We are a family of three; Andrew, Jodie and Jessica (aged 17) from Tasmania, Australia who are currently serving in Cotonou, Benin West Africa on the M/V Africa Mercy, the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world, through Mercy Ships International. God has called us on a journey that has been many years in the making. For this season we call West Africa home as we seek to bring hope and healing to the poorest of the poor.

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

My God Shall Supply All my Needs

I sat and stared at my sister's t-shirt in awe. The word "Mercy" written brazenly across the front. It was as if God had reached down from heaven and written it himself.

We had recently learned about the organisation Mercy Ships (this was way back in 2005) and had been wrestling with the idea of packing everything up, throwing caution to the wind and joining a big white hospital ship in the nations of Africa to serve the poorest of the poor.

Fast forward eleven years and we are soon to embark on our eighth and final (for this season) field service with Mercy Ships on the M/V Africa Mercy.

Things didn't quite work out the way we had planned and we had some timing issues with God. But turns out, as usual, that God knew best and five long years after our initial training, in 2006, we finally walked up the gangway of the Africa Mercy in 2011. Hard to fathom we will be walking down it for the last time in a bit over a year, in 2018! And that year will fly by. We have already started the lasts, can you believe it? A few weeks ago, I had my last Mercy Ships physical, one last I am not sorry about! :). I have put in our last order with the pharmacy for medications for the next field service and teachers are in the throes of organising Jessica's last year in the Academy. My baby arrived as a girl and will be leaving a grown women!

The thing that has stuck me quite a lot lately has been God's amazing financial provision. Never once have we lacked for any of our needs and many of our wants have been met also. Sure, our wants and needs are substantially simpler that they were when we were lived in Australia but its that such a bad thing? Hey, I am just looking forward to buying some clothes that are not threadbare. The more we receive, the more we have been able to give and what a privilege that is. Andrew sometimes "tells me off " for giving too much away but I think if we have been blessed so abundantly, then surely God wants us to bless others too. It give me such great joy! :)

When we were preparing to attend our Gateway training in Texas, USA at the Mercy Ships International Operations Centre we did the rounds, speaking at lots of different churches in South East Queensland, where we were living at the time. We were doing the dreaded "F' word! Fundraising!!! The word strikes a certain fear into heart of most people. It means putting yourself out there and becoming vulnerable for and passionate about a cause that is close to your heart. From my quite extensive (now) experience with fundraising I have found that doing exactly that and being real draws people in. We are flawed, just like everyone else and we were just chasing the dream that God planted in our hearts and the mission he called us to.

Somehow, in some way God has always come through for us. When we had five weeks notice to come to the ship, our house sold in record time in a depressed market and somehow, in some way we scraped up the funds to come to the ship. When the bottom fell out of the Aussie dollar, He brought us extra supporters from the USA and somehow we made it though. When I needed to fly back to Australia to have plastic surgery on a skin cancer on my nose, He provided. When we made the call for help with Jessica's online class expenses, He made a way. All along the journey, God has confirmed our calling, even though it has been one of the hardest things we have ever done, by continuing to provide for us!

As I gasped at the pain that ripped though my stomach in the wee hours of a humid Cotonou night I wondered what could possibly be wrong. After hours of not vomiting or going to the toilet I began to get worried. What could these terrible pains be? There didn't seem to be any explanation. Then, as suddenly as they came over me, they disappeared and I fell back into a fitful sleep.

The next day I saw the crew doctor and she told me that it was my gallbladder. She asked me about my insurance and I think I shocked her when I bust into tears. Somehow I knew it was coming but had been in denial. Memories came flooding back of my last trip away for medical treatment. The long days of travel, being apart from Andrew and Jess for six weeks, the pain and the infections that lasted months after I came back to the ship. I didn't know if I had it in me to do it all over again.

