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The Best Job on the Ship

As a civil engineer in Montana, Ben Stewart was enjoying his career. But, with many friends moving away or changing careers, Ben was motivated to make a change himself. Seeking to take a sabbatical, Ben recalled the advice of his aunt and uncle to go volunteer with Mercy Ships. Ben wasn’t how a civil engineer could contribute to the needs of a hospital ship but was surprised to find his skills matched a need on the Africa Mercy.

In this episode, Ben tells us how he used his problem-solving degree, why he’s convinced he had the “best job” on the ship, and how he learned a valuable life lesson while volunteering on board. Ben’s joy is infectious, and the enthusiasm in his voice will put a smile on your face!

Mercy Ships has brought hope and healing to those who need it most for over 40 years. Using hospital ships, we are able to provide safe, free surgical care to those in need and bring medical training to healthcare workers living in the countries we serve.

Looking for a way to join our mission of bringing hope and healing? Partner with us through a gift, volunteering with us, or by joining us in prayer.

 

                       

New Mercies Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the New Mercies, a podcast by Mercy Ships, where we’ll take you behind the scenes and on board our incredible hospital ships that are transforming lives all over the world. We invite you to join us each week as we sit down with our crew, patients, volunteers, and partners to hear their stories of life-changing hope and healing.

As a civil engineer in Montana, Ben Stewart was enjoying his career but thought it was time for a sabbatical. Ben decided to take the advice of his aunt and uncle and applied to volunteer with Mercy Ships onboard the Africa Mercy as the medical supply assistant, Ben was convinced that he had the best job on the ship, get ready to be uplifted, and laugh with Ben Stewart.

Raeanne Newquist:

Ben Stewart, it is so fun to have you on the podcast today. I’m excited to catch up with you. So welcome to New Mercies. Currently, you are in Montana, so before we dive into your Mercy Ships journey, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you do in Montana?

Ben Stewart:

Well, I am a structural engineer; I work mostly in the construction industry doing different types of scaffolding and concrete, formwork, and all sorts of random stuff.

Raeanne:

When I met you in 2019, we were going through the onboarding program at Mercy Ships headquarters in Texas. So for those listening, when you commit to come volunteer with Mercy Ships for longer than a couple of weeks, or a couple of months, you go through their training program that’s called onboarding. And it’s an awesome time to learn a lot about the history of the organization, but also to get to know some people that you’re going to be living with for quite some time. And that’s where I got to meet you, Ben. At that time, what was going on in your life in Montana that caused you to say, You know what, I’m going to go live on a ship in West Africa and volunteer?

Ben:

Well, I was enjoying life in Montana, but my social network had kind of dried up a little bit, I had a lot of friends were getting promotions and they moved away, or they finished grad school and stuff like that. So I remember I had a small group at church that we started in, like 2013 and we had around 14 people. And that was the core of my friend group. And by 2018, we were down to three of us. And so I realized I either need to reinvest in Montana, Missoula, where I’m at, or I should start over somewhere else. And so I started thinking, kicking things around and I was like, oh, I should take a sabbatical. Mercy Ships in particular was on my mind, because my aunt and uncle were involved back in the YWAM days.

Raeanne:

Well, being a structural engineer, what kind of jobs did Mercy Ships have to offer you? I don’t think you’re building bridges when you’re living on a ship. What kind of stuff did you do?

Ben:

I mean, there’s metaphorical bridges were obviously building! The reason I got the degree, to begin with, was because it’s basically a degree in problem-solving. And so every organization needs problem solvers. And so I knew I could find something now, was it something that lined up with the amount of time I was looking to commit? And something I find interesting? I don’t know. So I looked through it. And there was supply department, which is said logistics and you know, familiarity of Microsoft Excel, and things like that. I was like, Oh, I could totally do that. And so that sounded like something I could accomplish. There’s a bunch of engineers on board, the guy who ran the supply department was a civil engineer. There was a guy I met who was in finance, who was a project manager for civil engineering firm. So they find ways to use people from all over.

Raeanne:

So you initially applied and went on board as a supply manager? Is that correct?

