International Christian hospital ship charity Mercy Ships is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. American Don Stephens, who co-founded the organisation with his wife Deyon back in 1979, spoke via email about how he came to found the organisation as well as some of the ups and downs of the journey since...

Congratulations on the 40th anniversary. When you started out with Mercy Ships did you ever envisage it would last this long and become this large?
"I sensed Mercy Ships had the potential to outlive and outlast my life, but did not conceive of what the incredible impact that has resulted from the past 40 years of service. It is greatly satisfying to know that recently our volunteer surgeons performed the 100,000th surgical procedure on board our ship in Guinea, West Africa. That represents a lot of lives that have been changed." 

Mercy Ships Deyon and Don Stephens 

Deyon and Don Stephens, standing outside the flagship Africa Mercy. PICTURE: Mercy Ships. 

Can you tell us a little about how you came to found the organisation?
"Although the greater story of Mercy Ships is about the thousands of supporters and volunteers who helped make this dream a reality for the past 40 years, four key events motivated me to launch out: a storm, a ship, a son, and a saint.
     "Storm: In 1964, my wife Deyon and I went to the Bahamas with a youth group of about 120. A 100-year storm, Hurricane Cleo, struck the Bahamas. Various small groups gathered to pray and someone prayed for a ship to show God’s love in the midst of disaster. 
     "Ship: The ship that became the seed for the vision was the hospital ship of the Eisenhower administration, the SS Hope. I was fascinated by Dr William Walsh’s idea of taking the hospital to the poor.

"[N]o-one does anything alone. The real story of Mercy Ships is the thousands of volunteers and supporters who are now a part of this journey. These are the ones at the ‘coal face’ of bringing hope and healing as we follow the 2,000-year-old model of Jesus."

     "Son: In 1976 our son John Paul was born. 'JP', as we affectionately call him, was a special needs child who is now a special needs adult who cannot care for himself, nor speak. This son, whom we dearly love, became an inner catalyst for my wife Deyon and I to look for ways to serve others in difficult circumstances.
     "Saint: In 1977, I spent 10 days in Calcutta, India. A friend arranged for two of us to meet Mother Teresa. She arranged for a tour of the Sisters of Mercy home for the handicapped. The impact on me was profound.  I left with a sense that Mother Teresa was saying to me to be the eyes, ears, hands, and heart for others like John Paul who had no voice.
     "So a saint, my son, a 100-year storm, and a hospital ship of the past became strong threads woven into my inner being. I had found something worth investing my life to bring it into a reality. Now, no-one does anything alone. The real story of Mercy Ships is the thousands of volunteers and supporters who are now a part of this journey. These are the ones at the ‘coal face’ of bringing hope and healing as we follow the 2,000-year-old model of Jesus."

You initially lived on the first Mercy Ship, Anastasis, with your wife Deyon and your family for 10 years. How did that impact you as a family?
"For us, it was a privilege in the midst of struggles, [for] example - no air-conditioning, [a] toilet flushing system [that] only worked in a few locations, but somehow, this knit our family even closer. We moved on board the first hospital ship with our three young children soon after it was purchased in 1978 and settled into our 600 square feet of living space. A fourth child was born to us a few years later, and we enjoyed 10 years of living as a family on board ship, before moving to the US to focus on growing the administrative support for Mercy Ships."

Mercy Ships Don Stephens with baby

Don Stephens talking to a volunteer nurse as he holds a young patient aboard the Africa Mercy. PICTURE: Mercy Ships

Over the 40 years, what, for you personally, have been the greatest successes of the organisation and its work?
"Firstly, the talented professional crew from across the globe who give of themselves so others can receive the treatments at no cost.
     "Secondly the stories represented by the thousands of lives changed. When I look back, I can’t help but shake my head in wonder. There were a few bumps along the road, but together we have overcome them all. I am so thankful and humbled by what we have achieved. We have seen 100,000 life-changing surgical procedures, over 42,000 local healthcare professionals trained, and over 445,000 dental procedures - and we are so grateful for the countless lives who have been impacted.
     "However, there is so much more to do. So many people suffer from preventable diseases and lack of safe, surgical care around the globe. We can and will do more to help. We have become more and more effective at what we do."

"People are both the greatest blessing and greatest challenge. As one can imagine, Mercy Ships attracts strong willed, adventurous, passionate people who want to help change the world [through serving some of the world’s most underserved]."

And what about the greatest challenges?
"People are both the greatest blessing and greatest challenge. As one can imagine, Mercy Ships attracts strong willed, adventurous, passionate people who want to help change the world [through serving some of the world’s most underserved]."

What advantage do you think using ships to deliver aid has as opposed to other means?
"There are many advantages, not necessarily in delivering aid, but delivering surgery where almost none exists and building into a nation’s healthcare systems through capacity building as we train health professionals within their own nation. This allows Mercy Ships to leave a nation stronger in healthcare delivery after we sail than upon arrival."

Funding is always a challenge for NGOs giving away their services for free - how much does that limit or impact the work you do?
"Mercy Ships follows the 2,000-year-old model of Jesus of Nazareth as the lame walk, the blind see, all without charge." 

As you mark the anniversary, what message do you have for all those who have volunteered their time with Mercy Ships over the years?
"Deep gratitude to each and every volunteer! We would not exist without them. I cannot say ‘thank you’ enough times! Volunteers serving with Mercy Ships contribute monthly crew fees and raise their own finances to live and work on board. This means that funding received is complimented by contributed services and gift-in-kind, enabling Mercy Ships to deliver medical and development services at a fraction of the cost. From medical professionals, to galley staff, housekeepers, to IT experts, maritime officers, to security, and vehicle maintenance - each crew member is an integral part of bringing hope and healing. It’s a unique model."

Mercy Ships Don Stephens patients deck

Don Stephens joins volunteers Meggin Major and Rosanna Maryon as the entertain a patient's daughter aboard the Africa Mercy. PICTURE: Mercy Ships

Do you think there will ever be a time when organisations like Mercy Ships are no longer needed?
"One can always hope! In view of the many crises in the world, this is unlikely. However, Singapore is but one example of a nation moving from a colony to a leading nation in less than 100 years. Leadership, good governance, strong business practices, strong church, strong work ethic, and the belief that change is possible are but a few factors that must occur regularly in any nation for lasting change."

What would you ask Christians to pray for specifically with regard to the ministry of Mercy Ships?
"That we remain true to our four core values:
1. Love God;
2. Love and serve others;
3. Be people of integrity; and, 
4. Aim for excellence in all we say and do."

Want to volunteer or donate? Call 1300 739 899 or visit www.mercyships.org.au.