We had the good fortune of connecting with Melissa Ehrhardt and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Melissa, what role has risk played in your life or career?
Taking risks has been a crucial part of where I am today. I’ve always been adventurous- and loved the adrenaline that came from things like skydiving or driving cross country and living in the car. In college, I wanted to be on the cover of Time Magazine as the World’s Most Successful Woman. With a great job lined up after graduation, I thought I was heading in the right direction until God intervened and told me to turn down the job offer and go to Africa for a year instead. After much prayer and attempted negotiations, I tried to bargain with God and offered to give Him a year and then I would be able to get on with my plan. I convinced my job to wait a year to hire me (because I was worth the wait 😉 ) and googled yearlong mission trips to Africa. Next thing I know; I was on a plane with 12 strangers who agreed to live in the largest slum of in Kenya. It was there my heart was changed. I was living among people who had nothing and yet had more joy than I had ever experienced. I wanted what they had. I chose to give up the corporate race and pursue a simpler life. My new goal in life was to live in a hut in Africa for the rest of my life and try and love people well. After my contract was over, I moved to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina Relief until I could figure out how to get back to Africa. My parents were furious…they felt I was wasting my life and education and chasing childish dreams of trying to change the world. But I didn’t care. I was a different person now and couldn’t fully explain to anyone what had happened to me there. In 2009, I ended up in Swaziland, Africa for 6 months until I heard God tell me my next season was in an inner-city of America. Having learned the lesson of trying to bargain with Him, I got out a map of the U.S. and began praying. He told me Atlanta, GA. ” Atlanta?” I asked. “What was in Atlanta? ” Born and raised in Tampa/St. Petersburg, FL I had only driven through Atlanta and had no desire to live here but knew God was asking me to take that risk. I didn’t know what a missionary would do in America. I assumed I would work and be a light to my neighbors and coworkers but as I applied for jobs, no door was opening. And apartments were telling me I needed proof of income in order to sign a lease. I asked God how I was supposed to get to Atlanta and He said, ” I told my disciples to not take an extra money bag or extra pair of shoes but go and trust me and that’s what I want from you.” Did God want me to be homeless? How was this going to work? I decided to trust Him and drove up to Atlanta without a plan, any money, or knowing a single person in the city. My family thought I was nuts and going to fail but thought Atlanta was better than Africa if they needed to get to me. Once I arrived in Atlanta, I saw God’s hand work miraculously. A family of strangers took me into their home and soon I became a missionary with the homeless and addicts on the streets of Atlanta. For 7 years, I did not receive a paycheck at all but had every one of my needs met. Strangers would walk up to me and tell me they were supposed to pay for my car payment. People would randomly give me gas money or food. The sweet family that took me in, did not charge me rent for 4 years and became family to me. Then others let me live with them and eventually, I got my own place (a miracle since I still didn’t have proof of income!) God was so faithful. He never let me go without and I learned a dependency on Him I never thought was possible. He used the kindness of radical generosity of others to provide for me so I could continue the work with the broken of this city. I fell in love with Atlanta and my friends on the streets. I learned how to love the person and not label them based on past mistakes. We all have a story and God is able to redeem, even the worst of us. In 2016, I knew it was time to move in another direction but was not sure what was next. I traveled for a few months but landed back in Atlanta. There is something about this city that draws you in. In Summer of 2017, I took a job at a small nonprofit called the Atlanta Hospital Hospitality House (AHHH), a place for people to stay when they are receiving medical care here but do not live in Atlanta. I call it a Bed and Breakfast for hurting people. For the first time since college, I was receiving a paycheck AND getting to do a job that had purpose and was making a difference in the lives of others. Shortly after starting, I was offered the position as Executive Director. Having no prior experience running a nonprofit, I felt completely unqualified but God assured me He would equip me and teach me. 3 years later, I’m still amazed I get to come to work each day at this incredible place. I still have much to learn but that’s the fun part of it all. Part of being a risk taker is being a life-long student. Some risks end in failure and some end in the best adventure you could ever imagine. My life looks way different than I thought it would as a college undergrad but I wouldn’t trade it for the world…or a shot of being on the cover of Time. Had I not taken the risks, or leaps of faith, into the unknown, I would not be here today. And truthfully, there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be! God’s plans are always better than ours…I’ve learned to trust that on this journey.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I am currently the Executive Director of the Atlanta Hospital Hospitality House, a nonprofit that provides affordable lodging, home cooked meals, and supportive companionship to those who are forced to come to Atlanta for life-saving medical treatment or the family members of those receiving care in an Atlanta hospital. For people who are overwhelmed with a tragic diagnosis and find themselves in a strange city away from their community, we are a respite in the storm. I’ve been here for 3 years and for all of my career, I have taken the next step God has told me to or walked through the next open door, often blindly, and He has directed me each step of the way. I never would have chosen this for myself but sometimes the best unexpected blessings are the ones we don’t know about or are not on our radar at all. It’s easy for someone to hear my story and think it’s just been one easy transition after another but that is far from the truth. I’d be hesitant to believe anyone who told me their story has been easy. Life is hard and challenges are going to come. Some we can prepare for and others we never saw coming. But we must press in and persevere. Constantly running when things get hard is not going to get us anywhere. There have been many times I’ve wanted to quit and give up but I’m grateful I haven’t. I’m grateful for the work ethic my parents instilled in me. They both worked hard to provide for our family and there were many years where we had very little but we never knew that as kids. My mom even had us convinced that frozen Salisbury steak and boxed mac-n-cheese were luxuries and we only got them on special occasions. I laugh looking back on those times but in the moment, we were always content. They taught me to work for what I wanted and never expect things to just be handed to me. Finally, my faith is what has made me who I am today. My relationship with God is my motivation, my peace, and my hope. I can’t tell my story without talking about Him and what he has done. Without Him, I may have been successful but I never would have experienced the joy I have found. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is to trust Him, knowing that He knows better than I do what I need. I don’t know what the next adventure or season will be but I know He has a plan.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Atlanta has so many great spots to visit! Some of my favorites include Morningside Nature Preserve and the East Palisades on the Chattahoochee. It amazes me that you can have such beautiful nature in the heart of a big city! I’d definitely take someone for a walk or scooter ride on the Beltline and show them the beauty of restored buildings such as Ponce City Market and Krog Street. We would get King of Pops and then enjoy Piedmont Park- hopefully with a festival or concert. I would take them to Monday Night Garage and then maybe Salsa dancing at the Fernbank or an evening at Fetch. For food, my two favorite places are Eats on Ponce and Dragon Bowl in Emory Village.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are so many people who have believed in me along the journey and made me into the person I am today. However, it all started in with the Merrefield Family that took me into their home when I first moved to Atlanta. Dan and Cheryl were/are the best example of hospitality I’ve ever seen. They believed in me when I told them God had called me to Atlanta and wanted me to be a missionary here. They not only welcomed me into their home, they welcomed me into their family. They both have personal ministries that meet tangible needs for people with the heart of loving them well and because of that, they were eager to partner with me in my work with those on the streets. I remember one time they told me that they had almost lost their home and when things turned the corner, they dedicated their home to God and would use it for His purposes. They said by not charging me rent, they were able to invest in the work I was doing with the homeless and addicts and they were grateful to be a small part of my story. The truth is, they are more than just a small part of my story. I probably would have headed back to Florida had they not shown the hospitality that they did. Eleven years later, and I still consider them family. I try and practice radical hospitality and sacrificial generosity to each person I meet because of all that was done for me. Thank you Merrefields for living what you preach and one of the best examples of love I’ve ever seen!