Mercy Ships currently operates the largest nongovernmental hospital ship in the world, staffed “mostly by volunteers,” says David Warner, 67, a two-decade, full-time volunteer with the organization, which was started in 1978.
Warner, a U.S. Navy veteran, found a natural home in the maritime mission after his military service and a 12-year stint as an Amazon River boat captain, volunteering in the remote Brazilian jungles.
He likes that Mercy Ships offer free medical services “to the world’s forgotten poor, on a much bigger scale.”
In June, he will observe his 25th anniversary with the medical ministry.
“You know, it’s easy just to tell someone God loves them,” he said at his East Texas home on Jan. 4, “but it’s harder for them to hear it if they are ostracized in their villages because of some medical defect such as a tumor, or can’t walk because of bone issues.
“Once they have surgeries the ship provides, and makes them appear more normal, they have a better chance at a future.
“I like the idea of demonstrating God’s love to people through physical, emotional, and spiritual healing that brings hope.
“It’s a way to say ‘I love you’ that doesn’t use words. That’s why I volunteer. That’s something I can do.”
The Africa Mercy is a 499-foot vessel converted from a former railroad ferry from northern Europe, with multiple decks and a crew complement of “about 400,” Warner said.
The hospital ship serves people in African nations that clear the way for it to dock for “a term of service,” usually up to 10 months, and do what it does best–administer new life through free medical treatments unavailable to the poor of those countries.
Even though the 501(C)(3) nonprofit is headquartered in Garden Valley in East Texas, Warner said volunteers from “30 to 40 nations” staff the ship in a wide variety of capacities. He was aboard the Africa Mercy when it was serving in Senegal in early 2020.
“It’s like a little city,” he said. “It’s a great hospital fully equipped with the latest gear, surgery theaters, and recovery beds, but it’s more than a hospital. Usually when you think of medical outreaches, it brings to mind doctors, nurses, surgeons, and the like.
“The Africa Mercy has volunteer teachers, navigators, mechanics, cooks, maritime professionals, and more. There’s a large dining area and even a coffee shop.
“When all the volunteers, training personnel, and staff are on board, there can be 600-plus on the ship, all together, all there for one purpose–to help the hurting who are so grateful someone came to help them.
“It’s volunteerism on a massive scale.”
He reflected on the difference between his work in the Amazon and now.
“When we were up-river, living in the jungles opening health clinics, starting schools and churches, it was me, Elizabeth, our two small children, and four faithful local volunteers doing most of the work, most of the time.”
But when he’s on the ship, he’s surrounded by volunteers and the volunteer spirit, all day, every day.
“The majority of people on the Africa Mercy are unpaid, as I am. A few in critical positions are not. But even the captain is usually unpaid. It’s the spirit of giving, of volunteering from all those nations, that you can actually feel. That’s quite something to see and be part of. It’s really a wonderful life.”
Warner’s job is to help train the constant flow of volunteers at the ship’s International Support Center in Texas. But some circumstances dictate that training be held near where the ship is docked.
“Sometimes it’s hard for our African crew to get visas to come to us,” he said, “so I went along with our training staff to Senegal so they could get the same excellent training everyone else gets, not some watered-down version that came to them secondhand.
“We’re here to help everyone have the best experience they can.”