“One day God spoke to me and said, ‘Go to Africa.’ And I literally did just that.”
It really was that simple. In 2000, Alfie Jelks said he boarded a plane to Uganda with nothing more than the desire to help people, a man’s name and a few suitcases full of humanitarian aid.
Jelks, who was a minister at the time, said he had spoken to a friend about his vision to go to Africa. The friend happened to know a few pastors in Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. As fate would have it, the contact in Uganda replied back first, offering to help Jelks with his missionary vision. That was enough proof for Jelks, and he bought a ticket to Africa.
“I didn’t do any research about the area, because I really didn’t care. I just knew that God had given me a vision and mission. I was just going to help somebody,” said Jelks, who is a Columbus, Georgia resident.
The help Jelks offered then was all that he could buy and fit into his suitcases: over-the-counter medicines, clothes, shoes, school supplies and basic care items. In fact, Jelks was so focused on helping others that just before he left, he realized that he had forgotten to pack clothes for himself.
“I was so committed about going to Africa that I refused to take out any of the stuff I had already packed, because it was going to help somebody.”
So in the tiny spaces left in his suitcase, Jelks managed to squeeze in three simple outfits to sustain him for his 30-day stay.
This laser focus on getting to Africa did not mean that Jelks never had doubts about his non-detailed plan. Of course he did, because the reality was that he was: going to a country that he knew essentially nothing of; meeting a friend of a friend who he had never directly spoken to; and acting on the pure belief and faith that this was what he was supposed to do.
“Before I got off the plane, I was laughing at myself and thought, ‘What if no one is here to pick me up?’”
Fortunately, that did not happen. In fact, that first mission trip to Africa went so well that it was just the beginning.
In 2001, Jelks took his second, more coordinated trip to the same village in Uganda, which only left him more inspired and motivated. Then, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks occurred. Like the rest of the Nation, Jelks was distraught, but inspired by the reaction from the American people.
“Everybody came together, despite their race, their differences, their culture, their ethnicity, their income—despite all of that—they all came together as one Nation.”
For him, that was the time when everyone became a patriot of this Country. And like many others, he thought about how he himself could help. In all the organizations stepping up to help, the Armed Forces, and specifically the U.S. Army, motivated him the most.
“From that moment, I knew that I wanted to be a part of that.”
However, taking that step to become a Soldier took some time since he had several projects in the works. Prior to the September 11th attacks, Jelks opened up his own business, Alfie’s African Treasures, which featured artifacts from his mission trips. While he was establishing his new business, Jelks was also developing himself by studying Theology at Liberty University. Of course, a brand new startup business did not immediately pay all the bills, so Jelks continued to work a variety of jobs outside of his roles of student and business owner. The additional jobs of minister, counselor, and group home employee all had one thing in common though, Jelks was driven to help others.
Through all this juggling of responsibilities, Jelks remained dedicated to his vision of helping the people he had met in Uganda. After his first visit to the African continent, he knew he wanted to do more. But he did all that he could with the resources he had at the time.
“I knew then, that I wanted to do more than just that. But my vision was bigger than my reality,” explained Jelks.
So with this bigger vision in mind, Jelks said he created a foundation, The Soul of my Footprint, shortly after that first trip.
According to the foundation’s website (www.tsomf.org), the primary objective is to disseminate “deliberate and provisional supplies of medicine, clothing and basic care items to the people of Jinja, Uganda.”
To meet that objective, Jelks started to reach out to his own community in Columbus, Georgia. He managed to get the word out more, secure sponsors and plan his third trip to Africa in 2007.
Prior to that, in 2005, he also completed his studies, earning a Bachelor’s of Theology from Liberty University.
Overall, everything was moving along well. With his degree under his belt, Alfie’s African Treasures showing promise and The Soul of my Footprint expanding, he was finally able to fulfill the call he felt to serve the Nation. In 2009, Jelks joined the U.S. Army Reserve at 41 years of age and naturally, he found the career choice of chaplain, “right up his alley.”
Like when he was a minister, Jelks was disciplining the word of God. Like when he was a counselor, he was listening to people’s challenges and offering them comfort and advice. The main difference now, was that his clients were some of the bravest people in the world, said Jelks.
“Soldiers are willing to sacrifice one of the greatest gifts that we have, and that is life. And they are doing that to protect this great Country and other people’s rights.”