Ben:

I was a medical supply assistant. Yeah, so it was low-key the best job on the ship, and I know people say — Oh, I love my job. But I think this was legitimately the best job in the ship. I got to wear scrubs, I worked in the hospital, which as a non-medical person, was very rare. I mean, you remember from your time on the ship, getting interaction with the patients and things like that for non-medical person, it was possible, there were times you can go down there, but I was in every hospital ward every single day. I was walking through the surgery part of this ship, interacting with all the doctors and the nurses and all the patients as they’re going through their screening process and getting their X-rays done, I got to see it all. As a medical supply system, we were coordinating all the medical devices that came to the ship and organizing it and then distributing it to all the different departments. So all of the, you know, the end product of Mercy Ships, all of the surgeries and the care and screening and everything, we’re touching all those departments. I got to interact with all the patients and all the doctors and everything with the lowest possible amount of responsibility! It was so much fun! I mean, there was stressful times where once in a while I had an anesthesiologist run in like, hey, we need a nasal pharyngeal tube this size, it’s like, Okay, gotta go find it real quick, then you feel accomplished like you did something.

Raeanne:

Oh, that is so cool. You know, it’s those little details that sometimes people don’t really think about, they don’t think of all the logistics and all of the supplies that are needed, that need to be ordered, that need to be organized that need to be delivered to departments, there’s so much that goes into, as you said, the end result of the patient walking away, transformed — so to have a part of that is so incredible. What was that like for you to interact with patients, I’m sure you had the opportunity to do that being in their space, so much of your day. So tell us about that.

Ben:

I mean, it was great. And it was, you know, depending on your personality type, it can be as much or little as you want as far as interacting with the patients. So every morning we’d get these reports from the smart cabinets that told us what they need to refill from the previous day. And so we collect all the supplies, and then we go into every single hospital ward, where there was, you know, 25 patients and their caregivers. And we would go and fill all the cabinets in there, which are located behind the patient’s beds. So we’re squeaking between the beds between patients, getting to practice all our Wolof greetings. It’s not a time crunch, necessarily. I mean, you get to take your time. Sometimes you’re in there and a caregiver wants to go take a shower and a nurse hands you a baby. And it’s like, I need you to hold on to this baby for a while. Or some of the caregivers were like, I see you every day, and they want to talk to you. Obviously, they’re using a translator, and they’re greeting us every day — what’s your name? Where are you from? I explained these things, and I tried to tell them, “I don’t know how to speak Wolof” in Wolof because that’s one of the phrases I memorized, and they’d start laughing at me.

So is that was awesome. And then the other thing that was great was just the maxilla facials patients were amazing. So those people show up and it breaks your heart because they are living what I would deem probably the worst possible existence. These are people who, first off get some sort of abscess or something and they’re slightly disfigured. And a lot of these cultures, people think you’re cursed, or something and you get excluded. And slowly as it grows over time, all of a sudden, you can’t eat or you can’t breathe as well. So now you’re weak and you can’t work. So then you’re a burden on top of that, and then you eventually die. And it’s just heartbreaking. And so these people show up, they’re smart and they realize what path they’re on. Some of them haven’t had any meaningful contact for years. And you just see them waiting to get an x-ray or something, and you just stop and say hello. And sometimes they avoid eye contact or whatever. And you have to gauge how the person is feeling. But you just stop and put your bag down whatever you’re carrying, shake their hand and greet them and stuff. And they just light up and you just witnessed that transformation. I just got to do little things like that every day and it was it was amazing. It’s such a little thing, saying hi to someone, well, we think it’s a little thing.

Raeanne:

Yeah, but to have someone acknowledge your presence means everything. You know, and especially like you mentioned for these people — some of them have been cast out of their villages, even out of their families because of their disfigurements. And here’s a stranger intentionally walking up to them, looking him in the eye, shaking their hand. Even just saying hello with a smile. It means the world.

Ben:

Oh completely. I mean, there were times I would go into D ward where most of these patients were, and Dr. Gary Parker would be in there, and he’d be like, today’s the day we’re getting it removed. And you can see the person light up. And you know, all of a sudden I have to leave the room because of some, you know, emotions.

Raeanne:

Wow, how cool that you got to be an integral part of that process for these people. Was there one patient that stood out to you in particular, maybe one that you got to spend a little extra time with that you could tell us about?

Ben:

I mean, there’s a few that I got to interact through the Hope Center, where I would get extended time with a single patient. But I didn’t get as much quality time as some of the nurses might, where they’re treating their dressings and stuff every day. So I can’t say that I had a relationship with the patients in the same way that some of the nurses did. Yes, I knew their names, they knew my name and things like that, but maybe it wasn’t quite as deep as the other medical people might have had.

