Joy MagazineWhat happens to your soul when you quit your comfort zone and sign up to serve on a hospital ship in Africa? Ask Tertius Venter – or his wife.


As the shipboard operating room undulates on swells from a distant Atlantic storm, Tertius Venter repairs his tiny patient’s palate, malformed at birth three years ago. Aboard the Anastasis, an aging hospital ship moored off the Gulf of Guinea, this South African plastic surgeon snips and repairs a reverse double-Z gash in the roof of little Rijab’s mouth. In the background, Venter’s well-travelled iPod plays John Michael Talbot singing St. Teresa of Avila’s prayer:


“Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world.”


The song reflects an epiphany Tertius experienced years ago following a brutally honest inventory he took of his own comfort-filled life. A dedicated Christian, he loved his two children and his wife of 20 years, Trudi, a high school Afrikaans teacher. In East London, Tertius routinely worked 12-hour days. “Ten years on that schedule could make you wealthy,” he says, “but it’s a very relative term.”


So why was his soul profoundly unsettled? Tertius, who spoke with me aboard the Anastasis shortly before its de-commissioning, recalled a talk by maxillofacial surgeon, Gary Parker, who had served two decades aboard the Anastasis. Parker explained Mercy Ships’ purpose to bring high-quality health care to the poorest of the poor.


AnastasisTertius signed up for a 10-day mission to The Gambia. The ship’s Christian witness deeply moved him. One evening he read Scripture on the empty starboard deck. There he experienced the intimate presence of Christ unlike ever before. “God filled me with a love for Him that I never knew was possible, which grew deeper and deeper. My whole life changed in one night.” He accepted God’s call to full-time service to Africa’s poor and Europe’s broken-hearted.


Tertius recently completed his thirteenth stint aboard the Anastasis. But his obedience to that original Divine Call has been a faith-journey that initially no one else could understand — not his church, not his South African medical colleagues, not even his wife. Shortly after returning home from his Gambian epiphany, Tertius informed Trudi that their wealth and lifestyle suddenly meant nothing. “I felt free. I was released,” he said.


By contrast, however, Trudi was shocked. According to Tertius, “I sensed God was calling me alone.”


A difficult calling


His wife’s anger, despair and loneliness troubled Tertius. “I was almost crying in church sitting next to her,” he recollects. “Was God really calling me away from my family? A lot of people just didn’t believe that God would do that.” Indeed, Tertius’ circle of family, friends and fellowship didn’t.


In obedience, Tertius closed his private practice, leaving crucial matters unresolved. How would he finance his volunteer work and provide for his household? Obeying God’s call would be phenomenally risky to his marriage, career and reputation. “If it weren’t from God,” Venter says, “it would pull [us] away from God and away from each other.” Again, Tertius sensed God’s voice: “If you keep with Me, I will look after your family.”


In time, all the puzzle pieces came together. A plastic surgery clinic in Ireland invited Tertius to practice there 10 days at a time 10 times per year. While Trudi didn’t fully comprehend her husband’s call, she sought God’s guidance and managed on the home front. Tertius embarked on his travels ministering not only in Ireland, but throughout coastal Africa—Ghana, Liberia, Togo, Benin, The Gambia and Sierra Leone—all the nations that had invited the Anastasis. Additionally, he sensed a call to spread the Gospel in Amsterdam.


From hope to resurrection


Some of these nations had been visited years earlier by another charitable hospital ship. From 1960 to 1974, the SS Hope, a decommissioned US Navy hospital ship, visited 11 ports in developing countries, bringing healing to civilians without access to life-saving surgery.


After the horrors of World War II, SS Hope was a global inspiration. The ship was under the care of Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere). It captured Don Stephens’ imagination. Four years after the SS Hope retired, Stephens and his wife Deyon, working through Youth with a Mission (YWAM), founded Mercy Ships. Their goal was to repeat the medical success of the SS Hope in Christ’s name following Christ’s model of treating both physical and spiritual needs using an international Christian volunteer team of physicians and support staff. This team would worship together, take turns leading devotionals and pray for their ministries and patients. Mercy Ships’ narrow surgical mission would eventually include:


 Simple, life-changing eye surgeries for cataracts and crossed eyes.


Removal of life-threatening facial tumours, cleft lip & cleft palate.


Repairing VVF (vesico-vaginal fistula), pelvic tears caused by obstructed labour in childbirth that render sufferers incontinent and outcast.  


Christian witness would be as vital to their mission as medical treatment. Community development to relieve poverty and squalid living conditions would address root causes behind preventable health problems in the developing world.


In the late 1970s, Stephens discovered the retired 1950s Italian ocean liner, Victoria, which once shuttled passengers to the Far East. Stephens and others raised $1 million to buy the Victoria and refit it into a floating hospital and renamed it Anastasis—Greek for ‘resurrection’. It began service in 1982.


As their outreach grew, smaller vessels joined the fleet: the Island Mercy – serving Asia and the Caribbean Mercy – serving Central America and the islands. Anastasis was the flagship as the ministry awaited the Africa Mercy, a converted Danish ferry.


