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Keeping the Lights On

Justin Brunenkant was an electrician but always had a pastor’s heart to care for others. When Justin heard about Mercy Ships and how he could use his trade skills as well as do pastoral ministry, all while living abroad with his wife and four children — it almost seemed too good to be true! So, Justin took his family to live on board the Africa Mercy as he volunteered as the chief electrician. In this episode, Justin reveals the highlight of solving problems on board, the joys of serving with his family, and the unexpected gift of getting to pour into the lives of the junior high and high school students on board.

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.

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New Mercies Podcast Transcript

Welcome to 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.

Raeanne Newquist:

Justin, welcome to New Mercies. So excited to have you on the podcast today.

Justin Brunenkant:

Thank you. It’s glad to be here.

Raeanne:

Well, Justin, before we get into your Mercy Ships journey, why don’t you tell us where you’re at right now and what you’re up to?

Justin:

So currently, I am in Tucson, Arizona, enjoying the lovely weather… We’ve got about 110 days at 110 degrees. I mean, it feels a little bit like some of the African countries we’ve been to. And currently, I am working as an electrical estimator. And I just started, also, working part-time as an associate pastor at our church.

Raeanne:

Oh, wow. How cool. Well, Justin, back in 2018, you and your wife Jenny took your four children to live on board the Africa Mercy. How old were your kids when you guys went?

Justin:

Emma was 2 or 3, Clara was in preschool, Shawn was in kindergarten, and Chris was probably 7 or 8.

Raeanne:

Okay, so they were little. Well, looking back over your life a little bit, it kind of seems that many roads were being paved that led you to overseas ministry. I understand you spent some of your teenage years living overseas with your family. And you’ve also done a lot of ministry work. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and why Mercy Ships seemed to be a good fit for you and your family.

Justin:

Growing up, my dad is an electrician by trade. And in about 2000, he got on working with some defense contractors. We actually lived on a military base in England for four years. So, I’ve been through most of the European countries and Hungary. And I’ve spent I spent my whole high school years and a little beyond living overseas. It was kind of funny, actually, I identified more with the kids, the teenagers on the ship who are going through their third culture stuff, than I did with their parents who were trying something brand new for the first time. I was fortunate to grow up in a good house with Godly parents and grew up going to church. And so church and ministry outside of the church was always something that we had done. I got involved with youth ministry at like 19, and ever since then the Lord has just continued to open the doors for ministry. I was on staff for a Christian camp that held summer and winter camps for abused and neglected foster children. I’ve done some work with an organization that flies airplanes down to Mexico. And it just seems, wherever I go, the Lord just continually opens doors for ministry. And so, after a couple of years of being a youth pastor, the Lord opened the doors for us to help a church plant in a nearby city. So we were working with a church plant, and I was working back in construction as a project manager for an electrical company. And I  told my wife I was getting antsy, I’ve been here too long, and I feel like I gotta do something. So I was talking to my brother, who’s also an electrician and been involved in ministry his whole life. And he said, why don’t you check out Mercy Ships, because we were thinking about doing overseas missions. We wanted to do something where our kids can be involved. And it wasn’t just something that mom and dad did. Because eventually, your kids’ faith have to become their own. And so we wanted to set an early precedent of, we don’t just go sit and listen, this is what we do as a family. I don’t have a seminary background, and that was required for a lot of organizations. My brother suggested we check out Mercy Ships because they needed electricians, and it didn’t require a seminary to be a missionary. So off we went!

Raeanne:

Well, you’ve mentioned youth ministry and various work with electrical engineering; what was your role on board?

Justin:

I was the chief electrician. And we oversaw all the maintenance and the installation of new electrical and electronic systems, as well as maintained all of the laundry equipment and the galley equipment. And we would occasionally help out with some of the off-site facilities that are run by the transportation and maintenance department, like at the Hope Center and all that stuff on the docks.

Raeanne:

So give us a little idea of what a typical day looked like for you.