But things were only going to get worse, as I remembered that our yearly travel insurance policy was due to expire in just two weeks. After many, many weeks of negotiations, my claim was denied as, under a new policy, my condition was considered pre-existing and therefore would not be covered. It was a very stressful time and between the flurry of emails and phone calls with our insurance company I learned that my beautiful Nan has passed away and I could not be there to say my final goodbyes. I was in the depths of despair and didn't know what to do. I was in pain, I was grieving and I was lonely and afraid. We talked about going home. It just didn't seem fair to go out like this!

I met with a friend for coffee and she suggested that I email our friends and family and just put our situation out there. Back to the big "F" word again. Back to being real and honest and sharing our challenges in an open way.I had no idea what would happen. Well God chose that moment to open the floodgates! For the past six years we have been grateful for God's provision but this time we were absolutely blown away. God was not done with us on this big white hospital ship just yet!

As the week flew by and dozens of emails and messages poured in with promises of donations, prayer, love and support I was brought to my knees, thanking the One who always has and always will provide for us. One morning, later in the week, I opened an email from the Australian Mercy Ships office to say that our fundraising goal for my surgery had well and truly been met and tears began to stream down my face. I was unsure why I even doubted.

That was a few months ago now and I can say that my surgery and all my expenses are fully covered, we have purchased a year of "proper" health insurance with an ex-pat missionary insurance company and we have enough to insure ourselves with them until our return to Australia in 2018!

As I prepare to depart the ship, next week, I find myself thinking back to those early fundraising days. We never had any clue what the future was going to hold and the amazing, joyful, painful, exhilarating, gut wrenching, humbling, exciting, life changing journey we were about to travel! We spoke in a little church in Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast, funnily enough in the home town of the Mercy Ships Australia National Office. Trying to be frugal, (and perhaps preparing for life ahead :) ) we stayed in a backpackers and when we went to settle our bill we got to taking to the owner. People are always fascinated to hear about Mercy Ships and he was no exception.

With no hesitation, he pushed some money into our hands and prophetically declared the bible verse, " God will supply all your needs, according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus.


Friday, December 16, 2016

Confessions of an Escort

I wrote this blog post the evening of the day I went to screening, back in early September but somehow kept not getting around to posting it. Since our screening has recently wrapped up for Benin and plans are full steam ahead for screening in Cameroon, our next port of call, I thought it was timely to post it now. It also helps me to feel gratitude which I will confess I often find hard at this time of the year, on the ship. This is our fifth Christmas on the ship (in a row) and I am feeling weary. I want to embrace all the traditions of Christmas on board, knowing that one day I will pine for them, but I find myself wishing I was home (my other home) within a familiar culture and with my family. But as I re-read my post I am brought to my knees and not because I cannot walk because my limbs are too twisted, but by how lucky I really have it!! I am blessed beyond measure. 
Get ready to be broken.....
It was the lady crawling on her hand and knees that was my undoing. I felt the tears prick behind my eyes and an uncomfortable lump forming in my throat. “I cannot lose it here, I cannot lose it here, I cannot lose it right in front of her”! I watched her crawl up to the screening nurse, a grown women reduced to the position of a toddler. She stared up expectantly into the compassionate eyes of the nurse as she communicated, through the translator, that we could not help her. With a stoic look on her face, the woman, stood as tall as she could on her swollen and calloused knees and hobbled off before falling back down to her hands, back to her crawling position and began the slow, painful crawl, in the dirt to the exit. I have seen a lot in my time in Africa but I found out on that day, that I still have not seen everything.

This is screening. Finding out who we can treat and how many we can fit in the surgical schedule, shuffling through 11,000 people over three weeks. I spent one day at the screening site, a large local school, working as a patient escort, guiding patients to the exit or onto further screening. Our screening and security team were there for three weeks! Can you imagine being the one who takes away a person’s very last hope for a “normal” life or perhaps even life at all? Close your eyes and imagine your feet aching to the bone, fatigue both physical and emotional like you have never felt before and crushing someone’s spirit with a few words, over and over and over again.

