(Cover photo by Katie Callow)
I carry thank-you note-cards around like a boss. I spend ages picking them out (buying stationary is one of my hobbies – using it is not). I seek out the perfect pen. I look for a nice little pouch to carry my note-cards, pens and stamps (or a zip-lock baggie, as it turns out). I look for a little spot that’s perfect for writing. Then I feel like the spot across the way looks better. Suddenly, I realize that this whole thing would really come together if I just had a cup of coffee – no, wait, tea – or perhaps hot chocolate! Yes, hot chocolate. I notice, “Boy it’s sunny, and I forgot my sunglasses. And I should probably grab a sweater. OK, where’s my list of kind sponsors…ugh! I can’t pull it up without wifi…I need to take a picture of that donor list next time I have wifi and then I can sit and bang these out…” Then, I pack everything back up, carry it all around for another day or two, and finally put them neatly back in a drawer, saying, “Very soon will I do this! Yes, very, very soon!!!!”
So, while I continue to seek out the perfect spot, pen, beverage, lighting and note-cards, I want to say thank you, dearest friends and family, for supporting Mercy Ships and the work we’re doing during this 10-month field service in Benin. I’m sorry I haven’t been better about reaching out to each of you, but know that I will (once I get more note cards since the ones I picked up in Cape Town are now very outdated…LOL.)
I have a lot of joy in my life. I have no regrets about my decision to join Mercy Ships, attend onboarding in TX, sail from Durban to Benin, and now, start work in Benin.
Here are a few highlights since I last shared.
I love what Mercy Ships does through their onboarding program. I don’t believe I could have adjusted to these changes in my life without the loving people of Mercy Ships and their careful plan and design of a program that prepared me physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally to enter into a very different world and lifestyle. In fact, I’m even certified in some legit stuff – like Crowd Management, Personal Safety and Social Responsibilities, and First Aid & CPR. I’m also certified in Basic Fire Fighting, which included timed dress into full-on fire gear (including oxygen masks and tanks), extinguishing fire with hoses and various types of extinguishers and dragging a heavy mannequin out of a smokey container (with a partner). I’ve also had the privilege of donning an immersion suit and learning how to single-handedly return a capcized life-raft to its proper position while in the water, part of my Personal Survival Techniques training.
The last portion of our preparation for Field Service was in Winterton, South Africa, for what’s known as “Field Practice.” While there, we visited a local church, with such beautiful people. Loud songs filled the small, cement churc building with a boldness and passion for God – like this one:
In Winterton, our group was privileged to spend about 10 days with some really special, Mother-Teresa-like leaders of the community to help make improvements to some local facilities as well as visit people living in really sad, sick or disturbing situations. We split up our onboarding group of 30 to cover all the jobs – like making play structures for the kids out of tires,
putting up fencing, digging holes, pouring and paving cement, laying gravel and more. One project a bunch of us spent time on was repurposing tires for these cuties to play on:
Some focused on building a ramp for a woman and her husband who is wheel-chair-bound. Others cleaned out a shed and put up shelves to make it more functional. We also visited homes of very sick people – with illnesses like HIV and cancer – and did whatever we could to ease their pain or sadness. Most, if not all of the time, no real medical services could be provided, so our support was in the form of praying and talking and being present. I was privileged to witness my onboarding friend Stefanie provide physical therapy to a stroke patient.
The changes we saw in this woman’s face by the end of our visit were really different than when we started – she even let us take a photo with her. I’ll never forget her. And I’ll never forget Stefanie’s love in action as she looked deeply into the eyes of this woman while gently massaging her hands, watching for any signs of discomfort as she carefully moved her arms to help her range of motion.
The living conditions of many of those we visited were like none I’d seen before. It makes me want to always remember – so that when I’m feeling dissatisfied or discontent with what I have or what I’m going through, I can step back and look how much God has blessed me. Even now as I type this, weeks later, I’m surprised at how little time it has taken for me to revert back to patterns of wanting “more” versus being thankful for the abundance that I already have…
Seeing so much raw reality also helped us learn to appreciate our accommodations while in Winterton, which were very different than the comforts of our homes back home. We stayed in an old air force base, which was without heat. It’s hard to imagine it being cold in Africa (and I’m still terrible at converting Celsius to Fahrenheit so I can’t remember the actual temperature), but we were there during its “winter,” and could see our breath in the mornings and at night, and at one point, there was snow on the mountains nearby!
We had our sleeping bags, and hot showers. We had modest food, and it was different, but we were grateful. We huddled together around a fireplace each night after a demanding day of giving our all – and shared stories about the defining moments of our days. It was a special time.