Soldiers come from all walks of life and represent every community and culture in America. And ultimately, they are no different than any other human being, said Jelks.
“One thing that I have learned to be true, is that everybody is going through something—everybody.”
Regardless of rank, age, wealth, or any other factor, human beings all have challenges and bad days. Then, add the complications of military service on top of that, and there’s the reason for the Chaplain Corps, explained Jelks.
“We have to be the thermostat of moral character.” Just like clergy are for the civilian community.
Chaplains don’t always get to interact with Soldiers on a daily basis though. And being in the Reserve Component adds to that challenge even more. So the Chaplain urges Army and Army Reserve leaders of all ranks to get to know their Soldiers well enough to realize when one of them is struggling.
“The Scripture tells us to know those who labor among you,” explained Jelks.
Struggle is not limited to others though, like any other Soldier, like any other man, the Chaplain has days where he struggles too.
“There is no person on this earth who does not experience grief, depression, anger…we are all going to experience those things,” said Jelks.
Like many leaders in positions of responsibility, being a chaplain is a role with no days off.
“No matter how bad your day is, you can never turn that off,” said Jelks.
You could have just found out about a family death and an hour later, someone will approach you for help, and you have to be ready, explained the Chaplain.
“You have to be that divine inspiration for that person, even knowing that you are experiencing hardships and struggles of your own.”
To remain ready, Jelks pulls strength from the Bible, in particular, a story about King David having problems with his Soldiers. In the story, the Chaplain says that King David had to find ways to encourage himself, and that is an important lesson for leaders of all ranks. So whether that self-encouragement and recharging comes from prayer, physical fitness or a good movie, leaders must remain ready to take action, according to Jelks.
Sometimes self-encouragement is not enough though, and like his Soldiers, the Chaplain then seeks counsel and support. The only difference is that he seeks it from his spiritual peers, both military and civilian.
Ultimately though, Jelks says he is just driven to make the world a little better, to make a difference. He explains that the Scripture says, ‘Let those who are great among you, be servants.’ To the Chaplain, that means that God views great people as those who serve others. Knowing this, Jelks says that being a chaplain is a rewarding role.
“One of my responsibilities as a chaplain is to help people be better versions of themselves, and there is no better job than that.”
Becoming a Reserve Soldier, has not taken away from his business or foundation. In fact, the military training has made Jelks even more resilient and strategic about his goals. When his business needed a boost, he expanded his merchandise line to include items for the historic African American Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities, specifically the Divine 9. After the foundation seemed established on delivering supplies to Uganda, Jelks expanded the mission by bringing his first medical team there in 2017.
After only two days in the village, his medical team saw nearly 300 people. Jelks was thrilled and expressed his gratitude to the team he had encouraged to travel to Africa. But just like on his first trip back in 2000, Jelks vision saw past the current reality.
“This is a great accomplishment, but this is not enough. It is not enough because, one, we only come here once a year, and two, people are sick every day.”
The only solution to this problem was to build some kind of hospital. When Jelks mentioned this vision to the team, one of the doctors told him he was ambitious. Jelks didn’t agree.
“I didn’t see myself as ambitious. I just saw that there was a need. That’s all that I saw.”
So with even more grit and determination, Jelks put his years of networking and military training to use. Now, with 2021 just getting started, Jelks says his vision of a medical facility is coming to fruition. With over 70 percent of the construction complete, and a road leading to the 4000-square-foot building being laid out, Phase One of his humanitarian mission will reach completion when the hospital opens, hopefully in September 2021.
Jelks agrees that his 20-year journey from a few suitcases of supplies to the construction of a small hospital may be his legacy, what people remember about him the most. And Jelks says he is fine with that personally, because that is the journey that God put him on. But as a chaplain, his job is not complete; he still needs to help others with their journeys.
“No one is on this earth just to exist. We all have a purpose. And it becomes our responsibility to discover what our purpose is.”
When it comes to discovering that purpose, the chaplain recommends for people to use their skills and explore the things they are passionate about. When skill and passion are combined and then used in ways that will ultimately help others, that is where vision is discovered.
“That’s why we are here on this earth. We are here to help others,” said Jelks, even if it’s just with a suitcase. It’s a good place to start.