of hugs and lots of “I love you” and “Jesus loves you.” At first, they didn’t know how to hug; they would just giggle. But now they almost knock me down and pick me up. It’s really fun to see the transformation. It happens in all my classes. When I go to more dangerous places, I have to be more careful with what I say. When I build the relationship, I can go into Jesus. I start my stories in the Old Testament. When they come in, I give them the normal kiss. But when you go out, I insist on the American hug. At first, they don’t know what to do. Now they wait in line and don’t leave without a hug.
I just want to be light to the people and encourage them. I teach the women that they have worth and that they’re beautiful. The way they’re treated is just despicable, so they’re also treating their kids that way too. They don’t know anything different, so I try to change some behaviors. Kindness and forgiveness are big challenges because they don’t forgive. It’s hardly in their vocabulary. They don’t understand what it is and how to do it. So, we talk about forgiveness a lot.
How did you come to be part of Paraclete?
I started out with Campus Crusade in 1991 as a part-time summer volunteer. But in 2003, I went full-time. I had to go through the training and then to Budapest for more training. So, I did a lot of on-the-job training, learning the cultures. It was a great, huge learning curve for me. But then I trained other people to do the same thing. I also took other people with me, but none of them felt God wanted them to do that kind of ministry. After that, when I realized that my ministry options within that mission were different from what God called me to do, I prayed and prayed and prayed. When a friend heard about Paraclete, the two of us drove down and talked to Glen and Shelly. We just hit it off. So, I was accepted into Paraclete in 2012.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I wrote a book during COVID because I was going crazy not being able to travel. I said okay, thinking of all the things that God has done for me, I’m going to write them down. I started writing chapters about my first country visits to Russia and Asia. I journaled on every trip and saved them all. So, I’d read a journal, and I would write, I’d read a journal, and I would write.
Then I sent it to a publisher almost as a joke. But they called and said, “We want to publish this.” I wrote it mainly to encourage someone in their later years who is asking, “What can I do? I’m worthless. I’m old. I can’t do anything.” God called me later in life. I wasn’t 19 when he called me. I was 47 when God called me and 48 when I went on my first trip. I started full-time mission work when I was 59. I want to encourage my readers to listen to what God has to say. Listen to what he wants you to do. Then just be willing to do it. So, it’s a book of encouragement. I didn’t include any country people’s names that could get hurt by my writing.
Is your book available for people to buy?
I’ve been at gunpoint before in central Asia but was walked away. Another time, I left an area where a very short time later, terrorists bombed and targeted Americans. So, I know that God has watched over and protected me. God’s told me, “Don’t go here. Go back to your room and lock the door.” I’ve done it. So, I listened to the Lord. When He speaks, I do it. I don’t hear it every day for sure, but when I hear His voice, I obey.