At the end, we drove 3 hours back to Durban to meet (many of us for the first time) the Africa Mercy at shipyard. It was surreal to walk the gangway onto a ship which would be my home for 10 months.
From there, we had a few days of sailing to Cape Town. The seas were ROUGH. Check out this waves-video! I thought the stories I had heard were exaggerated – but they weren’t. Before we left, we had to lock everything down for sail. This means to plan for everything in your cabin and office to be turned upside-down. Through the use of bungees, really strong magnets and lots of other tips and tricks, and because my cabin mates are professionals, it worked out pretty well for the most part. But lots of folks struggled during the sail with seasickness even though pills were distributed to us during our “pre-sail briefing.” The dining room was the most interesting during this time, as plates and cups would launch from tables if not being held securely by your hands at all times. A lot of us had to sleep during the roughest parts of the sail because the pills made us so drowsy! Being on the top bunk made me nervous, but God held me in place and I learned to sleep with my limbs out like a starfish so as not to roll out. I’m also learning that my almost-40ness should automatically disqualify me from a top bunk. It’s really hard to get in and out on a tiny ladder!
I really love my roommates.
They’ve helped me get acclimated really well and are so kind at sharing space with the newbie – me. There are four of us in our cabin and it’s decorated so nicely and I’m just so happy to share space with these three girls.
We were in Cape Town for a few days and it was an amazing time. I helped the team with a little behind the scenes work in preparation for some tours of the ship. It was a privilege to watch 50 local nursing school students’ eyes widen at seeing a hospital on a ship and understanding what Mercy Ships actually does!
Being my second time in Cape Town, I kept the sight-seeing to a minimum. I climbed Lion’s Head mountain and really enjoyed it (even though it was really scary coming down), but spent the rest of my time doing girly stuff – walking around the mall, getting some stuff for my cabin, having delicious coffee, and really enjoying some self-care “me” time. (From what I hear, it’s really important to take care of yourself by doing what refreshes and recharges you – because it can be intense living with so many people and doing what we’ll be doing for the field service.)
After a couple of weeks, I’m finally getting to know my way around the ship and falling into somewhat of a system/rhythm. The food is really delicious, I’m sleeping well (most of the time), and the activities have been really fun. It’s a new way of life that I’m learning, and so far, enjoying. I have really nice office space shared with three amazing girls on the Communications Team – and there seem to be plenty of spots to go to find people or find quiet. We play games at night, or watch movies. I’ve found a way to replicate my old routine at home (Netflix at night), which is through our Africa Mercy movie library – I found Criminal Minds on there (out of a couple of thousand options!). Each night, I watch an episode and nibble on chocolate in my bed. It’s my “thing.” My bunk-mate showed me that I can magnetize my ipad to the ceiling so it hangs down perfectly! I plug in my earphones and voila – my own, private surround-sound movie theater!
During the 10-sail from Cape Town to Cotonou, Benin, there were events almost every night – a sock golf tournament around the ship, trivia night, scavenger hunts, and more.
There was a celebration when we crossed the equator (I’m now considered a “shell-back” instead of a “polliwog.” This stuff is real in the marine world!) We almost headed towards the crossing of the equator and the prime meridian, which would have made us diamond shell-backs or something…but it wasn’t doable this time around.
We prayed for safety as we had some time sailing past some higher-risk waters where piracy is a legitimate ‘thing.’ But our captain took every precaution to make sure we were protected – including drills, watches, barbed wire, hoses and of course, prayer. And God answered – no issues. Amen!
We also had surprisingly calm seas, making the sail a precious and beautiful time. We arrived in Benin as scheduled on Thursday, August 18, 2016. Pictured left here are the deck hands, who were huddled in prayer as we made our way to shore. (This picture melts my heart.)
And here are some of the amazing locals of Benin welcoming us to their country!
So, all is well. And I’m absolutely grateful for every moment. I can’t wait to tell you more in the weeks to come.
(As a side note, I got a new bible. The one I brought on this journey was too big so I sent it back home. I came across a guy who operates “Paul’s Leather CO” www.paulsleatherco.com who makes the most gorgeous leather-bound bibles – including super slim ones for traveling. I asked him to rush one to me while I was in TX – and as I researched his company, I learned that a portion of every purchase helps to support missions in Africa! Isn’t that coincidental?? And of course, as we wrote back and forth, Paul told me he knows someone at Mercy Ships! Crazy-small world, isn’t it? SO, I told him I’d give him a shout-out! Hi Paul! Thank you for my beautiful bible! I love it SO much!!)
If you’d like to learn more about how to get involved, visit http://mercyships-us.donorpages.com/crewmates/WindsorMarchesi/ – Thanks!