New Mercies: Don and Deyon Stephens Part 2

The Future of Mercy Ships

When discussing the future of Mercy Ships, Don Stephens brought us back to the original vision, saying, “For us, it hasn’t changed — a hospital ship serving the poor in Africa.” In this episode, we continue our conversation with Don and Deyon, founders of Mercy Ships, and get an education about hedgehogs, building a “right size” ship, and 60 Minutes.

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New Mercies Podcast Transcript

Welcome to New Mercies, a podcast by Mercy Ships, where we’ll take you behind the scenes and on board our incredible hospital ships that are transforming lives all over the world. We invite you to join us each week as we sit down with our crew, patients, volunteers, and partners to hear their stories of life-changing hope and healing.

Ally Jones:

On today’s episode, Raeanne and I continued our conversation with Don and Deyon Stevens, the founders of Mercy Ships. They told us about holding fast to the original vision as we move forward into the future. We hope you enjoy this episode, as we discuss building a new ship, hedgehogs, and 60 Minutes.

Raeanne Newquist:

When we look to the future of Mercy Ships, the future is looking pretty bright. We have just completed our first ever purpose-built hospital ship. And from the ground up the Global Mercy has been built with the crew and the patients in mind. So, I want to know, when did the dream for a second ship come about?

Don Stephens:

Raeanne, there are two parts to that. Number one, it’s Mercy Ships. There’s an S on ships. The dream for more than one ship has been there from the very beginning. Secondly, this Global Mercy really came out of our own learning. Our business pattern had been to take a passenger liner or ferry and convert it into a hospital ship — we knew what that costs, and it costs a lot of money. So, we began to think and pray about maybe we should build our own purpose-built, right sized hospital ship. And those words “right size” are important, because a lot of people had ideas. For instance, some thought we should only have a barge and have a big tug to tow it from port to port. Well, if you have a disaster in the nation, the disaster could be they could occupy your hospital barge before the tug ever got there.

There are lots of reasons we ruled out a barge, it doesn’t work. They said to us, for us to give you permission to put passengers to put nonprofessionals on a barge and hospital and patients, it has to have propulsion and steerage. And if it has propulsion and steerage then it’s called a ship. So, hospital ships. It’s been there for the beginning.

We planned and then probably the most important thing — because none of this wouldn’t have happened without others who believed in our purpose, some foundation some individuals — Mercy Ships did not build the ship, Stena did, for us, under contract that we paid for it. It’s really important to clarify that in our history. Without Stena, we wouldn’t have had the design, the hull, we wouldn’t have had all the particulars… They basically gave us their newest, whole design that we modified. And they give us permission to use it for two new buildings. Well, that’s ahuge. You’re talking about millions of dollars in, in maritime architectural design work and testing to get that level of design given us. That was a huge, huge miracle. So, the idea has been there from the beginning. It really got serious, we started raising funds…

Deyon Stephens:

Maybe I could add something about adding a second ship. We hadn’t been that long sailing… Of course, in the early days we did not have a hospital onboard, but we started where we could. We had medical clinics to start with and acts of mercy. And we had teams that represented Mercy Ships that went ashore to churches. We were in New Zealand a year going from port to port and during that time a typhoon took place or cyclone in the islands. And the Governor General of the islands of New Zealand sponsored a drive to raise all sorts of things for the islanders.

We took fire engines that were refurbished fire engines from New Zealand and gave to Suva Fiji. So many things… We made a couple of trips delivering goods to the people that have been so affected. And after that season of growing and doing and learning, a businessman that had become associated with us and come and volunteered and worked on board and was very caught up with the vision and the influence of the ship. He had bought a ship for his own personal use. It was a, it was a ship that he had bought from another company, and took his family out in it, enjoyed it. And then he called Don one day and said, “Listen, if I keep this ship out, I’ll use it a few times. But if I pass it on to you guys, you’ll save lives, help lives, change lives through it.” And he said, “Will you take it?” And he said, “I know, Don, you’re gonna want to pray, I need to know now, are you gonna take it or not?”

So, we had that opportunity. That was the Good Samaritan. And she sailed around the Caribbean, mostly, but other places as well, and taught us a great deal about having more than one ship. And then there was after that, there was the Caribbean Mercy. We had a small ship that was given to us, just a boat, really, that we sold. So, there were things along the way that we were learning all that was involved in trying to manage more than one vessel.