Justin:

We had devotions five days a week, and the devotions would vary. We had devotions that were just with the engineering group, then we had devotions that were sometimes just with the electricians, and we had devotions that were with deck and engineering. And I was kind of fortunate after my first field service, they asked me to start running those. So I ran that for two years. And we actually got to go through the Bible project, and we got to go through all 66 books of the Bible!

After our initial morning meeting and devotions, we would get together and discuss what various projects were coming up for the day, if the engineers were going to be running certain systems, if the deck department was running certain things that I had to do that may interfere with someone else’s work, so that we were all on the same page. And then we would go to the electrical department, and I would lay out the order for the other three or four electricians and the electronics technician with the work that we had to do that day. And that would be anything from somebody put in a ticket saying their lights did not work in the cabin, or they brought an American hairdryer, and their circuit breakers tripped — down to, you know, we’re having trouble with a sensor on one of the main engines, and we need to do preventative maintenance on the radars that are up on the forward mast. So it was great. I loved my job because I was not stuck in one place. I was across the entire ship.

Raeanne:

It sounds like you needed to be knowledgeable in many areas because fixing an outlet is different, I would think, than fixing some kind of electrical equipment on the bridge.

Justin:

Yeah. Thankfully, they have a really good library of technical manuals. On the ship, I spent a lot of time in the chief engineer’s office trying to figure out what most of the stuff was. So I had a lot of corresponding emails, trying to figure out why something did not necessarily want to work. But it was a lot of fun. It’s a steep learning curve, but it’s a lot of fun.

Raeanne:

Well, what was a highlight for you? Or what was your favorite part of your job?

Justin:

That’s a tough one. Honestly, I liked the challenge of going up to a system or a particular piece of equipment that I had not worked on and trying to figure out why it was not working. And the thing that I like about I liked about Mercy Ships is since we were volunteers, the parts to fix something were cheaper than my labor. Most of the time, my labor at a normal company is more expensive. So if I can’t fix something in two hours, and it’s a small machine, two or three hours, it’s cheaper to buy a new machine, because it’s going to cost you four or $500 in my time, versus a $50 part. Well, on Mercy Ships, I’m a volunteer…. So you really got time to really get into the weeds and try to figure out what components were failing instead of, well, let’s just buy a whole new washer, because it would take six months to get that washer.

Raeanne:

So a lot of challenges that you faced, but it sounds like you embrace those challenges.

Justin:

Oh, it was a blast. It was a lot of fun.

Raeanne:

You mentioned that your department would have devotionals and so forth in the morning. I also noticed that during break times, it’s pretty common on our ships that at 10am and at 3pm, everybody kind of does a little coffee break. And I would always see all the electricians sitting together — you guys seem to have a really special bond. Tell us about the relationships amongst your team.

Justin:

Sure. One of the things that I tell people I absolutely loved about Mercy Ships is if you’re at church, there’s a saying that 30% of the church does 70% of the work. Well, everybody at Mercy ship is that 30%! Everybody is the kind of guy or the kind of lady that wants to go above and beyond and is not just there for a paycheck, they’re there because they want to work. So we really had a small niche group. And electricity is one of the least understood trades, I would say, that’s out there. So we tend to group up a lot, because we’re one of the least understood trades. But we had a phenomenal group of volunteers. And after a while, you know, we’re kind of stuck together and working together, and we live together. But it was a group of people that genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. So we would take outings, and we would all leave as a department at least once a month to go to dinner together and hang out together. I worked with men from all over the world, like Cameroon, Guinea, and Senegal, and then Australia and New Zealand, England and America. And I think we had some Swiss guys, we had some German guys, it was just it was a phenomenal time.

Raeanne:

Wow, that’s so cool. How was that to be in a multicultural environment when you’re working in a specific trade? I would think that those countries maybe do things a lot differently. How did you guys find common ground in the work that you did?

Justin:

You have to pick a standard. On the ship we were flagged under Malta, so we would have to abide by the Maltese rules. And since the ship was refit in the UK, for several years in Newcastle, we followed a British standard. So these are the ways we’re going to do things, and you would just set a standard.

