Clumsy beginnings, evangelical orientation

Half a century of reminiscences were stirred by a recent visit to our Amsterdam apartment by Captain Brian Sloan and his wife Anne.

Brian directs the JEM Maritime Academy, training crew for the twenty-eight ships of the JEM Ships fleet operating worldwide.

For me, it’s a story that goes back to 1972, when Youth With A Mission was just a small movement that was only a dozen years old.

In fact, the story begins even earlier, in 1964, during one of the first summer outings in the Bahamas when a hurricane swept through the islands leaving a trail of damage.

The seeds were then planted from a vision of use seagoing vessels to bring relief and demonstrate God’s love.

My first realization of this vision came eight years later, when two American YWAMers came to our living room in Auckland, New Zealand, to speak with my father about his intention to purchase a national icon, m/v MaorI.

This inter-island ferry, with its familiar dark green hull, was a boat on which many Kiwis had sailed at some stage in their life.

My eyes widened as I saw the brochures spread out on the floor already printed with an artist’s impression of the ship, painted white, anchored in a Pacific island harbor framed by palm trees.

The two visitors wanted my father, as the first president of YWAM New Zealand, to accompany them to Wellington to negotiate the purchase.

As a journalist working on the New Zealand Herald at the time, I realized there was a scoop of history ahead of me – but I was told not to breathe a word.

Unfortunately, this sale did not succeed, as explained by Loren Cunningham in his book Is it really you, my God? Mistakes were made and YWAM faced criticism from both secular and Christian audiences.

In YWAM we called this episode ‘the death of a vision’.

Only six years later, I found myself part of YWAM based in the Netherlands, and on a train to Venice with five other YWAM leaders, three of whom would precede me as YWAM Europe directors: Don Stephens , Floyd McClung and Lynn Green.

We were also on a confidential mission: inspecting an Italian liner named m/v Victoria, with a view to buying it to transport JEMers from Europe to Agentina for an awareness action during the FIFA World Cup.

It was for sale at scrap price: one million US dollars.

Four hundred young evangelists converged on a campsite in Venice at the end of March 1978, eager to board the ship and cross the Atlantic for the World Cup awareness campaign.

We raised the money with mortgages on four JEM properties in Europe (Lausanne, Hurlach, Holmstead Manor and Heidebeek). I was part of a small team that worked all night to prepare a written proposal for the bank the next morning in Lausanne.

The longer-term plan was for the ship to circumnavigate Africa each year, calling at ports to offer relief aid and engage in evangelism.

Don Stephens took over the project and sent me back to Holland to find a crew ready to sail within a month for two months without pay!

It’s embarrassing to write. We were so green! The ship would take four yearsincluding being towed to Athens for renovation, before being ready to sail.

Sometimes God has to use those who don’t know it can’t be done to do it!

that is how JEM Mercy Ships finally started in 1982 with the renamed vessel m/v Anastasis – meaning ‘resurrection’ – after much trial and error.

The “trial” was literal. While the ship was in Greece, Don and two others were accused of proselytizing after a young Greek came to believe. They were sentenced to 3.5 years in prison, later suspended under international pressure.

The Anastasis, converted into a hospital ship, was later joined by two smaller ships, m/v Island Mercy and m/v Caribbean Mercy.

Shortly after the start of the new millennium, Mercy Ships became its own independent organizationn with Don as CEO. It currently operates two vessels, m/v Africa Mercy (replacing Anastasis in 2007) and m/v Global Mercy (2021).

Still ships continued to be part of JEM history too, with smaller vessels able to negotiate coasts, rivers and lakes, as well as offshore yachts and mobile dental clinics.

Today the fleet has grown to twenty-eight ships operating on all oceans and continents in close relation with the terrestrial YWAM centres. (See, for example, ywamships.org; ywamships.no).

It’s a story that I had lost track of. Brian and Anne’s visit opened my eyes to the multiple maritime ministries of YWAM that now operate around the world. No wonder Brian saw the need to create the JEM Maritime Academy to train the crew of these ships.

Think of what grew from those clumsy beginnings!

Jeff Fontaine, Director of the Schuman Center for European Studies. This article was first published on the author’s blog, Weekly Word.

Barry F. Howard