Ella Mbogo spends her days surrounded by multiple computer screens in one of the quietest rooms of the In Touch headquarters. But when she steps outside the darkened, muted space of the Information Technology department, the bright colors of her personality come into view. She’s the sort who makes you feel like a neighbor—someone with whom you’ve shared recipes and laughter for years. That’s understandable: She is the youngest of seven children and from a culture that packs cousins and uncles and grandparents into the word “family,” so warmth comes naturally.
But Ella performs a kind of magic in that subdued room, too: She translates numbers into words. As the Director of Ministry Metrics, Ella works with her team to compile feedback and statistics, decipher them, and provide the information to the appropriate departments. This knowledge equips the ministry to better serve partners with the resources and materials they need for growing in their relationship with Jesus Christ.
Ella’s father, Meshack Mbogo, was the mayor of her hometown in Kenya, and many of her childhood memories involve him giving speeches and working alongside members of the community. Though Meshack was born into extreme poverty, he was able to remove himself and his family from desperate conditions. He married Sophia, and together they worked to build schools and promote education. Though Ella’s mother was a believer, her father distanced himself from the faith of the British imperialist regime that had once ruled his country. If he was going to be a part of improving his community, it would be through government, not religion.
The success they desired would have to be earned through hard work. Meshack and Sophia had to carve out a new life for themselves. “They didn’t have a choice,” Ella says. “They needed to create a path. My siblings and I got to walk on that path.” And much was expected of the Mbogo children, a fact made evident by their names. Meshack named each child after someone exceptional—from Helen Keller, to Humphrey Bogart, to Abraham Lincoln.
Ella the sort who makes you feel like a neighbor—someone with whom you’ve shared recipes and laughter for years.
Ella is named for Ella Fitzgerald, the jazz singer known for her strong, pure voice and uncanny ability to improvise. But her father often called her by a nickname—Corazon Aquino, the Filipino president—because he believed she would one day be a politician like him. Yet she struggled academically, and because she was part of a system in which grades determined success, that future didn’t seem probable. Like her namesake, Ella would have to learn to flow within her life’s changing rhythms.
Looking For Direction
Ella was only a teenager when she met her future husband at her home church in Kenya. One Sunday morning she was serving as a greeter when Moses Waindi walked through the door. She invited him to the youth group meeting that evening, and from that moment he was hooked—on both God and the beautiful young woman who had welcomed him. Soon Ella and Moses were dating. And with time, Moses was thriving in his newfound faith, growing in his identity as a Christian. But as his relationship with Christ began to flourish, Ella began to doubt her own. “I thought I knew God,” she explains. “But Moses knew God.”
One Tuesday evening, Ella grabbed her brown plaid jacket and hopped on a bus to a church in Nairobi, over 30 minutes away. She doesn’t remember the songs they sang or what the preacher said that night. But when it was time for the altar call, she jumped from her seat and made her way to the front. She’d been in church her entire life—she knew the rules, the routines, and how to follow each. Yet something had been missing. And Moses’ authentic devotion to Jesus had made the deficiency apparent. As she prayed by the altar, God met her there, providing the reassurance she was looking for: She once again confessed her faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, certain deep down that she belonged to Him. In the days that followed, she moved forward spiritually. She was finally able to consider what the future held, in light of the knowledge that her identity in Christ was unchangeable and her salvation secure. Nothing mattered more. And soon, that reassurance would prove essential thousands of miles from home.
Ella had family in America, and her parents thought she would have a better chance at success if she studied abroad. So both she and Moses moved to the U.S. for college—she to Birmingham, Alabama, and he to Atlanta, Georgia. At first she felt out of place, experiencing an otherness she’d never known. Suddenly, it didn’t matter what part of Kenya she came from or what accent she had. In North America, she was assimilated into the broad classification of just being “African.”
In U.S. history classes, she soaked up all she could, trying to see how she’d fit in with this new culture. She also had to learn to drive on the other side of the road, to understand her teachers’ sticky Southern accents, and to adapt to being far away from her parents. “I grew up looking at the States like it’s The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” she says, laughing and shaking her head, “but when you get here, you see how different it is.”
In college, Ella—unlike the man she loved—was not on a sure career path. Moses had always known he’d be an architect and would go to graduate school to become one. But Ella felt lost. Now that her dreams of being a politician were put aside, it was apparent she would need to shift course, so she chose to major in business.
Four years went by, with Ella and Moses meeting up as often as they could, until finally she earned her degree. The two got married, and Ella moved to Atlanta, still unsure of what God would have her do. In the meantime, she decided to take a job at a sandwich shop, all the while knowing it wasn’t where she belonged.
In Atlanta, the newlyweds joined a church and started making friends. One person they met was an employee at In Touch, and she encouraged Ella to apply for a job with the ministry. Feeling unqualified but having nothing to lose, Ella applied for a position in the Partner Communications Department, and a new phase of her life began. Before she realized it was happening, five years passed, then 10. And now, after 15 years on staff, Ella has worked in several departments, learning different skills and putting her many talents to use.
Ella never became a politician as her father had hoped. God had other plans—and what He had in mind was so much better.
A few years ago someone asked a question in the IT managers’ meeting: How do we, as good stewards, make the most of computers the ministry can no longer use? Ella thought of her parents’ school and the children there who had never seen a keyboard or clicked a mouse. And without any real expectations she said, “It’d be interesting if I could take them to Kenya.” Brad Brown, In Touch’s CIO, didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” he said. “Let’s do that.”
Ella never became a politician as her father had hoped, and she didn’t change her homeland through governmental reforms. God had other plans—and what He had in mind was so much better. After years of remaining apart from the faith, Ella’s father submitted his life to Christ in 2010. And today, through In Touch partner liaisons—and a relationship between father and daughter—several schools in Kenya now have computer labs. It was the first project of its kind in the ministry’s history, and the program has recently expanded to Botswana and Haiti, providing jobs for technology teachers and allowing students to graduate better prepared for university.
Ella’s story began thousands of miles away with the little girl who struggled in school and left her home without clear life goals in mind. But if there’s one thing Ella has learned, it is how to ad-lib. She adapts to each circumstance, readjusting whenever she needs to.
She takes a similar approach in her relationship with Jesus. When there is doubt or insecurity, she looks for a way to grow. “I’m not scared of misinterpreting who God is,” she says, “because if I do, He will just reinterpret it for me.” There is a fluidity to Ella that comes with the drastic changes of life as an immigrant. As it is for most expatriates, moving from her home country was like jumping into a pool without first checking its temperature. But doing so has given her the ability to pursue God’s wisdom over any other. It also led Ella to a place where her warmth reaches over cubicle walls—and, through numbers and words, across nations.
Photography by Audra Melton