travel bursary reports
I had deliberately not allowed myself to think on what life would be like on board before we got there; I guess I didn’t want to set myself unrealistic expectations and just enjoy the moment. This is unlike me and perhaps it was a grace from God to do so. I just enjoyed everything as it came along, our large family cabin (!), the people around us, the first glimpses of the hospital and ship life itself. Unfortunately we both ate some bad chicken on the first night and took the next 7 days rushing from the toilet to the bed and back again. This was a fairly isolating start as we were mostly confined to our cabin (thank goodness it was a big one); we also missed some of our orientation process and had to call in sick for ‘work’ straight away. It was most unsettling as people didn’t know us and I felt a desire to prove ourselves as good workers, ready to serve and help in anyway. Instead our new colleagues had to cover a load of extra shifts whilst we languished in bed like lazy lumps. Whilst the joint gastroenteritis was a first for us as a couple, it wasn’t the sort of ‘first’ I had pictured for us on board! But God of course brought all things together for good; I was utterly exhausted in the run up to leaving the UK and I finally got to rest. In this place of humility I also began to learn receive grace and mercy myself before giving it out; it was a
sharp reminder of the order of things in the Kingdom of God.
I remember noting in the first couple of weeks that the Mercy Ships felt like a spiritually ‘thin place’. A place where the presence of God was almost tangible wherever you went; a conversation over the dinner table would easily lead to a big lump in my throat (a sure sign the Holy Spirit is moving near me!). I could almost ‘see’ the angels that walked the ship, glowing like beacons on the bow and stern. The place is saturated in prayer and worship. Except the worship looks like an engineer on his knees fixing the pistons, or a surgeon rising from his bed in the early hours of the morning to answer his on-call bleep. Everyone is on board working for free, in fact they are paying to be there. Out of love for the One who gave it all. I am a firm believer that love looks like something; on the Africa Mercy it looks like the pharmacist diligently restocking all the ward medications, or the electrician cheerfully fixing the bathroom light in our cabin at a moment’s notice. The incense of worship rises from the bottom decks right to the top. We often had sung worship too; although it wasn’t the worship culture I enjoy at home I loved being amongst a community of authentic worshippers.
I have had a dream for many years of travelling the world on a ship that’s sole purpose is to worship God. A vessel that roams the earth, carrying thousands of worshippers who sing, dance and shout to God; the blaze of colour, the noise of praise and the fragrant glory heralds the coming of Jesus. A wor-SHIP. Or perhaps a spiritual battleship. So this was probably the closest I will get to this dream and I’d say it was pretty close, I loved it. I would often gaze out the windows at bow of the Africa Mercy, its nose pointed out towards the sea as if ready to leave at a moment’s notice. At these times I would feel suddenly overwhelmed with childish excitement and anticipation, goosebumps arriving all over my arms. I never fully understood what that was about.
I have had a dream for many years of travelling the world on a ship that’s sole purpose is to worship God. A vessel that roams the earth, carrying thousands of worshippers who sing, dance and shout to God; the blaze of colour, the noise of praise and the fragrant glory heralds the coming of Jesus.
One in the crowd?
An initial challenge was being surrounded by people who were just like me! It was almost surreal bumping into people who have the same calling, gifting and interests as me. Women who were excellent nurses and missionaries; they loved Africa and the poor. They were full of compassion and quickly put their patients at ease, speaking fairly decent Malagasy as they worked. My insecurities revelled in this opportunity to remind me that I am somehow less or lacking in someway because of these beautiful colleagues of mine. That I am just one in a crowd. I wrestled with this in the first few days on the wards, feeling awkward and slightly unsure of how I fit into mercy ships after all. Thankfully I got over myself pretty quickly. The Father’s love conquers all my insecurities and remains the best antidote to such pride and foolishness. I remember this thought because near the end of our service I was so grateful God has called so many of us to this huge commission. The workers are few and the need is massive. And besides I am just one tiny fish in a huge ocean, fully known to Him and infinitely unique.
The simple life
Another battle was for a content heart. It was surprising to experience a restlessness in the first few weeks, my focus often shifting to the future. I think this was partly due to the pace of life of the ship, it was ‘Mora mora’, which is Malagasy for ‘slowly slowly’ and a culturally favourite expression. Not only was the speed with which I was required to nurse the patients almost uncomfortably relaxed but the rest of my life’s responsibilities were reduced to the bare minimum. I remember finishing a hospital shift at 4pm and telling my mum on skype that my only task for the rest of the day was to ‘eat dinner’. Worse still it would be dinner from a buffet already prepared by the wonderful team of cooks. What would I do with myself? It was amazing to me that one can be in the middle of Africa, serving the poor and showing the love of Jesus and still feel discontent! Or perhaps it was the age old trick of finding my value in doing rather than being. This desire to find satisfaction eventually drove me into the little prayer room on deck 5. There I found all I had been looking for: a Father who loves me and exhilarates me and gives me peace. He really is the only answer to my contentedness and freedom. He is the super ‘secret’ that Paul talks about after all.
His precious ones.
