With her permission, I am writing about my wife’s experiences with the Christian charity, Mercy Ships. You can read part one in my previous post.
For the last four years I have cocooned myself off from new experiences and have tried to make my life safe. My vain attempts to deal with the grief I felt from my mother’s death led me to hold people at a distance, and I had been gradually pushing God away also. I wasn’t really close to my mother but her early death changed me inside. Witnessing her suffering was very hard. The discipleship training that I was to experience on the ship would teach me many things, one of which would be the discipline of serving people in need and being with them in their suffering. A Mercy Ship is a hospital ship that provides essential medical care in areas of the world where there is little hope of healing.
In my first months of training on board the Anastasis I struggled as an introvert whose inner life had become walled up compartments of pain and loss. I would leave four years of grief behind and find ten years of richly rewarding life experience, but at the start I could have no way to knowing this. I would live on a floating hunk of metal that contained a melting pot of humanity confined on board a vessel just 159 metres long. It was a melting pot in every sense. People from all nations, walks of life and cultures rubbed sweaty shoulders together in the hot cramped confines of a former Italian cruise ship. I was here to move out into the wide world to meet the needs of others but I felt compressed in the narrow confines of the ship where my need for healing initially held me back. I was here to move forward into a new life but even on the steep staircases between levels I had to crab sideways to pass people going down or up.
I sought to spend as much time as possible up on deck away from the claustrophobia of narrow halls and small rooms. It was a cooler, quieter space. On the ship I thought my window on the world would be opened up to me straight away but the little round port holes did not reveal much of the outside world. Navigating the low ceilings I quickly learned to protect my head from injury and my feet from various trip hazards. Navigating so many new relationships on board the ship would be an essential skill if I was to chart a course between the personal space I needed and the public space where I could serve the needs of others with Mercy Ships.
A joke comes to mind, a Polish doctor, an American, a Swiss lady and an Australian walk into a small cabin; yes, that was my first cabin on board and no, I wasn’t sure what punch line would be at the end of the joke. It was not always clear if I should laugh or cry as life just came at me with a loud vibrancy which was exhilarating yet also confronting. I had a love/ hate relationship with the noisy dining room where everyone ate in shifts because of the limited space, but up on deck the sight of the sea and the sky invoked in me a sense of peace. In the open space I was reconnecting with the faith I sought to revive. But these times would be limited as ship board tasks had to be done; an ageing vessel needs ongoing maintenance. We had to clean everything, to help in so many ways that there was always something to do.
My first port of call was Senegal and my first three months went from November to January so that meant for me a Christmas like no other. I was welcomed into the cabin of a Canadian family and I felt at home with their kindness and generosity. At the Christmas dinner I chose to be part of the team that served the meal and as I enjoyed this simple task I felt the walls within me crumble a little more. In time I would move from carrying dinner plates to cleaning the bilge plates in the noisy engine room. There I was, a former veterinary surgeon working with a Japanese anaesthetist in the bowels of a ship. Over the next ten years I would get to do so many things from scuba diving under the ship to handling customs issues. At the end of my first three months I had made the transition to ship life and I was beginning to hope that Mercy Ships would be the life for me.