I think it’s important to communicate that we learned that small ships are not more economical.


That’s right.


You think small, it’s cheaper? It isn’t. If you look at the cost per person served… So let’s go back to the whole purpose. What drives their economic engine, what motivates our donors to pray for us and give support? It’s the stories of the change lives — the before and afters — of the life without hope, and faith, and the life with healing after the surgery, coming to know and have a personal relationships with the living God… we know what drives it.

And small ships are not nearly as cost effective as competitive as a certain size. So, when we say “right size” ship, we know what that means for us. Any bigger and it’s too big and we can get into the port or it’s too deep, or it’s too many staff on board to get the desired number of people.”


So Don, I’m sure in the early days, when talking about buying the first ship, the Anastasis, that there were a few people who thought maybe this is a bit crazy, and a bit unrealistic, and maybe we should turn things down a little bit. And then 40 years later, building our own ship, the Global Mercy and doing that from scratch for the first time that maybe there was some doubts about that as well. So how have we brought that vision into the present day and into the future? And how have we kept to that original vision throughout the history of Mercy Ships?


Well, I mean, use the words clarity of purpose. Why am I born? What’s my reason for being on earth… clarity of purpose for each of us, is critical as we choose whatever profession. Nursing, could be law enforcement, and being an attorney to be a legislator… What’s your purpose? And how do you keep the purpose central in your profession?

Now, that’s a struggle for many people. But it’s important that we keep that purpose crystal clear within us. And that same is true in an organization. You’re pulled many different ways. For instance, some people wanted a university ship. Well, it’s a wonderful idea. That’s not us. We’re hospitals, some people would have liked for us to become a disaster response ship, after hurricanes, tsunamis, natural disasters. Well, those are wonderful. And many organizations are called to do that, and churches respond. But that’s not us. To remain focused on our core competency.

That’s what Jim Collins, the author of the book, “Good to Great”, calls it. He surveyed over 100 corporations who had been in existence 100 years or more, and he came up with two very catchy ideas to communicate what he was after. Talks about the hedgehog. You know, for Americans, many of us haven’t seen a hedgehog, but, Ally is nodding his head, you know exactly what a hedgehog is… They’re everywhere in the UK.

And every hedge has just got a hedgehog… something like that… little miniature porcupines for Americans. Secondly, the fox. The hedgehog only has one purpose. The fox chases many ideas runs everywhere, but he’s never successful with a hedgehog. So, Jim Collins says for every organization to learn, what is your hedgehog?

Well for us, and this is just as critical today, as it was in the beginning… know what your hedgehog is. Well, our hedgehog is, it’s really, “What are you passionate about? What do you think you could be best in the world at and what drives your economic engine.” Think of those three points and where they come together, in the center is your sweet spot. That’s your hedgehog. Well, for us, that hasn’t changed. A hospital ship serving the poor in Africa. That’s our hedgehog. That’s what we do. And without any arrogance, because there’s no competition really, we’re the best in the world at that. Running a hospital ship, staffed with believers primarily not exclusively, following the 2,000-year-old model of Jesus, with two words hope and healing.

Those who believe in Mercy Ships are most touched by the stories, the before and afters, of the people we serve. As they tell their story and their own words, and often it’s visual, that’s what drives our economic engine. Capacity building doesn’t drive the economic engine, it gets the benefit of those who believe in us because of the changed lives, because of the hope and healing. Let’s keep that always clear, and in focus. What has brought this organization to where it is that we could take delivery of a brand-new purpose-built hospital ship built in China, for $126.5 million. And when it was delivered, it was debt-free not a penny owed. Never in our history has that happened. Why? What drives our economic engine? The stories of the before and afters of the people we serve, let’s never forget it, so important. It’s also what helps support our volunteer crew from around the world that raise their own support to come and spend two or three years on board. It’s the stories of changed lives. Let’s not ever forget it. Let’s remember our hedgehog.


Well, it was amazing to hear Don talk about the vision. And I definitely have seen that same perseverance and commitment to the vision over the last 18 months in this quite difficult season. But also, with the audacity to raise so much money for a brand-new ship with that same vision in mind. And Don said there are so many stories of transformation and transformed lives, which has been our own experience from serving on board.