Watching the hope slip away from a person eyes and body is visibly perceivable. Their body slumps over, their eyes are downcast, some with tears forming, some begging for one last chance, their feet shuffle. It is the look of hope shattered. I hear her voice and see the pain in her eyes as she looks directly into mine, “Please can’t somebody help me” as she clutches her deformed and twisted hand, the hand that has to carry her children, the hand  that needs to help her to earn a living to feed her family. I listen as her quite tears turn to sobs as I direct her to the exit.

As I stood at my first post, with no medical background, just my years of attending medical screenings, my mind begins to pre-screen. I already know who is going to be sent to the right for yes and to the left for no. I know the ortho schedule is full and my heart breaks for the literally dozens of kids I see with their crooked legs making their way slowly through the snaking line, I see the mamas untying their babies off their backs, their babies legs twisted, adults who have lived a lifetime with contorted limbs and I know that very soon, their hope will be destroyed and I can hardly stand it.

But sometimes, between dozens of “No’s” there is a “Yes, we may be able to help you”! Escorting a patient who has been told they can move on in the screening is a very different experience than being on the exit. A shy glint of joy, mixed with subtle disbelief, reflects from their features, as if they cannot believe that they could possibly be free from their physical burden.

This is why we are here. We cannot be all things to all people and for that we have to trust in God. We have to hold fast to the belief that God has ordained the moment that each and every person, who receives surgery, stands in line on the right day, at the right time and in the right city. Without this belief, our souls could be destroyed, crushed under a mountain of guilt and “what if’s”.

As I left the screening site and returned to the ship, my body exhausted, I reflected on the day, still feeling raw, my emotions simmering under the surface, my thoughts screaming, “Why? What is wrong with our world? Why is a grown woman crawling in the dirt when I was born into a country of fabulous wealth, world class health care and education, clean drinking water and not a crawling woman in sight?” I don’t know the answers to these burning questions and I don’t profess to be any great theologian.

Maybe one day, when I am standing at the feet of Jesus, I can ask him.
We were blessed that an amazing photographer was on board with us during the original screening weeks. You may have seen his work in the link on my post about shipyard. His ability to capture raw emotion and everyday events, in a beautiful way is uncanny. That is why I have so many photos. It was so hard to chose.
(Some images below you may find disturbing.) 

Dawn screening lines.

The barely controlled chaos that is our screening trademark.




So many bow legs.




Some cannot stand in line for so many hours.





A Mama's laughter.....






Mother and daughter both afflicted.






The Academy Junior High and High School also went to screening for a day. This was Jessica's (braids, grey t-shirt) fourth screening and she was a real trooper. I think of how difficult I find it to see such horrific conditions, but our kids handle it so well and with a maturity beyond their peers in their home countries.

Getting the heads up from screening nurse, Kayla and security officer Penny.

Ortho kids














The very first appointment card handed out, a symbol of hope and the reason we get up every day, even if our jobs on board do not directly involve the patients.

People often asked why we do what we do? Looking at these photos and with the image of the crawling women burned into my mind forever, I ask the question why wouldn't we do what we do?


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

First Love

Returning to West Africa has always been in our hearts. It is where we began our Mercy Ships field services and where we fell in love. Fell in love with the people, the culture and the land. We were gutted as we watched a vicious disease called Ebola decimate the nations we had invested our lives into, constantly worrying about our friends and despairing at the virulence of the outbreak. Our hearts broke as news trickled in of former day crew and Mercy Ships contacts, dying a hideous death, including one who was senselessly murdered for trying to promote health precautions against the spread of Ebola.
Imagine our joy as the disease began to wane and finally, finally each of the nations afflicted by this terrible disease were declared Ebola free. One. By. One. Our heats began to dream of a return to West Africa. We longed to hear the beat of the djembe, experience the joy and laughter of the local people and to see the rainbow of African fabrics again.
On the 18th of August, 2016 the Africa Mercy arrived back in West Africa, a hugely anticipated event. Cotonou, Benin to be exact. Benin's neighbour, Nigeria's Ebola outbreak caused us to cancel our upcoming field service to Benin, in 2014, sending us to Madagascar for two years as we waited for Ebola to subside.
Now here we are! Check out our triumphant arrival, featuring a little something special that made this particular arrival even more poignant for us! :)