Raeanne:

Where was your first field service? Where did you go first as a family?

Justin:

So we came in about halfway through the Cameroon field service, so we finished out Cameroon and went to the Canary Islands, and then we were there for all of Guinea and all of first Senegal.

Raeanne:

So when you were first in Cameroon, what was it about the experience initially that caused you to feel like yes, this is what we want to continue to do as a family for a couple more years. What was it that drew you in and caused you to want to return?

Justin:

I would definitely say one was the community. I said, everybody, there is the 30% of people at a church that want to do 70% of the work and they are actively engaged in what they’re doing. And secondly, it was genuinely being able to help people and seeing the gospel go forward, and people’s lives being changed. I feel like there’s a lot of bad representations of Christianity out there. And being a positive representation to people of Christianity that no, you don’t have to convert, we will help you because we love you because we believe you’re made in the image of God, we love you and you have value. So we’re going to help you whether or not you want to believe what I believe it’s fine, I’m still going to help you. And so being able to be a missionary and being able to tell people about Jesus and just being a positive influence of Christianity in people’s lives was amazing. As we joke, it’s kind of missionary light. Because yes, we’re in Africa, but I have Wi Fi and hot water and purified drinking water. So if you’re thinking about being a missionary, and you want to take your kids overseas, Mercy Ships is an easy transition into missionary life.

Raeanne:

Very true. Very true. Well, speaking of your family, what was that like for you to have your family on board? And what was that transition like to move into tight quarters with four kids?

Justin:

You know, it’s kind of hard to remember, but you’re a mom and you don’t really remember all of everything that happened in the hospital with childbirth, you just remember you have a kid you really like initially! It’s really hard to pack up in a month and sell everything and get four kids, some of who were like not even school age, and move into a 200 square foot cabin. But there were a lot of other families and one of the things that I really liked about the ship, it reminded me about the military community and how fast everyone is to embrace you. And like, cool, you’re here — now, we’re friends, we’re family. Because we don’t have a choice. Like when I moved to Arizona, people want to kind of get to know you for a few years before you become their friend. On the ship, it’s like hey, my best friend just left, and I need a new one, so you’re my friend. There are no other kids in my class. So hey, we’re best friends now. If you’re a family, you were accepted into the community quickly.

It is very special to almost have this instant bond with people. You were there, and like you said, you are there with a lot of doers, a lot of hard workers, they’re people that want to get the job done. So you come with this common mindset, almost similar drive, and it just bonds you together so quickly.

Raeanne:

Well, you mentioned a lot of ministry in your background. And even currently, you said that you’re ministering at a church. How were you able to weave ministry into your job as an electrician on board?

Justin:

That was actually phenomenal — I was told once that once you’re a pastor, you’re always a pastor. And so I’ve found that there are some hardships and struggles, especially for people that have not been away from home before and this is the first time some people are away from home. Traditionally, tradesmen, we tend to come with a lot of baggage. And so I got to spend a lot of time actually pastoring some guys in the engineering department, I made a lot of friends. And even in the deck department, I spent a lot of time on the bridge with a lot of the deck officers and they had a chance to open up and share about some of their hardships and I really had a chance to be there for a lot of them. And in fact, there was during one of the field services, there was a guy who did not have a home church that had decided he really was going to commit his life to the Lord. He was a Christian and he wanted to be baptized. And there was a discussion about do we want to set a precedent to baptize people? Because there’s a lot of church traditions and so what does that mean for everyone? So they’re having a big discussion, and I took him up to the pool, and I baptized him. Because I said, I’m the electrician, I’m not a chaplain, I’m not setting a precedent. So I baptized him in the pool!

And on top of that, we had a great chance to connect with a lot of local churches. My son was in a Bible Memory Verse competition with four or five local churches that met in a church in Guinea, we found a church that was part of our denomination in Senegal, which was kind of surprising. And so we got to attend a local church, and make friends with a local pastor and the local congregation and share meals with them. And so it really it just gets kind of woven in your everyday life.