Raeanne:

Well, you mentioned going to the Hope Center to visit some of these patients, like you said, your first interaction probably was in the wards and in the hospital, providing supplies, and sharing greetings. What were you doing at the Hope Center that caused you to run into these patients again?

Ben:

We had church services on Sundays where it’s just bringing everyone together and sing some songs and share stories in the Bible. And then there’s a lot of social time when kids just get to play, and you just get to sit and talk to people to find out where they’re from. It’s really like their family and their community and we get to inject ourself for a while. It’s fun as a non-medical person to be able to almost track the journey of some of these patients. Because as a volunteer, you do have the opportunity to visit them in the hospital during visiting hours, but then also to visit them in the Hope Center where they can go for their recovery and their rehabilitation. And you can see them rehabilitate, you can see them transform, which is so awesome to see and experience.

Raeanne:

For your job, was there a favorite moment or a highlight for you?

Ben:

I mean, it was really just the day in day and day out of getting that interaction and just to see all the transformation amongst the patients. And then I really loved working with day crew. So I worked with a person who was basically my partner and that relationship was amazing. He was a very devout Muslim man, and he was all on board with the mission of the organization, but he was very skeptical of Christians. He loved what we’re doing and loved being a part of it, but he fundamentally believed that we were mistaken in our beliefs. We didn’t know the truth; we were ignorant or something like that. And as time went on, just interacting with him every day and becoming good friends, he started opening up and we just started connecting more. It was cool to see over time his transformation and his understanding of Christians.

Raeanne:

As humans, I think oftentimes, when we’re with people that are different than us, we have these assumptions. And we kind of have these ideas of who they are. Or if you are a Muslim, then you must be like this, because that’s what I’ve heard or if you’re a Christian, etc. But when you take the time to enter into relationships with people who are different than you, and take the time to learn, to be curious to ask questions, all of a sudden, your eyes are opened up to the connections that we have and how much we have in common, but also you learn that a lot of your stereotypes or the things that you assumed of that culture or that religion, were totally wrong. So I love that Mercy Ships really is open to all cultures and all religions. We don’t require patients to share our faith values. We are there to just love on everybody, as well as the people who come on board to serve. Our day crew might not share our same religious values, but yet they are valuable because they’re humans and we love them. And so it’s really cool that you got to experience some of those walls being broken down.

Ben:

Oh, for sure. And just the idea of them realizing that who you are and who they thought you were, are totally different. That happens for us as the crew members as well. It’s great to be educated, you know, learning so much about cultures.

Raeanne:

It’s great that you had the privilege of working with a local West African so you can learn about their culture. So with that, were there some cool things that you learned about the Senegalese people?

Ben:

Senegal is just a very interesting place. It’s a Muslim nation where it’s 95% Muslim, but they are of the, I think the Sufi brotherhood, I think that is their denomination of Islam, which makes them far more tolerant of other religions. The Muslims are happy to interact with other Christians. Their first presidents was Catholic. Imagine if George Washington was a Hindu or something, we might have a different view of other religions. As with most of Africans, they seem very joyful, very quick to smile, very quick to dance and to celebrate things, and just wanting to make you be a part of the celebration.

Raeanne:

I know, you also got to spend time off-ship on your days off. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about some of your off-ship adventures, and maybe one of your favorites?

Ben:

I got to go surfing for the first time, that was fun. I did a lot of exploring and walking around checking out different monuments and things. I joined a softball league slash tournament hosted by the American embassy with the other nonprofits. I went to a wrestling match, which is a big sport there in Senegal, that was in a big arena, and I went on a safari to a nature preserve all sorts of little trips, here and there.

Raeanne:

During your time on board, did you stay working in the medical supply department the whole time, or did your role change?

Ben:

My role changed. So obviously, we were there together when March of 2020 happened, and we had to shut down the hospital. At that time, people were leaving to go get married, and our department was kind of going to be going through a handover of pretty much everyone. And so, my role was expected to continue through the summer, which was the refit period for the ship. I had volunteered to shift out of medical and into the general supply team, so I could help with the handover across the entire supply teams. The environment is split into medical and general. So the medical people took care of all, obviously the medical side of the ship, and then general took care of everything else — food, cleaning supplies, office supplies, everything you need to keep the ship running. And so I had volunteered to jump over and kind of share both worlds. As I started doing that, that’s when COVID happened. It became a natural fit for me to shift into the supply manager position. And I was the supply manager from May of 2020 until I ended up leaving the ship in late November.

