The History of Mercy Ships
Don and Deyon Stephens are an inspiring couple who are the founders of Mercy Ships. In this episode, Ally Jones and Raeanne Newquist sat down with them to get a little history lesson about the early days of Mercy Ships.
How did this unique vision of putting hospitals on ships come about? What were some challenges that came up and how did they overcome them?
Now, over 40 years later, Don and Deyon still help guide the mission of Mercy Ships and anchor the organization in the rich history and solid vision that keep the ships on course. Through their story, you will be encouraged to dream big and inspired to follow your unique calling.
Don has authored three books: Ships of Mercy, Mandate for Mercy, and Trial by Trial.
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.
New Mercies Podcast Transcript
Welcome to New Mercies, a podcast by Mercy Ships, where we’ll take you behind the scenes and onboard our 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.
On this week’s episode, me, Allie Jones, and my co-host ran Newquist sat down with Don and Deyon Stevens, the founders of Mercy Ships, to hear about how this whole thing began. You’re about to be inspired to dream big, and encouraged to hang in through the struggle to see the dream realized. Well Don and Deyon Stevens, it’s a pleasure to have you with us today on the New Mercies podcast as we launch this podcast to explore how Mercy Ships got to where we are today and the history behind Mercy Ships, and why we’re doing what we’re doing, but also looking to the future.
And we’re thrilled that you guys have agreed to chat to Raeanne and I, and answer some of our questions. But I think we should go right back to the beginning. And, Don, we really want to hear the story of how this all began — and why. So can you lead take us back to the first days of the thoughts of Mercy Ships and where you were and what the circumstances were around thinking and dreaming about Mercy Ships.
I have four points, I’m going to give two and then let’s see what Deyon wants to say, I would go all the way back to the beginning for me, from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb. I knew you before you were born, I ordained you. I called you as a prophet to the nations.” So for me, Mercy Ships began in the heart of God, before it was even born.
The second point that I want to mention, was in July, the 27, 1959. Life magazine… now, television was just in its infancy. For those of you that can remember back that far was black and white, were in rural, mountainous, Colorado. We didn’t have very much we had one channel and it was mainly snow. But however, Life magazine that 1959 July 27 issue, circulation was about 1.7 million, there were 177 million in the US at the time.
This was a big event when it came to our rural mailbox in western Colorado in the farming and ranching community where I grew up. And the headlines say, a bold proposal for peace, a new kind of a great white fleet, how ships would sail on a mercy mission.
It’s interesting to me that even the terms we use today, Mercy Ships, Mercy ministries, acts of mercy, are all found in this article of Life magazine, July 27, 1959. Please pause and remember that God often calls very young people to his service. And we have multiple examples of that throughout history, especially in Scripture. So, this 14-year-old boy looked at this article on ships of mercy acts of mercy and seed thought was put in my mind, was a very interesting concept that God would speak to an 14-year-old boy in rural western Colorado, about a hospital ship serving Africa. But that’s how it all began. Those are my first two points, Deyon, do you want to add anything?
Yes, I would add just that John’s explanation to us of Jeremiah, saying that God knew him in the womb. I think that’s true for every one of us. It’s always a temptation when we see someone has done something amazing to think well, they’re unusual, I could never.
But God has a job for every one of us and it may not be the spotlight kind of thing that Mercy Ships has become, but service for Him wherever in patient endurance is very valuable. And the temptation to run after something of a more spotlight nature comes to all of us, but we want to continue to do the thing that we best know to do.
Okay, the next two points that I have going way back to the beginning. This was September 1976. Not too long after the monetary Olympics. Our third child was born in Colorado. The other three children, incidentally, were born overseas to in Switzerland and one in Greece, the only one to be born at in our state in the state of our home Colorado was John Paul. And he’s a special needs child.
And I think most if not all families with special needs children, or those who have children that become special needs like Joni Eareckson Tada. We walk a different pathway. And it’s a it’s a pathway, that daily we need to call upon the Lord for His grace and His strength. John Paul is a wonderful little boy. He is now 45 so he’s not a little boy anymore, he’s a man, a young man. I guess 45 is still young, and he’s nonverbal. He has some moans, there’s no way you can make that into intelligible speech.
