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delivering mercy on land & sea

DeliveringMercy_JoensensJonhard and Debbie Joensen talk about their 12 years with Mercy Ships, an international charity that sponsors the world’s largest civilian hospital ship. Today, they are active soldiers at the Old Orchard Beach (OOB) Corps in Maine, where they now serve with their “boots on the ground.” 

The Joensens still marvel at the huge crowds that came and continue to come to Mercy Ships medical screenings given free of charge. Many of the people who show up live in unimaginable poverty and are hoping for a miracle.

Debbie says she would often say a prayer and then wade into the line looking for children who had no hope of finding specialized medical care anywhere in their home country.

“It’s life–changing to actually be the person to help a child and to take him or her through the process of getting examined and then into the hands of a Mercy Ships doctor,” Debbie says. “You see a child transformed, get the medical care they need, hear the name of Jesus, and learn about His love.”

Mercy Ships, led by Africa Mercy, its flagship hospital vessel, stops in ports along the coast of Africa to perform surgeries and to deliver medical care. The ship and its 450 volunteers, who live on board, stay nine long months in one port.

Coming on board

Jonhard was attending Norway’s Youth With a Mission discipleship training when he heard of Mercy Ships. The theme of the training was “To know God and to make Him known.” When Jonhard heard about a friend who had joined a Mercy Ships, he wanted on board.

Vanya had a condition called "wind swept legs." Volunteer orthopedic surgeons aboard Mercy Ships straightened her legs. Now she can go to school without being ridiculed.

Vanya had a condition called “wind swept legs.” Volunteer orthopedic surgeons aboard Mercy Ships straightened her legs. Now she can go to school without being ridiculed.

“That’s how I felt I could make God known,” he says. “So I joined Mercy Ships.”

Debbie, who grew up in central Maine, says Mercy Ships “found me, not the other way around.” She was attending college in Florida when she was invited to a Mercy Ship. The ship was preparing for a field service to Haiti and she volunteered. “I went and I never got off the ship,” she says.

After meeting onboard a Mercy Ship in 1988, the couple married three years later and left Mercy Ships. Jonhard completed navigation school, and the couple returned to Mercy Ships from 1998 to 2008. This time, they brought their children with them; Steffan was 4 and Rebekka only 1. “Our daughter actually took her first steps on the ship,” Debbie says.

The Joensens have served with Mercy Ships in Europe, along the West Coast of Africa, and also in the Caribbean.

Finding the Army

Soon after arriving in Old Orchard Beach, the couple commenced their search for a church. One day, Jonhard saw a steeple near their home. It belonged to the Salvation Army’s OOB tabernacle. When Jonhard and Debbie visited, they saw people mingling at the corner. A conversation ensued. In time, they learned to love the church and its people.

“We never looked for another church,” he says.

Steffan, now 21, and Rebekka, now 17, have attended and worked at the Army’s Camp Sebago. They’ve also joined youth programs at the corps. Debbie leads a Bible study and Jonhard and Debbie both volunteer to help the Pavilion Ministries.

The Joensens said they see a heart for the poor and downtrodden at The Salvation Army and they love to help at the corps, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“That’s the reason we were attracted to The Salvation Army,” Debbie says. “The Army is not in our background, but when we started working with The Salvation Army, and we saw their mercy ministry, we were hooked. That’s one of the reasons why we’re still here.

“It’s a great opportunity to touch missions. I love the fact I’ve been involved with Mercy Ships and with The Salvation Army. I think there are huge opportunities for young people to go out into a developing nation and to actually experience it for themselves.”

Seeing with new eyes

“I love to see individuals take hold of the opportunity to touch a developing nation,” says Jonhard. “It’s a must, as far as I’m concerned. You’ll come back changed.”

Sambany had a 16.5–pound facial tumor removed when Mercy Ships was in Madagascar.

Sambany had a 16.5–pound facial tumor removed when Mercy Ships was in Madagascar.

That certainly is the case for all of the Joensens. Steffan just joined Youth With a Mission full time; Rebekka has talked about returning to Africa after school.

“I will never be the same,” Jonhard says. “You know the need and the need is great. You see people around you suffering and it has been rewarding to learn to help one at a time and not be overwhelmed with the multitude that are so in need.”

Debbie agreed that the Mercy Ships experience was a life–changing one that gave her a different perspective.

“Like Jonhard, I’ll never be the same,” Debbie says. “I don’t know how you can. I don’t know how you can possibly come from a Western setting and walk into a situation where poverty is an everyday occurrence … and walk away from that and not have a passion for giving and a passion to serve.”

Thankful hearts

“There are people out there in so much more dire need than you are that being grateful is the least we can do. Going is better. You live every day saying ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ I pray we never see that depth of need here in the United States. We must live with thanksgiving.”

When asked if they could see themselves someday returning to the seawith Mercy Ships, the couple didn’t hesitate despite being in their 50s.

“Absolutely,” Debbie says. “I’d go tomorrow.”

“That could be,” adds Jonhard.

by Robert Mitchell


A Christian Community

Mercy Ships delivers basic care, but also specialized surgeries to repair cataracts, cleft lips and palates, and large tumor removals.

“In the first week of field service, 2,000 to 3,000 people can show up at one screening and from that screening tickets are issued to patients that can be given the most help,” Debbie Joensen says.

The field services were typically four months long and Debbie and Jonhard Joensen loved living in a huge community of Christians, all of whom had opportunity to pray with patients and share God’s love.

“It’s a hospital ship, but it’s run like a town,” Debbie says. “There is every kind of job you can think of and a lot of volunteers are needed for a ship to run successfully.

“You live, eat, sleep, and work in ministry right on the ship,” she says. “Even if you’re not an evangelist, everybody has the chance to be able to see a person in deep need touched by Jesus and that’s huge.”

The Africa Mercy features a deck with six operating theaters and a ward with 85 beds providing quality medical care to many in deep need.

Founded in 1978, Mercy Ships has helped more than 2.5 million people and delivered in excess of $1 billion in services, according to the charity’s website. Mercy Ships has visited more than 581 ports in 57 different nations.

The Africa Mercy is presently the only ship in service, but a new vessel is due to sail as soon as 2017.

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