Alone in a hotel room in Boston, Ashley Ayala sat on the bed and cried. What am I doing? she thought. The next day, she would be interviewing at a fair in hopes of landing a job as a teacher. Not only would it be her first job out of college, but it would also be her first time living away from her hometown of Spokane, Washington. Even her college was only a couple of blocks from the family home. The thought of a future alone in a new place filled her with anxiety and insecurity.
But God had been challenging her to do hard things and be courageous for Christ. It wouldn’t be the first time she said yes with great expectations to an uncomfortable situation.
Growing up as the oldest child her family, Ashley bore the brunt of her father’s unreasonable demands. She remembers a night in second grade when her father tore up her homework because it wasn’t neat enough. Many years of having her best attempts at school and activities belittled left Ashley thinking, “I’m not good enough.” On top of that, her home life was fractured by her parents’ unhealthy marriage and eventual divorce, and the fact that her family never talked about what was going on made her feel like her situation was deeply shameful. She didn’t talk about it, even with her closest friends.
Her family attended church only sporadically growing up, and as a child, Ashley thought of it as the boring place with snacks. But even so, when her best friend in middle school asked her to come to her church’s youth group, Ashley said yes.
One night, their youth group was singing “Indescribable” by Chris Tomlin, and when they sang the chorus, Ashley was struck for the first time that there was a God so powerful that He knew everything about the universe, but so loving that he wanted to know her too:
“You placed the stars in the sky and You know them by name…You see the depths of my heart and You love me the same.”
This was the father she yearned for—the one who saw her messy heart and broken life, but wanted her anyway. Her father, hurt by his own trauma, was an imperfect human who could offer only imperfect love. God’s love was unconditional. For the first time, Jesus wasn’t just some guy she’d heard about, but a savior she actually knew and who knew her. That was the night that she said a resounding yes to Christ.
She was so eager to learn about this God who had been beside her all along. Through studying the Bible, seeking out a spiritual mentor, and keeping a prayer journal, she made up lost ground. The year her father moved out, she remembers tearing through the entire book of Psalms in just a few weeks, absolutely starving for its wisdom. The psalmists were heartbroken, distraught, and angry, and so was she. And as much as she couldn’t talk to others, she could trust God with her burdens, and like the psalmists, she could praise Him through her sorrow.
Where she was formerly prone to self-doubt, she now found herself able to seize opportunities with joy and anticipation, even in uncertain situations. She said yes to teaching vacation Bible school in high school. Yes to a mission trip in rural Idaho. Yes to teaching at a camp in the middle of the mountains, though she’d never been to camp herself. Yes to working at the Boys & Girls Club in the rough part of town, though others second-guessed her decision to spend time with hard-bitten kids. Yes to teaching in Tanzania.
These were not yeses based on impulse or serendipity, Ashley is quick to point out, but on a belief that as long as she exercised practical discernment, God could use any situation to His glory, and He wouldn’t abandon her in difficult times. She had great expectations, because God promises great things. She knew what kind of God He is, and she believed He would make Himself known.
Back in Boston, Ashley attended the job fair and met her future principal. In a two-week whirlwind, she decided between two offers and chose to teach in Virginia. Fairfax County had a great need for teachers that hadn’t been on her radar before. The door was wide open, and so she stepped through it. She loaded up all her belongings into a trailer and drove across the country.
It’s humbling to start from nothing in a new place, but she’s found a deep sense of purpose in her job, and in providing consistency and rapport to students—mostly English second language learners—who often lack it elsewhere in their lives. She’s found community and friends through Harvest. And her feeling of deep vulnerability has drawn her ever closer to God.
On the wall of her classroom, big red letters cut from paper say, “You belong here.” It’s a reminder to her students that they are valued, loved, and safe, but it’s as much a reminder to Ashley—that she belongs here in Fairfax, at least for now.