Dr. Ellen Little knows what it means to be called by God.
As a medical missionary who has spent time on at least three continents, Little, physician and medical director of the ACU Medical Clinic, has spent years serving “the call.”
“I majored in premed and Spanish,” Little says, “But I always had an interest in missions.”
Little went to medical school at Texas Tech University, and while in her residency training, made the decision to move to Uganda.
“I was praying to God everywhere I went, teaching people the role that God plays in our health,” she says. “I lived there eight years working as a missionary doctor, doing health teaching and Bible teaching.”
While there, Little says, she saw many people suffering from malaria, and she came into contact with cultural beliefs that often conflicted with her own Christian beliefs.
Many people believed curses caused sickness, she says. But, rather than blatantly refuting their cultural beliefs, Little says she worked to help her patients transcend them through an understanding of God as a force bigger and more powerful than any curse.
Some also considered infertility or a lack of male children a curse or a “woman’s issue,” something Little saw as an opportunity to use Biblical stories to connect with her patients.
She referred to the story of Abraham and paralleled his desire for children with a family’s desire for sons. Little also told of God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice his son, asking families if perhaps God was testing them in a similar fashion.
“There are a lot of ways things are written in the Bible that connect in a way science could not to the African mind,” Little says.
The spiritualism of their culture made Biblical stories something easily understood and shared, Little says. And her goal was to use that strong belief in the spiritual realm to better communicate the true nature of God.
“God is more powerful than Satan,” she would say. “Good is more powerful than evil.”
Little’s work with the people of Uganda was strengthened by her home church, the Kampala Church of Christ. Church leaders worked with Little to find a common ground on which to connect with the people and explore the primary issues making patients sick.
While living there, Little continued traveling throughout the continent, aiding children in Kenya and patients in Sudan before returning to Uganda.
“There’s a lot of HIV/AIDS in Africa and Uganda,” Little says, her voice catching. “Some were friends – there were a lot of sad stories.”
No Place Like Home
Despite Little’s obvious concern for the African people, she seems to radiate a sense of joy. She maintains her work in Africa was rewarding, but it was with equal pleasure Little responded to the call to return to the United States.
“I’d always says that if I was going to move back to the United States, I’d want to work at a Christian school,” Little says. “There was a calling – a literal calling – to come back here.”
The call, Little says, was from a friend who knew of Little’s desire to work at a Christian school and had heard of an opening at ACU. That phone call led Little to Abilene, where she accepted the position she fills today.
The differences between African and American cultures immediately became apparent, Little says. Variances ranged from the fast-paced American lifestyle to hearing English spoken as a primary language as opposed to African dialects.
However, Little felt she had entered a position where she could have an equally strong impact on people’s faith.
“I have a chance to see students grow in their faith and be with them at what I feel is a critical juncture in their spiritual lives,” Little says.
The chance to make a difference was a privilege she welcomed in her new occupation. Little noted she, as well as other doctors in the clinic, occasionally plays the role of mentor to students, guiding them in their spiritual walks in addition to attending to their medical concerns.
This dedication to students is something Little is known for and something her colleagues have come to see as an integral part of her ministry.
Michelle Drew, the family nurse practitioner at the Medical Clinic, has known Little for 10 years. In fact, Drew’s arrival at the clinic came at Little’s urging, Drew says.
“What makes Ellen so special is that she ‘walks the walk,'” Drew says. “Her whole medical career hasn’t been about being a doctor who happens to be a Christian; it’s about having a vocation that could fit in to her life as a Christian and the service that she’s committed to in her walk with God.”
She also noted Little always offers to pray with students and patients, and even those who decline her offer receive prayers on their behalf. Her concerns, Drew says, extend beyond physical ailments to the spiritual health of her patients. As an Abilene native and ACU graduate, Little is well-equipped to handle the problems patients may lay at her feet, Drew says.
“She’s already been where they are at now,” Drew says. “She can empathize with the challenges students are facing right here, right now, because she’s been there and done that. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s a great doctor, and she’s an amazing woman of God.”
Just Part of the Job
As for Little, she says her focus on students is all part of the day’s work.
“It’s part of my job to pray with patients, ” Little says. “It’s not boring. It’s fun work, what I do.”
Regarding her interest in medical missions, Little says she hopes to attend Spring Break Campaigns and already is planning a trip to Uruguay next June.
Little also is looking into doing premed and prehealth trips, with the intent of comparing and contrasting health care delivery in other countries to that in the United States. She says travel has been and will continue to be a significant part of her life.
“I’ve been to about 25 countries – do you want me to name them all?” Little says, laughing. “I’ve been to a medical women’s conference in Thailand. I spent eight years in Africa. I went to Europe as a sophomore in college. I’ve been to Central America – you name the country, I want to go. Any place, I want to go there too.”
However, Little emphasizes her love for travel is a passion God utilizes to help spread the Gospel.
“I love travel, and that’s great, but I think God does lead us in those areas where we have a passion.” she says.
That belief, she says, is something she wants to share with ACU students, along with her desire for students to go out and pursue their own passions.
“I just encourage people,” Little says. “If this is where you see yourself, just go out and do it. Don’t talk yourself out of doing things just because you think you should do something practical.”
Beyond that, Little says, finding the place God wants to use you is a combination of passion and prayer.
“Sometimes there is something that resonates with your heart,” Little says, “and you find it – that calling – through prayer.”