John Paul was born, as I said in 1976. A little over a year later, I was invited to be in Calcutta visiting a university classmate of mine, Dr. Ron Shaw, who was Anglo Indian. He’s not a medical doctor, his PhD was in education. And while there, I didn’t know this at the time, but that hospital where he was the administrator, took care of patients associated with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In fact, the family the Canadian missionary family, Dr. Mark and hold the pentane had become friends with Mother Teresa.
And Ron, Dr. Shaw came to me and said, “Don, I’ve arranged a meeting for the two of you with Mother Teresa tomorrow morning at 7 a.m.”
Well, I don’t know how you would respond, but I was scared, frightened, anxious. What are you going to say to a person like Mother Teresa? I didn’t have a very good night, because I was writing out questions and then discarding them. Finally, I came up with two or three, I only remember the first one. And when we met with Mother Teresa, I got the cards out of my jacket pocket where I wrote the questions down.
The first one was, how did you start Mother Teresa? And she didn’t answer that question. She said very clearly. “I will not answer any questions about me. I’ve actually prayed for this meeting. I want to ask you questions.”
Well, if I was nervous before, now I was really nervous. You know, where the mind goes? What does she know about me that I don’t want her to know? I don’t know where you go. I’ve called them. I’ve come to call them the Mother Teresa questions. These are not exactly how she phrased them, but they’re the impact on me. And over the years, the significance has only grown.
Number one question. Where were you born? I didn’t have to answer. She helped me. Why do you think God put you on earth? What’s your purpose? And so, I struggled through telling her about a dream that I had, going all the way back to that Life magazine article of a hospital ship serving Africa. And it wasn’t a very well-presented dream. I only written it out on a yellow legal pad.
And Mother Teresa gave me a gift immediately. And that’s a gift that we can give to everyone who shares their dreams with us. The gift was, she didn’t laugh at me. Particularly when we are young, and we share our dreams or others if they laugh at them, that often shuts down what is a very fragile, spiritual plant growing within you and your being. She didn’t laugh me.
She said something like, I don’t again, it’s 44 years ago, I don’t remember exactly. But it was like, well, that’s a very big dream for a dream of that size. There must be pain in your life. Where’s your pain? So why were you born? Where’s your pain? And I grew up in the mountains of western Colorado, I’ve already said farming and ranching community. Men don’t talk about pain. I remember my father saying to me when I was hurt in one way or another, suck it up. Get over it.
Where’s your pain? So again, Mother Teresa very directly very strongly but kindly helped me. She said in our theology, Catholic theology, I’ve learned that evangelicals hold the same, it’s just I wasn’t familiar with it in these terms, she explained that their view of God is that He often uses pain as preparation for purpose. And it’s like, I began to have an understanding that perhaps God had given us John Paul, this special needs son, to prepare me especially, but also Deyon for the purpose of a hospital ship serving Africa.
Over the 44 years, those three questions became catalytic and seminal that helped me focus helped me understand what God was doing.
Third question was, what are you doing about it? What are you doing about your dream? I hadn’t don’t anything. So flew back to Geneva, Deyon met me driving us home from the airport. In those times before we had instant messaging and all the ways to communicate, almost hourly, minute by minute, we used that time from airport travel to really fill one another in. And I told her what I’ve just told you. And Deyon said something like to me like this to me, “Well if Mother Teresa said so, you’d better start looking for ships.”
Deyon I have to ask you, Don mentioned this car ride, you know, from the airport, where y’all would fill each other in and whatnot. What are you thinking? You’re a young mom, you have three children at this point, what’s going through your mind,
We were doing all sorts of things already. We were working with Youth with a Mission. And we had teams starting bases here and there. Don was the European director. So, we would put the kids in the car on the weekends and drive up to visit a team.
So, we were used to stepping out we had, we had purchased a piece of property just by believing God had prompted us to start with it. And we marched around it and began to try to raise money and it didn’t happen overnight at all. But in 1972, Don had believed that we should have a large representation of believers at the Munich Olympics.
And so we began to move in that direction. Decided of course we needed to housing and we at first I think he thought maybe 250, which was a lot of people when we were just 30 to start with. But then it raised it to 500. And then brother Andrew, well known Christian, inspirational man of those days, who wrote God Smuggler said Don had asked him if he would travel with him and recruit and he said not for just 500 people needs to be at least 1,000. So we were looking for housing for 1,000 and with wonderful circumstances found, we called the castle…But it was a large old estate place that had been completely renovated and had been a home for children, orphaned children. And we bought it.