Raeanne:

I know also, my daughters were in middle school when they were on board. And they went on a middle school retreat, and you were their speaker.

Justin:

Yeah, they found out that I used to be a junior high pastor for several years, so they asked me to come share at a youth retreat, and I had a I had a blast, the kids on the ship are great. And they reminded me a lot of myself. Like, we tend to glorify a lot of people that have just amazing conversion stories that came from hard life of, you know, cutting up and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I realized I grew up in a good Christian home with good Christian parents and I lived overseas and eventually I remember a point in my life where the Lord was like, hey, you need to make your faith your own. You can’t make your parents faith your own anymore. So I had a feeling that I had a lot in common with a lot of the ship kids, like you’re living in a culture that’s not yours. Yeah, you’re here because your parents are here and you’re a Christian because your parents are Christian, and so you’re going to need to decide, is this who I am or is this not?

Raeanne:

Yeah, well, you definitely left an impression on my children for sure. So I thank you for that. Now, Justin, living on a ship is obviously a very unique and very environment, what is something that you learned while living on a ship?

Justin:

Somebody told me once when I was really nervous doing a job for the first time — I don’t remember if I was trying to work on our radar system or the fire alarm system. I thought, I don’t know if I’ve got the right tools. If I’ve read the right books, and someone said, look, it’s already broke, you’re not gonna broke it anymore. Don’t be afraid of it, just jump in there and start figuring out what’s wrong and how to fix it. And I realized after a while, people are really afraid of things they’ve never done, but if it’s already broken, you’re not going to broken it anymore. Just get in there and figure it out. And that has served me well.

Raeanne:

That’s kind of a good life lesson in a lot of ways. You know, we think we need to know so much before we can move on. But, just dive in. It’s not gonna get any worse. Or it might get worse, but it will get better. Eventually, you’ll figure something out. Well, how did you see lives being changed while you were on board?

Justin:

Well, for one, there’s definitely the hospital where you see people that have a some severe burns and disfigurements that just break your heart and then seeing the joy in people’s eyes when they get to leave is phenomenal. And just knowing this person will have a completely different life because they don’t have opportunities we do here, there is not equal employment opportunities. There’s no Disabilities Act, there’s no gender equality, it’s like, nope, this is what it is, right? And being able to see people just come alive and have a chance and a future is so amazing.

Also, I met a lot of people that would volunteer for a short period of time, and then kind of get the bug and keep coming back. So I would say actually, I think there’s three or four of our current captains and at least one or two of our current chief engineers, were not Christians or were not in any kind of religious way before they volunteered for the ship. And you would see people come that were hard men that were tough men. And I’ve seen a couple women that came from a maritime background that had a hard edge to them. And you would see that soften and you would see walls starting to come down and you would see relationships and connection being built and you’d see troubled pasts that were starting to be let go from the deck and engineering department people that were hard people because they had a hard background. Yeah, just to see them soften and open up was amazing to watch.

Raeanne:

Wow, that’s very cool. Well, how would you say that you’re different because you’ve served? How have you been changed?

Justin:

I definitely had all of my theological ducks in a row and all my convictions lined up about what camp I belong to. And who was the right people in these camps and the wrong people and what passages were I interpreted correctly, and everybody else did not. The Lord broke of me that quick, like I was young and arrogant. It was amazing to see people from churches you wouldn’t ever consider going, that we’re doing the right thing. They were loving Jesus, they were loving their neighbor, they were following the 2000 year old model of Christ and they were being missionaries, and it really breaks down the denomination barriers that we tend to set around us and you realize that man, the Lord is moving in more camps than just mine.

Raeanne:

Yeah, definitely broadens not only your worldview, but your faith view, in a lot of ways. You know, some of us have been raised in a very specific tradition and you get on board with people who believe in the same God, but express that in a very different way and it’s amazing to be in an environment where you can really learn from each other in that way.

Justin:

There’s nothing wrong if you’d like to worship in a very formal way and if that speaks to you then praise the Lord. And if worshiping in a very loose and free way speaks to you, then praise the Lord.

