Our Story

“40 years ago, God took a huge risk” – that’s the way Mercy Ships founder Don Stephens describes the beginning of a story that has touched millions of the world’s poorest people. A devastating hurricane, meeting Mother Teresa and the birth of his special needs son drove an idea that would bring hope and healing to the world’s poorest people.

Don and Deyon launched Mercy Ships – a floating hospital for the poor – in Switzerland in 1978. National offices opened around the world to get – and keep – the ship afloat with donations and volunteers. New Zealand came on board in 1982 supporting the first Mercy Ship Anastasis during its year of Pacific field work – and Kiwis have been involved ever since.

Around 40 volunteers from New Zealand serve on board the Mercy Ship every year and thousands of others donate time and money to sponsor surgeries and health care programmes.The dedicated New Zealand office raises funds, recruits volunteers and brings the current ship, Africa Mercy to the attention of Kiwis.

How it all began

Volunteers converted it into a hospital ship with three operating theatres and a 40-bed ward and, in 1982, the first Mercy Ship, Anastasis, was deployed. Since then Mercy Ships has served in 54 developing nations around the world, directly helping more than 2.42 million people in desperate need.

Don and Deyon Stephens founded the charity together, spending ten years living on board the first Mercy Ship with their family before relocating to the International Operations Center in Texas. You can read the full story of Mercy Ships here in the free downloadable ebook Ships of Mercy. Don has been widely recognised for his work, receiving the Two Hungers Award, the Religious Heritage Award, and is a Paul Harris Fellow through Rotary. In 2009 Don and Deyon Stephens were honoured with the International Humanitarian Award by the Variety Club. Don lectures internationally and is the author of Trial by Trial, Mandate for Mercy and Ships of Mercy. Don is the voice behind the Mercy Minute, a daily radio broadcast aired internationally

When he was just 19, Don and his Colorado youth group were in the Bahamas when Hurricane Cleo swept through causing massive devastation. As the group sheltered in an old WWII aircraft hangar, Don couldn’t forget a prayer he overheard during the storm: ‘Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if a ship could come in after the devastation to provide the necessary medical care and supplies’. This prayer stayed with him, challenging him provide an answer. Over several years working with ‘Youth with a Mission’ the idea – God’s huge risk – took shape in his mind. During this time, Don and his wife, Deyon, had a son, John Paul, born with special needs. John Paul’s condition reinforced their belief that they had to bring medical help to people with no access to any form of health care. Then came a visit to India, where he met Mother Teresa. She encouraged him to pursue the vision God had placed in his heart and soon he was looking for a ship. Together, Don and Deyon and a team of volunteers who shared their vision for Mercy Ships hunted through ship graveyards to find something they could turn into a hospital ship. At last the idea became a reality – and the risk a certainty – when, on 7 July 1978, US$1m was paid for a rusty old cruise liner.

The Mercy Ships story continues