Each woman was unique and responded slightly differently to our love and tender care. I loved watching them come out of themselves, from quiet and withdrawn women to bold warriors shouting out thanks and praises at the dress ceremony, holding their heads high. This new fierceness is doubly brilliant because they are absolutely tiny people, never taller than my chest height, a combination of their genetic inheritance and malnutrition. I quickly learned some Malagasy to help me to connect to them and understand what they needed. The local translators were invaluable and often loved the women as much as we did. I kept pinching myself on the ward, is this really real? Does life get this good? I felt as though I had fallen off the edge of my life somehow and into a deep oasis. I kept trying to take it all in, to scoop all the goodness of the moment and store it in my heart for a life time. During my night shifts I loved to sit and watch over the women as they slept, it felt like such an honour to take care of them. God’s precious ones. I remember seeing a note on my cabin door one evening saying my night shift was cancelled as they didn’t need me. I actually felt a twinge of disappointment! I also remember the first time I saw a woman giving consent for surgery; she was unable to read or write (this is nearly always the case) so they put her finger on an ink pad and pressed it onto the line for ‘patient’s signature’. Something about seeing this particular vulnerability always undid me.
Prayer and Urine
Another joy was to be able to speak freely with them about who Jesus is to me. They often asked for prayer and we would hunker down beside them in their beds to pray when they were sick. If you weren’t down on your knees emptying their catheter bags of urine, you were praying! Coming from a secular hospital in the UK where one has to be so careful to offer prayer this was wonderful. The chaplaincy team would burst onto the wards each morning with loud songs, bongos and clapping giving praise to Jesus.
It was quite astonishing to behold, particularly if you were in the middle of intimate catheter care behind a patient’s curtains. We always prayed at each nursing handover as well; this was so strange at first because I would always turn up for my shift buzzing with efficiency and ready for speed, just like in my Emergency Department at home. Instead I found the bible open and time for prayer.
A comfortable place
I do recall wrestling at one point with the ‘comforts’ of the ship. I guess I thought I had signed up for a hard missionary slog for 3 months, sweating it out for Jesus.
Mercifully this was not the case, the air conditioned ship, complete with a Starbucks café meant that life on board was very sustainable. Some volunteers have been on board for over 20 years serving faithfully. The air conditioning was not so appreciated by the patients, I would often find them wrapped up in a half a dozen blankets as they are so acclimatised to working in the rice fields in the midday sun.
Mercy Ships is passionate about making a long term impact on the countries they go to and they have medical teams working tirelessly in the local hospitals teaching the Malagasy doctors the latest World Health Organisations recommendations. So the plan was to set up an obstetric fistula clinic in the local town so that surgery and follow up care could continue after we left. This meant that our ship ward took on a number of Malagasy nurses so that we could teach them our skills in order for them to run the clinic once we left. This presented a challenge of teaching people who speak almost no English and come from a very different nursing culture and skill set. However God gave me a special grace to teach and find patience when it was difficult to do so; to my surprise I found myself with close Malagasy friends at the end of it.
Mercy Ships is passionate about making a long term impact on the countries they go to and they have medical teams working tirelessly in the local hospitals teaching the Malagasy doctors the latest World Health Organisation's recommendations.
As good as it gets.
Oh what to say about the wards! How can I even begin to explain the joy I found down on Deck 3. In the belly of the ship is certainly the most glory. I have always sort of believed I sort of bumped into nursing by accident. It fits my skill set and my love of people; I am fiercely practical, good with my hands and a nurturer through and through. However my experience nursing on Mercy Ships turned this belief on its head, God chose this career for me and I feel so cherished and known by Him in it. I love it!! I can see His loving hands shaping all my choices as the years have gone by, my dreams unfolding before me, almost accidentally on purpose. To turn up to Africa with a skill, a practical ‘love in action’ step that reveals Jesus all the way is right up my street.
I was placed on the ward for women with obstetric fistulas, a decision that felt rather random as I have no genealogical nursing experience. However this turned out to be my favourite ward on the ship and absolute gift from Jesus! These women have come from a life of tragedy and isolation. Most of them spent up to one week in labour unable to get help. They eventually delivered a dead child and were left with a vaginal fistula and a broken heart. They leak urine for the rest of their lives and are unacceptable to society. And yet they are the most precious and treasured ones, not forgotten by God. The surgeons operate on the women repairing the fistula and then we get to physically and emotionally love them back to health. When they are finally dry from urine and catheter free (this can takes a few weeks) we have a dress ceremony for them. They receive a new dress and parade out amongst the people, giving testimony and glory to the One who made them. I found such joy in this whole process! It was redemptive from beginning to end.
Paraded by a loving Father
I love that often when you go to give out in some way, one receives so much more in return. Again, God’s kingdom remains upside down. I received so much, not to mention a sweet community of international friends. I had gone to Mercy Ships anticipating I would make some friends but that going as a couple, and with a specific job to do, I would be unlikely to develop deep relationships. This was on the contrary. I became very close friends with some wonderful people who have impacted my life for the better. During our time Ben and I were so generously affirmed as a couple, as individuals and for our unique gifts; it was quite overwhelming. Toward the end of our trip I remembered some prophetic words given to me by friends in Sheffield before I left; they all pointed to being paraded by a loving father, shown off to the masses for who I was, bold and beautiful. Despite all my human failings God is faithful to His word and it was sweet to see this manifest in reality as I believed. Another prophetic word over my life has been that I am a ‘light bearer’ to the nations. Ben’s wonderful father re-prophesied this as we left; I recall feeling unsure of how ‘light-like’ I was feeling as we sleepily descended on the plane into Madagascar’s green rainforests. How ridiculous. The calling and gifts of God are irrevocable. On nearly all of my goodbye cards from various friends and colleagues this word of bearing light came up over and over.
Goodbye Mercy Ships
In the last few weeks on the Africa Mercy I would hear a whisper in my heart that this was ‘the ship of dreams’. I’m well aware that I am a romantic at heart (and that this is a line from Titanic!) but none the less it was my ship of dreams and it is for the thousands who come on board and are impacted by it. I am so grateful I got to experience all this and I think I have only just begun to see the significance of this time.
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