When Ebola Invades Your Ministry

If October’s one word is salt, then perhaps we ought to take our cues for how to respond to the Ebola outbreak from Mercy Ships, and not Fox News.  

Brian Blackburn, the chief administrator of the Mercy Ships Academy, recalls that in January, the ship was in the Democratic Republic of Congo and planned to go to Guinea for its next medical outreach. “Ebola cases were coming in,” explains Brian, and the situation for Mercy Ships was changing month-by-month.

This spring, the ship decided to change course to Benin, West Africa.  After consulting with the  Africa Mercy chief medical officer on the ship and the Mercy Ships leadership team, plans changed again. “We don’t have the environment or isolation wards,” explains Brian. “We are not a first responder in this way. So at that time, the managing director of the ship explored a medical outreach in Madagascar.”

Brian is upfront about the crew’s reaction. “The crew is disappointed and feels as if we have disappointed people that we have spent years working with. A lot of people on the ship have ties to West Africa,” Brian points out. “I am keeping track with four friends about what’s going on. At first, they said it wasn’t as bad as what was being reported, but now they’re saying that people are dying, and the situation is horrible.”

Although Mercy Ships isn’t equipped to meet the needs of an outbreak such as Ebola, they are equipped to pray. “This has really gotten our whole crew to pray,” says Brian. “But if our ship had been there, it would have been quarantined, and then we wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere.

“The majority of our single people are ready to risk their lives and die, but the leaders of the organization are not prepared to make that decision for everyone else, remarks Brian. “ I’m encouraged to see individuals stepping up like at Samaritan’s Purse.  But when you’re the leader and you have to decide not just for yourselves but for the whole group, it is harder.  Some of our crew are torn and feel like they’re running away from the situation, so it is a struggle for those of us who have strong ties to West Africa.”

Once Mercy Ships received permission from the government of Madagascar, they took the three-week sail to Madagascar, where they were last in 1997. The ship will be there until May 2015.

“There are medical needs everywhere,” Brian points out.  “The United Nations has ranked the worst countries, and Madagascar is among the lowest. We are still meeting the need, just in a different country.”

Brian says that Mercy Ships could literally have ten ships in Africa and still not meet all of the needs. “We’re trying to keep our crew safe and, at the same time, do our best to meet some of the need.”

Mercy Ships has every intention of returning to port in West Africa “I think the people of Africa are the most creative people I’ve seen. They do things in a way that I would never think of doing things. There was a story of a young woman who used trash bags to make her own protective suit so she could care for her family.  When you lack things, you become creative.  Could you live on less than $2.00 a day?

“The media always shows the ugly and dirty, but Africa is beautiful,” Brian says. “Ten minutes outside of any city in Africa is beautiful. In fact, I feel safer in West Africa than I do in downtown Chicago.”

Looking down the road, Brian says that Mercy Ships will return to West Africa. “When it’s safe to go back in, we will to do training and rebuild medically.” Brian concludes with a request for prayer for wisdom for him and his wife, Warrie, and their two daughters as they rejoin the ship’s community.

Read Mercy Ships statement on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa