“Africa is literally going up in flames,” he said in his emotive, fervent Irish brogue. “And we’re standing on the sidelines, holding a watering can.” I had heard him use this analogy before, and it always pierced my heart. Now he made it personal. “Ashley, our generation will be known for three things: the war on terror, the digital revolution and what we did or did not do to put the fire out in Africa. This is not a celebrity cause, Ashley. History, like God, is watching what we do.” I call this being “Bono-ed.”
What could I say, to him and to Bobby? Both of these uniquely influential men in my life were pressing me to drop everything and spend a couple of weeks showing Americans why they should care about Africans. And this Kate Roberts person, uncannily on the same subject, was asking for much, much more.
I was still thinking it over when I returned to my apartment after another long night of filming on the gritty San Francisco docks. I limply pulled off my clothes, so tired that I briefly fell asleep while leaning against the shower, waiting for the water to warm up. When I startled awake and saw the water running, I automatically stepped in without checking the temperature and, for about the fourth day in a row, was shocked by a frigid blast of Bay Area ice water. But this time, instead of bursting into tears and throwing myself another pity party, table for one, or calling my husband to whine, or directing my rage at some random thing outside of me (or at my own body), something inside me snapped, and I was given the absolute gift of—for once in my life—getting over my little petty dramas and concerns. I had a fierce word with myself about the two billion people a day who do not have access to safe drinking water, much less the incredible luxury of piped water. I matter-of-factly completed the business of my shower and thanked God for my blessings and the unbelievable abundance of my life.
As I dried myself off, I finally woke up to what was happening to me. If these diverse, impressive, eminent, committed people were contacting me at the same time to help do something about the world’s most urgent health emergency, giving me an extraordinary opportunity to do service on a global scale for the same vulnerable populations who so moved me as a younger woman, shouldn’t I take that as a sign? I was being given a golden chance. Shouldn’t I say yes?
When I told Dario that I wanted to get involved in the fight against AIDS and poverty, to resume the work I had loved so much in college, and that I would like to renegotiate the beginning of our annual stay in Scotland, to my utter delight he was completely supportive. In fact, he wanted to come along with me on the Heart of America tour. And Bono still swears Dario was an even better public speaker on the issue than I.
I agreed to meet Kate in Chicago on the third day of the tour. I felt in my soul that I was finally about to realize my true vocation, and I rejoiced. I knew my life was changing. It was exciting, and daunting, too.
My job on the Heart of America tour was to emcee the events, to articulate the problems that needed fixing, to recite the grim statistics and to begin to engage the issue of faith as the basis for this cri de coeur. I would also warm up the crowds and make them comfortable with my good old American self before turning them over to the hyperverbal Irish rock star who simply blew people’s minds as he exhorted them to greatness.
Kate joined us in Chicago, as planned. I liked her immediately. She was an elegant Englishwoman in her midthirties who radiated energy and purpose. I didn’t realize that Kate had actually come to audition me for the job of global ambassador, observing me in public to see how I handled the material. She accompanied me to the next event, a meeting in a South Side church where each member of our group was going to talk to the congregation about HIV. As I listened to others tell their stories, I confessed to Kate how inadequate I felt: I had so much emotion and intensity, but I felt like a bit of a fraud and was scared I’d do something unhelpful. “I don’t have any experience in the field,” I said.