And while Don was driving back from signing paperwork on the castle, and we had so many days to come up with the down payment, which was like $100,000. And it was completely impossible. But then we had a call from another mission organization in Europe. And of course, we didn’t even call frequently, they called and said, “We’ve just received the largest donation we’ve ever received. We don’t have a need this large. And we believe it’s for you.”
And that happened before Don even got home. And it was I thought, ‘Oh, we have found the key.’ You find out God’s plan. You step out in obedience. Dead easy. Never that easy again. Never again, did we have such a remarkable, remarkable answer. It was completely outside of any of our effort.
And but those were background things that helped us, and I think in the early days, we didn’t think we were probably going to lead it and live on it full time. Maybe someone else but Don was convinced that it was the getting of the ship was our next task. So, he would go down to Italy on the train, overnight train sometimes he takes one of the children — he took Luke when he was a little guy — and there was a bridge out… do you want to tell this one Don?
There was a bridge out in the Italian part of the journey and the Italian Alps — there had been a flood that washed it out — so when we came into Switzerland, the train had to switch tracks. And that meant, you know, the Swiss are very meticulous about all the trains being on time. And you had to get off the train, run to a pay telephone station, put in Swiss francs, and call to get the new arrival time because we didn’t know how long the blades are going to be so unique in our experience in Switzerland.
So, while I was calling Deyon on the phone, telling her the new arrival time I noticed our train was leaving. And with Luke on the train, looking out the window at me, like, what am I going to do? Anyway, it turned out not to be serious, they were just switching tracks. And they probably told us that, but I missed it. So, when I got back on the train, here was Luke and the cabin next to ours, seated with a businessman who had spoken to Luke in English. And he said, “Well, I got his name out of him. And I asked him where he lived. And he said, ‘Grand Junction, Africa.’”
Deyon’s family, and that’s where I met her was in Grand Junction, Colorado. So that’s a big leap, to Africa. So our kids grew up in that international setting that happened in Switzerland, but Africa and Colorado somehow got into Luke’s answer.
A true Third Culture kid
You mentioned an answer to prayer there and something that you guys were pursuing and believing in and how God provided. And you also mentioned about being in a landlocked country looking for ships. And so, what are the other obstacles that you came across in trying to launch the first ship? And what are some of the obstacles you came across? And how did you overcome those?
Well, number one, for me, personally, I didn’t know anything about shipping. I’m not from a family that owned and operated and managed ships. I’m not from a family that had deep pockets. One of the obstacles was, for me, I had to learn quickly because it was on-the-job training.
Every day for me was a training opportunity, a learning, opportunity. Keeping the heart of the vision alive, burning alive within us — the vision of following the model of Jesus bringing hope and healing to Africa’s needy. I want to repeat it for emphasis. What kept us alive, spiritually, gave us energy, strengthened our perseverance, forged our endurance was this vision of helping Africa’s most needy through a hospital ship, following the 2,000-year-old model of Jesus.
So, one obstacle, I didn’t know what I was doing. We had to learn and learn important life lessons quickly, How to form a community. How to bring together the deck, the engineering departments, the medical department, and what I would solve call the overall community of faith.
Because we were from many different nations and Mercy Ships today, we would have over 60 nations serving on our ships at any one time, but that community of faith — that worshiping, believing, sacrificial community — is the heart of Mercy Ships. And everyone that’s come to join us, short term, long term has their own individual story of how God called them, of how important perseverance, sacrifice, determination, and remembering why we’re here, is because of a kingdom purpose.
What was the first ship that actually started this hope and healing adventure to reach out to those in need? What was the first ship?
Don located the ship that became called the Anastasis in Venice, Italy. And we traveled back and forth from Italy in those early days. Once we had put a down payment on it, we could move on board. We had a very small team moving on board with no licensed mariners. We hired an engineer for that. Those are just the early, early months, while as Don said he was he was learning a great deal and we all were.
We were in Italy a year with the ship. But then for better availability of parts and labor, we decided to take the ship to Greece, which at the time was a very large shipping area. And there was a lot available in shipyards. So, when the ship was taken to Greece, Don realized we couldn’t lead the work on see it thrive from afar. So, we packed up the children and a few things for a few months. And I expected to be back in our rented home in Switzerland by Christmas.