Raeanne:

So what was that like for you to be on board during that transition? And how did your experience change during that time? You were so joyful, getting to interact with patients and go through the hospital each day and now all of a sudden the hospital was closed. You’re no longer interacting with patients. What was that like for you?

Ben:

There were obviously stressful times at the beginning of the pandemic — we didn’t know anything at that point, we just knew the world was shutting down. There were fears that we were going to be a ship without a port. What would happen if we had an outbreak on the ship when we were in Senegal, or if we were somewhere else, and just all these questions, these unknowns, so that was a stressful time, but it was also a good time because we weren’t doing it alone. We had at least 150 other people literally in the same boat. I feel like it really brought everyone together. We had a singular mission and goal in mind where over two weeks, we got the whole ship packed up and ready to sail, I feel like that high-stress time really brought everyone together, when we had a goal in mind and we were all working together.

We were doing that during the field service as well, obviously, but higher stress

really just amplifies everything. And I feel like we did great. Obviously, some people can handle stress better than others. I don’t remember too many cases of people going the wrong direction. I think it got more difficult later. Once we get to Tenerife, after we left Senegal was a lot of sitting and waiting, unsure of the future and that’s when things slowed down. Thoughts can spiral on things. So trying to find ways to support one another and take care of each other was a priority of the supply team. Back at Mercy Ships headquarters, they said do whatever you can to make the crew comfortable. So we were ordering a little more premium meats and things. We were getting fancy cheeses and all the like different produce and everything. So that was fun to brainstorm with the chef’s like what can we do to help lift people’s spirits? It was it was a great time to just be in that position to just take part in an active role and help people on the ship.

Raeanne:

As somebody who is there, I can say some of those meals that we had in Tenerife are absolutely incredible. And to know that there was intentionality behind that now is pretty special to know that the organization was saying, hey, we want to take care of our people. Let’s kick it up a notch. What can we do to encourage them to lift their spirits to bless them? How about some extra special food? It was great. We loved it.

Ben:

Yeah, it was a crazy time for sure. It was awesome to be part of that.

Raeanne:

Absolutely. Well, then you mentioned that you ended up staying until November. Once you know the ship was in Tenerife, and things kind of settled down after a few months, what caused you to stay until November?

Ben:

I felt like there was a need. I was filling a role that definitely was needed. And so it was nice to feel wanted and to feel needed. And there was nothing pressing for me to return to. Obviously, at this time, the pandemic was happening and things were crazy. And I was like, everything’s has been locked down back home, I can be locked down there just hanging out, or I can be doing some work here and actually feel like I’m being useful and making a difference. And obviously, we weren’t functioning as a hospital at that point. But the organization fully had their eye on the ball, that goal in mind. And we were doing whatever we could to make sure we got back there as soon as possible. So I felt like I could help be part of that productivity and that goal. It was matter of practicality to stay.

Raeanne:

Well, we’re so grateful that you did because it’s so important to have all those people continuing to serve and to give to the crew and to take care of them. So thank you for doing that. Ben, over your time on board living on a ship, tell us something that you learned from living on a ship.

Ben:

There was a lot! I think learning about different people from different cultures was great in a real-world learning experience. When you’re crammed into a four berth with people from different countries, all these exciting places and learning firsthand how they deal with things, what their expectations are, how they communicate — that was really eye-opening.

Raeanne:

Can you give us an example? Like Where were your roommates from your cabin?

Ben:

Really exotic places. There were people from all sorts of Eastern European countries, Liberia, Cameroon, there was a guy from Hong Kong, and obviously, you get some Americans

People have different sleeping habits, you know, different types of communication styles. It’s so fun to just get to learn from all these different cultures and to have them be your roommates on top of it, you really get an inside look into their culture.

Raeanne:

How has your life been changed because of serving with Mercy Ships?

Ben:

I think the most tangible one is that it’s made me a far more pathetic person. I don’t want to say I was cold before but I think it’s very easy, particularly our western countries where we’re very comfortable all the time, it’s so easy to get caught up in our own issues and what’s going on. And there’s that phrase — the worst thing that’s ever happened to you is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you — and we’re all living in our own little spectrum of what’s horrible, or what’s significant. But living on the ship, I got to see a wider spectrum of lived experience and that changed me. And, every day on the ship, having that kingdom mindset of — Lord what do you want me to see? What do you want me to do, and just living out of that relationship. Then bringing that back here and doing the same thing where it’s so easy to just get caught up in all the distractions we have. But also, people are still people, people are still dealing with things and I try and reach them on a level which looks completely different here. But I try to have that same approach as I had on the ship.

