Michele Perry, BA '99, hated camping and never thought she'd want to work with children. The self-described city girl from Orange Park, Florida, spent the last seven years in southern Sudan without electricity or running water and with 100 kids calling her Mama. Perry's life is proof the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Born with multiple congenital birth defects, including missing her left leg, hip and kidney, Perry has faced a deluge of physical challenges and illnesses from birth. Doctors had "basically given me a death sentence," she says. By the time Perry was 13, she had undergone 23 surgeries.
"My mother prayed one of those desperation prayers to never get in the way of what God wanted to do with me," says Perry, an only child. "God got a blank check with my life from day one, and that's been pretty formative from my early years."
After overhearing her family discussing worst-case scenarios before a serious spinal surgery, she cried out to God.
"I said, 'Jesus, if you're really real, and you're really who those stories in that book say you are, then I want to know you.' Jesus gave me a promise that literally has shaped my life from that day forward; that if I followed Him, I would see whole groups people come to know who He was in other places in the world."
Always a big dreamer with a strong work ethic, Perry credits her parents for never placing limitations on what she could do. She was a public speaker and spokesperson for charities by the age of 9. Perry developed an interest in medicine, missions and law, and an encounter with her Acteens camp director introduced her to Baylor.
As a speech communication major in North Russell Hall, Perry didn't bring a car to college, and the closest church to her front door was across the street at Mission Waco's Church Under the Bridge. It didn't take long for her to get a wake-up call in her walk with God.
After her first visit, two homeless men accompanied her back across the street to her dorm. Trying to be nice but afraid of them, she later was told these men were regulars at the church and were merely making sure Perry, who uses crutches, made it across the road safely.
"I went back to my room and just cried, and said, 'God, teach me to love with your love and to see with your eyes. I'm not seeing what you would see, and that's not okay with me.' And that prayer and that journey has literally been the foundation of everything that's followed since in my life.
"It was there that I was confronted that my nice little neat version of what I thought church was supposed to look like was really pretty shallow," she admits. "I had my comfort zone and God came and messed it up, which he has a tendency to do. Those times with Mission Waco under Jimmy and Janet Dorrell were some of my most formational experiences working with the marginalized."
After graduation, Perry found her way to Calcutta, India, having previously worked overseas with an organization in Bangladesh while in college. She did mission work in India for two years before spending five years in Colorado, working toward an MBA degree. In 2005, she connected with Iris Global, a mission organization led by Drs. Heidi and Rolland Baker. She soon left her MBA course to join their outreach in Mozambique and later was ordained for full-time missions service.
In 2006 she founded Iris Global's presence in South Sudan, on God's promise alone. She had almost no money, no team, and no contacts at her destination. What many would call another common-sense-defying choice, she calls trusting God's will. On her journey north through South Africa and Uganda, many said she was crazy and that she would surely die in the area ravaged by decades of civil war and instability.
"I said, 'Not today. I'm not done yet.' When you follow Him even when your journey takes you to the very opposite situation of what you think it should be, it's in those places where we lay down what we think we know about ourselves and trust that He's able to come through and show us even more who He is."
Trusting God would give her a plan once she arrived in Yei, South Sudan, Perry hired a cab (she can't drive a standard) to drive her from Uganda over eight hours of unpaved roads across territory frequented by ruthless LRA leader Joseph Kony.
"Honestly, I could tell the driver was very scared, but I had no idea we were in LRA territory. I just knew I was going exactly where God was telling me to go, so I was oblivious and happy."
When Perry arrived there in 2006, her only option was to rent a bombed out shell of a building. There were no ATMs, no mail, no medical system, a very unstable government still five years away from becoming a new nation, and the closest bank was eight hours away, back down that same dangerous road.
"Following God is not supposed to be some miserable experience. Yes, there's sacrifice. I've had 18 separate cerebral malaria infections, and I've had AK-47s at my head. I've almost died so many times, I've stopped counting. So, yes, there's a cost, but it's really all joy. God puts his desires in your heart so that when you are following Him, you're actually doing the things that you desire to do, and you say, 'God, I can't imagine anything better.'"
In a crazy environment of children regularly being abducted, trafficked and used as child soldiers by rebel groups such as the LRA, Perry and her new Sudanese friends were led to care for as many vulnerable children as possible. Working with community leaders, usually tribal village chiefs, Perry identified the children in the worst situations. She took in her first 12 children during Christmas 2006.
Within three years, thanks to many of Perry's friends and family, her mission had built a children's village on 40 acres. As the nation is slowly establishing more stability, some of the very first kids who arrived are now old enough to help run the ministry. About 110 children live there today, and a total of 500 are served though the nursery and primary school on the compound, which also features a church and agricultural initiatives.
"We don't operate on the metrics similar groups use -- we find space for every child that has no other healthy options," she says. "Social services in this region are in the very early stages, but we now work with them on local, state and national levels to be part of child protection initiatives and not just slap a Band-Aid on the problem."
After pioneering and leading the work in Yei for the past seven years, Perry recently transitioned to be a new fulltime role in the U.S., but she certainly hasn't slowed down. She has started a nonprofit called Create61, to help others creatively find their callings, as well as a leadership and business development firm called Edge Creative Consulting. She also is developing a vocational program to train other life and business coaches on techniques to creatively assist their clients. An author of two books, Love Has a Face and An Invitation to the Supernatural Life, Perry is working on her third and fourth books, along with several children's books.