And that was enough to I’m fairly accustomed, in big decision times to hear from the Lord through Scripture. So, I had my list of scriptures and married to this visionary, but I was just figuring out the packing and the getting there. And what am I going to feed this baby that doesn’t eat very well. That was John Paul. So, I took a little hand grinder. And we had been living in this lovely, rented home in Switzerland, which I enjoyed thoroughly when I was actually quite tired of preparing three meals a day and washing up. So, I was I was ready to join in the dining room.
And so we moved on board into the cabin, we were assigned. And it was mostly wonderful. I think life is not intended to be all rosy even when you have high expectations of all this wonderful fun. It’s life is struggle, and hardship. And we need it. When it’s too easy for us, we don’t thrive, we deteriorate.
And there were hard times, but good times… so those early days, didn’t quite resemble this marvelous vision Don had. But those early days were essential. That’s how a community was formed. That’s how endurance was built. And Don traveled and recruited crew and, mariners during those days, raised finances. And then was back on board. Oh, two-thirds of the time.
So, we learned a great deal. I during that time met with the ladies on board, we organized a cleaning crew and prayer times. And we had a chaplain who was as different as chalk and cheese to dominate. But we much needed him and we’re very, very grateful for his friendship and his gifting. And he was determined that we were going to stay as Kingdom builders.
During those days of working on the ship, there was so much work to do, you could work around the clock. But he ensured that we had a weekly 24-hour prayer time. I remember sitting in a meeting one time, and Alan was upfront, and he’d passed the prayer chain list around to be filled out and he said, “There’s nobody signed up here to in the morning. Deyon you haven’t prayed at that time of the night for a while, I’m putting you in here.”
I organize some ladies we visited the women’s prison. We developed Ships Kids and they could sing and dance and did that on street corners were a great hit in Greece, sometimes in our little area where the ship was, which varied, or in Athens itself. So, we worked hard at staying Kingdom-focused as well as the great work of the ship.
I was walking down the alleyway one day and there was a fellow crew member up on a ladder painting the tops of these exposed pipes in the alleyway. And I said what are you doing because I could see he was up over there. And he said, “I’m painting the part that Jesus sees.” It was funny at the time, but also so true, working onto the Lord in all that we were doing. And we had determined early on that we weren’t going to rotate through jobs, there was going to be a cook. And of course, in the mariners, there was no question of that. We didn’t have any volunteer captains, we were, I mean, in terms of just regular crew there, everybody had a job to fill in an extra benefit of mariners was they came knowing their shift and their duties.
So, while we were learning it, they knew it and brought it with them. And we had one of our early captains was a tremendous teacher. And he would teach all the time. This is how you do this. ‘What if we’re boarded by pirates?’ We’ll do this and then we’ll do this. And ‘what if somebody dies at sea?’ Well, we’ll set them up in a canvas bag and hang them in the freezer. We had, we had a lot of good growing times, and adventure times. But for me, I’m not the far out visionary. I am married to one. And my job is keeping us organized, fed and clothed.
Which is essential to accomplish the mission.
It’s essential. And I think for many of us, our gifts blend so well with others. But sometimes we don’t have much of an appreciation for the gifts that we’re lacking. Not much awareness. I’m not speaking for Don, he was well aware that he needed the support of detailed people. And we came to good ends because of working together with the team.
And I think those early days, too, I thought I knew God was laying a foundation for the future. To the point that if anybody left, I was afraid they were missing God. Which I came to see is not true. God may call you to fit into a dream and a vision and a project at any point for His purposes, and then move you on. It doesn’t mean you’re missing God because you don’t stay necessarily.
That’s incredible. And every time I hear you guys speak about the early days, I learned and hear something new, which I can still totally see as a characteristic of the organization today. Thank you so much for telling us some of the stories of the history in the early days and where Mercy Ships began.
Thank you, Don and Deyon, for being with us today and sharing the encouraging stories of God’s provision and his faithfulness in the early days of Mercy Ships. And thank you to all of you for being a part of our very first episode.
Next week, we’ll have part two of our interview with Don and Deyon Stevens, when they’ll share about the future of Mercy Ships. You won’t want to miss this inspiring couple as they explain how looking ahead really means holding fast to the original vision.