The Anastasis’ 350 career and short-term workers range from eye surgeons to a hairdresser. Ships’ doctors have performed more than 32,500 life-transforming surgeries. Its fleet has touched 1.7 million people through surgeries, educational and community development programmes in 223 port visits to 54 developing nations. (In 2003, YWAM and Mercy Ships agreed to separate and operate independently).


Life on board


On a mid-November morning in 2006 during my visit, I met surgeon, Gary Parker. Outfitted in giraffe-print scrubs, he made morning rounds through the Anastasis’ recovery wards. Gary and his wife Susan, the Anastasis’ staff development director, are raising their son and daughter in their 275-square-foot cabin. Adjunct medical personnel include ophthalmologist Neil Murray, a grey-bearded New Zealander who’s meeting his second centenarian cataract patient of the week. Through a translator the 105-year-old woman tells Neil of her 92-year-old daughter.


A tailored journey


Early one Wednesday morning, about a dozen men and women in scrubs gathered in the ‘Mediterranean Lounge’, its windows framing a Russian freighter moored next door.


Australian Fiona Fraser, a perky brunette nurse, led the morning’s devotional about life plans centred on David’s journey. “When the time is right and you are ready, God will send for you,” she shared. “When you were thinking about coming on this ship, God knew. God knows where He can find you.” She read a passage titled ‘The Path to Your Destiny’. “Often”, Fraser said, “God gives us assignments that feel uncomfortable”.


Tertius couldn’t agree more. He’s titled his next devotional ‘What is faith?’ He defines it: “Faith isn’t something you can find somewhere. It’s a relationship. Absolute trust in God is possible only if you know Him.”


As Tertius’ trust grew, so did the orders he sensed God was giving him. He commuted between South Africa and the Anastasis, where his surgeries include repairing leprosy-gnarled hands, and the Ireland clinic, where he performs facelifts and breast implants. In these far-flung locales, Venter finds total peace. “This is where I need to be,” he says.


In 2005 when the Anastasis docked in East London, Tertius invited 100 South African medical colleagues—a partly Christian audience—on board. “I think everybody thought that it’s wonderful as long as they don’t have to do it,” Tertius told me.


But God tailors each journey. “Don’t do it unless God calls you and He changes your heart,” he said.


Giving to God


After closing his practice, the Venter’s sold their East London dream house. They downsized to a small Cape Town dwelling to cut expenses and shorten Tertius’ commutes.


Trudi, lonely and angry yet seeking God, attended a YWAM ‘Crossroads Discipleship Training School’ where she saw a video asking a provocative question: “What would you be prepared to give God?” The screen flashed with possibilities: Your job. Your home. Then one hit home – Your husband.


“I realised I had to say ‘OK,’” Trudi says. She began finding peace with God’s call for her husband. To grasp that she’s the victor, not the victim, took three years. “God sometimes does things the world doesn’t think is normal…. I had to forgive myself for not thinking it was all about God.”


YWAM’s programme required ministry practicum. During my visit, Trudi was discipling on the Anastasis, marking the Venters’ first joint mission.  


One weekday morning, Tertius makes recovery ward rounds, checking his repair of little Rijab’s mouth. He updates Rijab’s progress with her grandfather, Mohammed. Tertius declares Rijab will soon be ready to leave.


Living day by day


Meanwhile, Trudi sings while cuddling fussy baby Emanuel, Gary Parker’s cleft-palate patient. Emanuel falls asleep. Trudi rests him on his bed next to his father and the Ghanaian Twi translator, who are playing cards. She helps Nayo, 3, sip water from a cup as she points to a television playing the Jesus film. “Look! Jesus loves the children. He says the children must come to Him.” The child ponders the screen as Christ heals a blind man.


Trudi visits Dora, whose toddler daughter Yvonne sleeps on the bed. Yvonne was born with malformed fingers which Venter repaired. On the bed is Dora’s tattered, underlined Ewé language Bible. Trudi prays with Dora who joins her in broken English. “You mustn’t worry because God doesn’t want you to worry,” Trudi tells Dora.


Months ago Dora took Yvonne to a hospital that turned her away. So Dora prayed. At her Assemblies of God church she learned of the Anastasis. “I know it was God who led her here,” Dora says through an interpreter. “Because of my faith I knew the child would be healed.”


The Venter’s eat lunch in the dining room with deck hands. Tomorrow Trudi returns to South Africa to minister in a squatter camp. This time, Tertius is the one left behind.


“Obviously, I’m very sad, and it’s not nice. We live from day to day and let God show us. Our future is in God’s hands.”


And that’s the safest place it can be. (The Anastasis retired in July. The Africa Mercy began service in Monrovia, Liberia, with a crew from 30 nations. The 499-foot vessel has six operating rooms, a capacity for 78 patients and berths for 484).?


© Joy Magazine – www.joymag.co.za

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