Peter Wooding caught up with Don Stephens to find out how he pioneered the work of Mercy Ships following a life-changing encounter with Mother Teresa, who asked him three questions…
“I’ve known since I was a little boy that God had a call on my life,” says Mercy Ships Founder Don Stephens. “Even then I was searching for a purpose,” remembers Don who grew up in a Christian family in the mountains of Colorado.
“Fast forward three decades later to a meeting in Calcutta with Mother Teresa, who asked me three very important questions. First of all, she asked me ‘Why were you born?’ I explained to her a dream that I had about a hospital ship for Africa.
“She gave me several gifts – and one of them was she didn’t laugh at me. I don’t have a maritime background. I’m not from a family that knows the sea and I’m from a rural area thousands of miles from the sea.
“The second question was ‘Where’s your pain?’ She quickly let me know that God often uses pain as preparation for purpose. I didn’t want to talk about it, but my wife Deyon and I have four children.
“The third in birth order is our son John Paul who has special needs. That was the source of my pain and Mother Teresa helped me understand that perhaps John Paul was part of God’s preparation for purpose, and he certainly was.
“Finally, she asked me ‘What are you doing about it?’”
Following that incredible meeting Don and his wife Deyon stepped out in faith and overcame incredible obstacles to launch Mercy Ships’ first vessel called the Anastasis.
Don remembers those pioneer days were extremely challenging as his entire family lived on board the ship for the next ten years.
“It was terrible at times. For a while there we didn’t even have enough diesel fuel to run the generators 24-7. So being very creative we came up with what we called the ‘hour of power’, meaning we could turn the generators for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.
“Otherwise we were working in a dark ship getting everything ready. The ship didn’t need that much work, but God loved us enough that he was working on us. What he was doing in that preparation period was preparing a group of people for service.”
During the last 42 years since those difficult days God has also been working in the lives of the many people who have received life-changing medical help. The charity recently celebrated the incredible milestone of performing their 100,000th surgery on board their current hospital ship, the Africa Mercy.
Don looks back on one of the many standout moments of those many transformed lives: “When we were in Madagascar, we had a young man who walked five days to get to us. He had to sell his cow, which was his livelihood to cover the journey. He had the largest tumour we’d ever encountered, which weighed at least five kilos. He couldn’t even hold his head up.
“After we removed the tumour we could see the immediate change in his life as his hope had been restored. He could look us in the eye for the first time. When he went back home several weeks later his wife didn’t recognise him. But when she realised it was her husband she couldn’t believe it as he was walking with his head held high. That’s one of the stories that still deeply impacts me.”
Mercy Ships announced the latest addition to the fleet and the next chapter in their story of faith: the Global Mercy. Scheduled to set sail to West Africa in late 2021, she will be the world’s largest purpose-built hospital ship, doubling the charity’s impact.
“We’ve adopted a slogan for the future: ‘twice the mercy, twice the hope’. That’s what we do. Mercy Ships brings hope and healing to the bottom billion, many of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa.
“And that’s why we can hardly wait for the launch of our new purpose-built hospital ship, the Global Mercy. As well as being able to carry out so many more surgeries it will allow us to greatly increase our training and mentoring programme on board the new ship.”