Raeanne:

From your time of serving in Cameroon, Guinea and Senegal, why don’t you give us a couple of highlights that you’ll always remember.

Justin:

Sure. So we had a captain and honestly, I love all the captains we had. They were great guys. But we had one that worked for Mercy Ships, and he was a captain several times, and they would jokingly refer to him as “Captain Flip Flop” because, as he would say, flip flops are not safe shoes because he had actually seen someone who really mangled their foot wearing flip flops and their foot slipped. And so he was very anti flip flop. But if you were on the ship, and you were not going up and down and not outside, people can wear flip-flops. So I got together with a guy from my onboarding class, his name was Kase, and we made a pair of steel toe flip flops. We got some like platform flip flops out of the ship shop and we epoxied them together. Then, we were saying goodbye to somebody as they were getting ready to leave the ship, and we presented him with a pair of safety toed flip flops so he can wear his flip flops and be safe!

Raeanne:

That is awesome.

Justin:

I love those pictures on my phone. That was a phenomenal highlight.

Raeanne:

We actually had Captain Djurre Jan on the podcast. And I so badly wanted to call him Captain Flip Flop, but I totally restrained myself! What about some of the adventures in the countries that you served in? Did you guys do some neat things as a family?

Justin:

Yeah, in Senegal, we spent a long weekend at a beach with some friends that we made from the ship, and I got to take a vacation, we got to go to a nature preserve in Senegal and see animals, and the thing that I love about Africa is the lawyers have not gotten a hold of it yet. So nobody sues anybody. So we were riding in the bed of a pickup truck and we got about within three feet of a rhinoceros with nothing around us. Our guide said — that’s a rhino and that’s a warthog, do not stick your hand out because there’s a black mamba under the truck. Like stuff that you could not get away with in the US. And we also got to get involved with a local church in Senegal. And it was really great to be able to worship with African believers. And like in church services, they’re just so different. And it was just a beautiful time, we got to expose our kids to something different.

Raeanne:

That is so cool. Well, you’ve already mentioned a little bit about how you’re different because you’ve served. But how do you think your kids are different because you took them on this adventure?

Justin:

I think they are much more appreciative. They were already appreciative, but they’re much more appreciative of what they have. Like they don’t want stuff for Christmas and their birthdays — they don’t need big things. They’re happy with small stuff, and I realized how blessed that they are to have the things that we have and live where we live. And I think there’s a deeper appreciation. Yeah, I think our kids have got a stronger walk with the Lord. And occasionally, we still catch them using phrases, words and language in other languages. Occasionally, like, I don’t know where it’ll come from, one of my daughters will start speaking French, or they’ll use an English word in an odd way, and I’m like, “no, no, baby, they only say that in England, that won’t make sense here.” And that’s British, and we speak American.

Raeanne:

Just to see the kids have their eyes opened to the world and what’s going on is pretty phenomenal and something I’m sure that your kids will take with them for the rest of their lives. They will never be the same.

Justin:

One of the other highlights was being able to go to the youth retreat and speak to junior high and high schoolers and know where they’re coming from. I’ve actually gotten to talk to a couple of the kids since then, and I’ve seen a couple of them have decided to make their faith their own. And I know at least one or two are now looking into going into missionary schools. And it was great to see kids starting to connect the dots of — what am I doing with my life and am I gonna just live my life or am I going to try to love and serve others and it was it was great to see.

Raeanne:

Well, I know my kids were blessed by what you had to share at the junior high retreat in Senegal. So I thank you for being that pastor to them. And Justin, I just thank you so much for sharing with us today a little bit of Your Mercy Ships journey. It’s been a pleasure to catch up with you, and thank you so much for being on the show today.

Justin:

Oh, thank you for having me. The pleasure is all mine.

Raeanne:

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. Next week Aby Diouf will be sharing with us her experience of being a translator for Mercy Ships in her home country of Senegal. You don’t want to miss this interesting woman and her insight into the culture where we’re currently caring for patients.