Raeanne:

I love that because you know what, there are people in need all around us, no matter what country you live in. And the needs might look different and they might be more severe in different places, but still, people are in need. And even as you mentioned earlier in this interview — seeing a patient and just acknowledging their presence — there are people in Montana, and people that you work with, and people that you pass on the street, who maybe are lonely and they’re suffering from the impoverishment of love, they don’t have someone that cares about them and sees them and loves them, so just being able to acknowledge their presence to say hello, and look him in the eye, that means the world to every human being, no matter what country you live in.

Ben:

I went into Mercy Ships with this approach of like, I’m going to participate in God’s kingdom and I’m here to serve that purpose. And then I had my mind blown and realized that’s not what God wanted me to do. I felt like my identity was built up in what I did, just because I feel like that’s the default for a lot of people in our culture, right? So, when you first interact, people ask, what do you do? Right? And that’s your identity. When I took my sabbatical, I thought — I don’t know where God wants me or what to do, so I’m going to just inject myself into the kingdom where I know he’s working. And so that’s where Mercy Ships came in. When I was on board, I was having all these great experiences and really seeing God move on board. But I just felt like I was still incomplete. And I didn’t know where he wanted me. And I remember just reaching a point where God said — I just want you. And it changed this approach for me that I’ve carried out of Mercy Ships, where it’s less about what you’re doing and more about why you’re doing it, and having that relationship with God and just like laying the fruit flow out of that.

I think it’s good to be mindful of what you’re doing. But everything we do can be out of that relationship. Tozer talks about this, where he talks about the “Be thou exalted” mentality and how everything we do can be an act of worship, everything we do can be just having that kingdom mindset and moving towards that end.  Like you said, every interaction with a person can be some sort of divine providence if you make it out to be that and just like carrying that mindfulness with you through what you’re doing. I think it just lends itself to being open to what God’s doing.

Raeanne:

You think you enter the experience of serving with Mercy Ships with a set idea of what I’m going to do and what I have to offer. But then you get there and all of a sudden, God says, I have something else for you, right? And it’s not really about what you do. Sure, go ahead and do your job. You’re doing great. But really, I want to transform your heart. I want to teach you something new.

Ben:

And there was nothing wrong with that desire, like, that’s a good desire to want to participate in the kingdom and to do those things. But God desires to do so much more and to not limit yourself.

Raeanne:

But you know what, sometimes we miss that because we don’t take the time to stop and listen. We’re so focused on what we can accomplish and what we can do or the task ahead of us, our to do list, that we just go operational. And like you said, it’s good to do things you know, to serve others and to help out in God’s ministry of loving people. But sometimes we have to stop and listen, listen to God, and find out God, what are you doing in my life? What can I be doing to bless you?

Ben:

Yeah, it’s all about the relationship and you can’t build a relationship off chance encounters, it takes time and proximity and allowing yourself to learn to enjoy God’s presence and letting Him speak to you and just learning what his voice sounds like. And reading through the Word, that’s firsthand how God chooses to speak to us oftentimes.

Raeanne:

Absolutely. Well, what a beautiful transformation to get to experience yourself as you went to serve, you also yourself, were served by a loving God and transformed.

Ben:

Oh, for sure. I got way more out of this experience. And I feel like I contributed, that’s how the Kingdom works.

Raeanne:

Well, Ben, thank you so much for sharing with us today a little bit about your Mercy Ships journey.

Raeanne:

To get involved with Mercy Ships, you can either give, go, or pray. Give by going to mercyships.org. You can volunteer by checking out opportunities at mercyships.org/volunteer. And most importantly, you can pray. We invite you to pray with us for our crew and for our patients.

Well, summer is wrapping up, and it’s just about time to go back to school. Next week, science teacher Mike Kirchner is kicking off the new school year on New Mercies. Come back next week to learn a thing or two from Mike Kirchner.

For more information about Mercy Ships go to mercyships.org and to keep up with the guests on New Mercies, follow us on Instagram at NewMerciesPodcast.