The Africa Mercy coming into the Port of Cotonou.
(Photo cred above and below: Katie Callow)


A well known scene from where the Africa Mercy was berthed during it's last visit to Cotonou in 2009. This image of a fishing village and boats, with the AFM in the background, has been captured in many portraits and photos.
(Photo cred: Jen Peterschmidt)

Our advance team!! They certainly had even reason to be celebrating! Two years ago, many of the team above, had their matching outfits made and were ready for the imminent arrival of the AFM to Benin, when, at the last minute, plans went awry and our field service to Benin was postponed. So this gusty team pulled themselves together and flew to Madagascar for the shortest advance ever! What a joy to see some of the original Benin advance standing on the dock, finally seeing all their hard work coming to fruition, finally seeing the Africa Mercy sail in!!
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

The elementary kids waving their paper Beninese flags, surrounding Emmanuel, our Beninese flag bearer.
(Photo cred: Tim Baskerville)

The crew on deck waving to those on the dock.
(Photo cred above and below: Katie Callow)

Some of the advance team waving right back!

Deckie throwing out a line from the bow.
(Photo cred: Miguel Ottaviano) 

The gangway going down!

Almost there.....
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

A National Geographic team, headed up by the producer of the Aussie documentary, The Surgery Ship was waiting for us on our arrival and will be filming for three months to make a series of eight, one hour documentaries. They will also be heading back to Guinea to follow up on patients from The Surgery Ship.
(Photo cred: Dayle McCulloch)

The Nat Geo drone capturing our arrival!

We knew we were back in West Africa when we heard the drums and singing on the dock, accompanied by some African dancing!
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

Andrew dusted off his African shirt for the occasion!

The dockside set up for the arrival ceremony later that afternoon. Fake turf and all! Fancy schmancy! 

During the sail Jessica was asked if she would like to carry the flowers down the gangway to present to the First Lady of Benin! This is an honour reserved for only a few! What a very special privilege for her, on our return to West Africa! We will never forget this arrival!

Above Jessica carries the flowers down the gangway behind Emmanuel Essah, one of our Beninese crew members, bearing the Beninese flag, also a great honour! Behind Jessica is Captain Jon Fadely, Robin MacAlpine, our Managing Director and his wife Laurette and further behind, Andrew, in the white shirt, giving instructions to everyone on when and where to go! #familyaffair 
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

Emmanuel presenting the Beninese flag to the First Lady of Benin, Madame Claudine Gbenagnon Talon
(Photo cred: Tim Baskerville)

Jessica handing over the flowers.
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

Jessica, Emmanuel and Laurette listening to the afternoons proceedings under the big marquee on the dock.
(Photo cred: US Embassy, Cotonou)

Africa Mercy Managing Director Robin MacAlpine addressing the dignitaries.
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

The First Lady of Benin addressing the crowd......."“Behind all statistics, there is a story, a life, a person who needs a new hope, a treatment or a cure. I wish that this enriching collaboration of Benin with Mercy Ships will continue to grow year after year for the well-being of the population.”......”
(Photo cred: US Embassy, Cotonou)

We even had some local dancers perform!  Love the way the West Africans get down!
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

West African have to rank among some of the best drummers in the world, hands down! They pour their soul into it, until sweat streams down their faces. I am sure that they burn calories!
(Photo cred: US Embassy, Cotonou)

The crowd of dignitaries and AFM representatives make their way back on board the ship after the arrival ceremony. Jess is tucked between Robin and the First Lady.
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

Our first night off the ship in 12 days and our first time back in West Africa for three years!

We feel so blessed to have the opportunity to return to West Africa, during our Mercy Ships service! We praise God for his deliverance of the nations from the scourge of Ebola and we continue to pray for the recovery of these countries, for their infrastructure, the ongoing health issues of those who have survived Ebola, the thousand of new orphans and we pray against any resurgence of the virus.

God heard the cry of our heart and now we are back in the land we love, endeavouring to be the hands and feet of Jesus!