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Philanthropy Shining Lights

No Guarantees

The Erkmanns chose risk over safety to help a friend with an incurable medical condition

Learning to be generous as a Christian is a journey, and how it plays out may be different for each believer.

For some, it means voluntarily capping their income at $100,000, in order to give away millions. For another, it means shelling out cash to fund a restaurant that hires marginalized men and women, or setting up business in a prison and providing work and life skills training to inmates. Or it could be a millionaire living on the median household income in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, and using the rest to invest in his community.

These were the type of stories Rachel Erkmann heard when she first attended a Journey of Generosity weekend retreat. The retreat was sponsored by Generous Giving, an organization dedicated to helping people—often people with wealth—become generous in how they give and live. It sparked a process of surrender for both her and her husband, Mike, of becoming more generous with their finances.

But being financially generous is one thing. What she didn’t expect was for God to ask her in 2018 to give away part of her liver.

Mike, a commercial real estate broker in Boise, Idaho, had purchased a commercial property management company in 2017. In the process of taking each of the female employees from the new office out to lunch, Rachel met Ainsley Miller.

That’s when Rachel found out Ainsley’s husband, TJ, had a chronic liver disease. There was a procedure where surgeons can remove part of the liver from a living donor and transplant it into the recipient. The liver regenerates in both patients.

Rachel, who works selling medical equipment that helps take organs out, immediately said, “I could do that!” Ainsley politely declined.

Looking back, Rachel jokes that her spontaneous offer was “a little impulsive.” She didn’t bring it up again, but the idea stuck with her. “I started thinking, God, are you really asking me to do this? I had to come to terms with, we’ve given our finances over to you, but is really everything that I have yours?”

Mike was supportive, but not as confident.

Rachel ran the idea by surgeons she came across through work. They all told her she should never voluntarily offer part of her liver—but that didn’t jive with the direction she felt God leading her. “I had to come to terms with the Lord on that. Drown out that human, world perspective on things.”

There was a brief period where she “wrestled with God.”

“I finally had to submit,” she said. “Yes, I have three children. Yes, it doesn’t make sense from a human perspective for me to put myself at risk for someone that was truly like a stranger. But my body is not my own, and if this is your will, you’ll take care of it.”

Still, she said she wanted assurance from God that it would all turn out well. But that’s not what she sensed Him telling her. “What He gave me was, I will be with you. That’s what I held on to the whole time.”

TJ had been diagnosed with a myriad of autoimmune diseases starting back in 1998, including diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. The worst was Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a liver disease with no cure. “My body just sort of attacks itself,” he said.

Over time, Mike and Rachel got to know TJ and Ainsley better, getting their families together for lunches and bar-b-ques.

“I realized he’s got these three beautiful children,” Mike said. A liver transplant could possibly help extend TJ’s life by 10 years. “That’s when I remember saying, we’re all in—10 years of life to be a dad.”

That’s when Rachel volunteered to donate part of her liver.

“The feelings of selfishness kicked in,” TJ said. “It was hard for me to accept Rachel stepping forward and doing this for me. There are no guarantees with this surgery.”

The surgeries, performed in July 2018 at the University of Utah Hospital, were successful. Within six weeks, Rachel said her liver was mostly regenerated and she was “100 percent” back to normal. “It feels like I never had the surgery,” she said at a Generous Giving conference in fall 2018, just a few months after the surgery.

TJ was also doing well, although the doctors told him he would have at least 100 days of complications. “He looks physically different than he did before,” Rachel said. “The whites of his eyes have turned white—they used to be yellow. His skin, which was yellow, is now pink. He looks alive now. He didn’t before.”

Before the surgery, Rachel remembers wrestling with the idea of safety. “A lot of things God asks us to do that don’t feel safe,” she said. “But what is safety really? In God’s will, I am just as safe on the OR table as I am laying in my own bed at night. I could say no to God on this—no thank you, that’s not safe—and I could die in a car wreck tomorrow.”

Since the surgery in 2018, TJ and Ainsley have been through a medical rollercoaster with follow-up procedures, implanted stents, and battles with infections—one that turned septic. In December 2019, Ainsley wrote that the doctors informed TJ that the autoimmune liver disease was back and attacking his new liver. “We are devastated by this re-diagnosis, and have been trying to figure out how to keep living a good life despite this awful news,” she said. “We have been taking things one day at a time, soaking up the good days, time with the kids and each other.”

It’s a hard reminder that obedience doesn’t guarantee a specific result.

Rachel knew that going in, although walking it out is a different feat. “We don’t know the end of the story,” she said. But that doesn’t minimize the sacrifice. “It became apparent to me that God is in the business of blessing. God is going to bless that person, and he’s letting you in on it. I’m just honored that we have been invited into God’s story.”

Christina Darnell

Christina Darnell is a freelance writer who has contributed to WORLD, The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.