And seeing that in the patients, of course, and the trainees, but also the crew. Our lives have been transformed from serving on the ship and from volunteering. But honestly, it’s anybody that steps foot onboard the ship, I don’t think you can come to any of the Mercy Ships and not be changed in some way. And that’s really why we wanted to start this podcast, isn’t it, it’s we know that there are so many there are thousands of stories of transformation in the patients, the trainees and the crew. And we needed to share them with the world. We need to share them out there. And that’s why we wanted to bring this podcast to you guys.


Absolutely. And we’re excited. We’re excited to see what happens when you all hear these incredible stories of life’s being changed… might change your life too. You know, at the conclusion of our time with Don and Deyon, Deyon asked to share one more story about a special turning point for Mercy Ships. So, let’s take a minute and hear what Deyon had to share.


I think a major turning point for us, Don does as well,  was the TV program 60 Minutes. We were relatively unknown. And I used to pray Lord, Lord. At the time, I thought the best thing God could do for us would be to give us an article in Reader’s Digest. It was widely read in those days. And actually there was an article written about Dr. Gary but it was hardly a blip on the screen of the general public. But before the days of the before and afters, which Don is referring to with such clarity, we had little to touch the hearts of people.

And people give where they know their money will be well spent and stewarded, but their heart has to be touched to and it was not a concerted effort on our part to touch hearts. That wasn’t our drive. But as people began to come with these disfiguring tumors and with blindness and with deformed legs, they were — for every one of us — an absolute miracle of transformation that took place, medically and surgically. And those pictures were so valuable. And it was after we had been at it some time that we had a call from 60 Minutes. And Don remembers that one of our advisors, board members said, “There are two calls you never want to get. One is the government saying, ‘Hello, this is the government we want to help you.’ And the other one is 60 Minutes.” They were quite well known for exposes. And so we were so frightened, because anytime you have people enough for them, there’s going to be there’s going to be an expose possible.

So Don, and our board met with some of the people from 60 Minutes. And they came and did such a super job… so professional, so well organized. Such a beautiful work. And the program was an enormous game changer for us. We went from unknown, to much more recognized still today, we find individuals who, in whatever way, perhaps they’re professional, maybe they’re a surgeon, maybe they’re a high-net-worth individual who gives. And often you will find in conversation that it was that 60 Minutes program that sowed the seed that brought them to where they were. And right after the program. We were desperate for finances, as we usually were for something. And we had a call from an individual who said he worked for a wealthy individual — I believes a lawyer — and he would like to come out and see the offices and see if we were indeed all that we were reported to be.

And he came out. And he said to Don, “I work for so and so. He saw the 60 Minutes program a few weeks ago. He’s a friend of one of the producers. And he knows that their research will have been thorough, he’s been wanting to give to something charitable. And so, he would like to give… was it $20 million Don?


It was.


It was very wonderful. In fact, when Don took it into the bank, they had their employees gather and took pictures of the check. And for a long time, when Don walked into that little bank in our little town, the people stood.


Well Raeanne, it was great to hear about Deyon talking about sowing many seeds. And I think anybody that served with Mercy Ships has a story of when they first heard about it, and when they feel like something was sown in them. And we hope that through this podcast, something will be sewn inside of you to get involved with Mercy Ships — even joining us by volunteering,


You know, after our interview, I caught up with Deyon and I asked her what her prayer was for the future of Mercy Ships. And this is what she said, “Mercy Ships is in a place of enormous success right now like never before.” And in her wisdom, she said that success is often the toughest test of all. And that’s why she prays the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, which is this: “Father God be revered among us. We pray that Your kingdom would come in and through us and your will would be done in us individually and corporately. Provide for our daily needs and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil and the evil one. Enable us to forgive and to receive forgiveness and remind us and demonstrate to us that you have all the power in Heaven and on earth. God teach us again those guiding principles that Don spoke about, those principles that made Mercy Ships great by YOUR work through them. In Jesus name, amen.

Thank you, Don and Deyon, for being with us today and sharing the encouraging stories of God’s provision and his faithfulness and the early days of Mercy Ships.

For more information about the New Mercies podcast, as well as information about this episode, and how you can get involved with Mercy Ships, visit our website at

Next week on New Mercies, we’re talking about radical generosity. You won’t want to miss this conversation with Mercy Ships partners who share with us what it means to give away more than you keep.