Here is an article that tells the story well.
On May 28, President Sirleaf once again honored Mercy Ships by presiding over ceremonies marking yet another inaugural: the commencement of field service for the charity’s newest floating hospital, the Africa Mercy, which docked in the port of Monrovia last week.
The President’s visit included a tour of the vessel’s medical facilities, including six state-of-the-art operating theaters, 78-bed recovery ward, and medical imaging suite with x-ray, CAT scan, and remote diagnostics to serve hundreds of Liberians with free care over the next several months.
President Sirleaf also visited what the crew have already dubbed the ship’s "town square" -- a common area for the vessel’s all-volunteer crew of 450 -- containing a general store, coffee shop, and internet café. Her Excellency then moved to the vessel’s aptly named International Lounge where crewmembers from more than 30 nations gathered to hear her speak.
In his comments welcoming the Liberian President aboard the ship, Don Stephens said: "We are some thirty to forty different nationalities living on board the Africa Mercy when she’s in full service. And I couldn’t help but reflect on a phone call that I had from Ambassador Jacques Paul Kline early in 2004 when he was the Commander of UNMIL forces here in Monrovia. He was known as a very frank, plain-spoken commander, and he said with some expletives I won’t repeat, 'Where is your ship? Liberia needs her. Now!' "
Stephens said he explained at the time that Mercy Ships had commitments to other nations, and would do their best, realizing that would not suffice as an answer for the Ambassador, who pled with Stephens to come.
"So in March of 2005 we brought the Anastasis to begin her service. And when this ship, the Africa Mercy, sails on Dec 1 of 2007 we will have spent 587 days in the port of your city and that is longer than any other West African nation. So we responded as quickly as we could."
Stephens recalled that Ambassador Kline said, "You have no idea of the hopelessness of the people of Liberia. And when your white hospital ship sails into the port it will do something psychologically to bring hope back to the land."
Commenting that he and his wife Deyon came back to Monrovia just a few days ago -- the second time since the inauguration, "We already see the visible fruits of your efforts. We see the beginnings of a turnaround, of the transformation. We saw electric lights on. And we in Mercy Ships have also benefited from a partnership as you’ve turned on the water for the people of Monrovia. Now our small part in that was rather self-serving because this ship alone consumes about 100 tons a day when the hospital is fully operational but we’re delighted to have partnered with you."
Stephens continued: "People often ask me, 'What was it like? How did you, why did you found Mercy Ships?' And there are 4 things that come to mind. They all begin with an “S” which helps me remember. A storm. A ship. A son. And a saint.
"The storm was in 1964. Deyon and I were teenagers. I was 19, she was 18, and we were in the Bahamas. And one of those 100-year storms, once-a-century storms, came into the Bahamas, and we were gathered in small groups in safe places for our safety. In several of those places the small groups were praying -- for our safety, for the Bahamians, for our parents at home. I wasn’t in the prayer group. I didn’t pray the prayer, I only heard about it. A teenaged girl prayed a prayer that went something like, 'Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a ship with doctors and nurses, carpenters, electricians, professional people who would come in after a disaster, show mercy and the love of God.' And that was the genesis in my thinking, although I didn’t participate in that meeting.
"Secondly, the ship. Some will know of the old hospital ship, Hope. Project Hope is an excellent organization that still exists today, but they’ve not had a hospital ship for thirty years. Deyon and I read of Dr. Bill Walsh and his efforts and the Hope also came to West Africa before she was decommissioned.
"And the third and fourth 'S', a son and a saint, I would like to link together. Deyon and I have four children. The third child in chronological order was born a special needs son. We still call him little John Paul, or affectionately JP. John Paul was born severely brain-damaged and autistic, and in learning to care for him, to love him -- the practical aspects of caring for him -- grew a great desire a see a hospital ship that had only been a thought before become a reality to serve parents like us, who had similar situations only far worse, with less hope, sometimes with almost no infrastructure."
Stephens reflected that in 1977 he spent ten days in Calcutta, India, and referred to Saint Mother Theresa -- the fourth S. "I spent ten days there, and one of the highlights was spending time with Mother Theresa. Of course everyone would have wanted to have met her.
"I wanted to ask her questions that you would expect: 'How did you begin? What motivated you? What was all of this behind it?' And she deflected that quickly. I had always read that she was a person who could focus on the person right in front of her and turn out all the background noise and I experienced that personally," he said.
Stephens continued: "As she discovered our special needs son, John Paul, and a dream for a hospital ship, she arranged for me to tour their home for the handicapped. And when I left, the words that I remember, the impact that are in my mind and also in my spirit, was Mother Theresa saying, 'Although your little boy, John Paul, cannot speak, he will have a voice that is heard by thousands around the world. God is in this. Pursue your dream of a hospital ship.' Now those are not the exact words, but they are very close and that’s the essence of what I took with me."
John Paul will be thirty-one this September, said Stephens and, although he doesn't speak, I think you would agree with me that although John Paul, close to thirty-one years of age, still doesn’t speak, he has a voice that’s heard around the world. And it’s an honor to be here in your country as we see you lead the reconstruction of Liberia. I do hope that as the G8 meets next week that they will be attentive to the work, the effort, the progress that you have already made, that we might see a forgiveness of the international debt to the country, the nation of Liberia."
In her remarks, the Liberian President, Madame Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, said:"There is a prepared text that was made for me, but I won’t read it. Because it doesn’t take words put together to thank you. It doesn’t take something that is so prepared and formal and official. It only takes knowing what you do, having been a part of it."
She continued: "Last year when the Anastasis was here we visited, and we saw, we felt, what happened in the lives of the many young people, the women, the older people who came and they left the ship completely changed. Not only changed physically because of the treatment they received, but changed morally and spiritually.
"In coming back today and just walking the corridors and going into the rooms of this much larger, more improved, more modern facility that will serve our people, what do you say? Today we have you here, and we’re so grateful that you could come, so you can see for yourself how much we appreciate what’s being done to serve our people."
The Liberian President added: "Our minister and others have done a lot, we have come from a long way, one a lot to try to reconstruct, rebuild our health systems, not only in the capital city, but in the rural areas where the needs are greatest - trying to respond with the scarce resources that we have. And we’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve tried to revitalize the John F. Kennedy Hospital as a referral hospital and tried see how they can respond to the needs of the people.
"We have others that have come to help and I see a few of them in the room. Some of them are family. My son is a doctor; my sister’s son is a neurosurgeon working in Alaska. He and a team are here working at JFK. My son and others come from Connecticut where he practices. They come, they bring of their service, their talent, their spare time that they have and they serve people. And they come with others, not just them -- they’re family, they can do it -- but they come with those whose only reason is because they care, because they want to make a difference in the lives of those whom they help, and that’s what Mercy Ships is all about."
President Johnson-Sirleaf commented on a video that was played, adding: "You can’t help but feel something deep inside, that for all the things that we have done to ourselves as a people, your response is one of love. Your response is one that helps us to see a different way to look at ourselves with a different value."
Commenting on Stephens' references to his family, Johnson-Sirleaf said: "You just talked about your personal life and the difficulties you had with your son. You could easily have been so bitter with life and what it meted out to you, but your response was to serve humanity, and to make up, not only to your son, but to make up to the thousands and thousands of other people’s sons and daughters throughout the world, to give them a better life, to give them a better chance to be renewed."
Referring to the ship's staff and crew, Johnson-Sirleaf said: "All of you who serve on the ship, and serve voluntarily, I just want you to know that the Liberian people are grateful. The Liberian people receive you with such warmth just knowing what you bring, what you bring to us, how you enable us, many of our people, to live again, to be able to be part of society in a normal way -- no longer an object of pity, no longer silenced by their handicaps, no longer ashamed of their condition. You’ve brought them something. We thank you.
She added: "I want you to know that this government will be a partner to you. We may not have all the resources that we would like to see to give the support that you so rightfully deserve, but that which we have, just being there with you, responding to you in any way that we can, making sure that the basics that is required of us, that it’s met, but more importantly, just being there as your friend in appreciation for all that you have done for us.
"Thank you for being here. Thank you for your service. Thank you for being the wonderful people that you are. And we know that added to what you do is that great belief in God, something that is shared by the majority of our people. We will be there with you. We will pray with you. And our people will be forever grateful. God bless you."
** Michael Ireland is an international British freelance journalist. A former reporter with a London newspaper, Michael is the Chief Correspondent for ASSIST News Service of Lake Forest, California. Michael immigrated to the United States in 1982 and became a US citizen in September, 1995. He is married with two children. Michael has also been a frequent contributor to UCB Europe, a British Christian radio station.
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