“We’re part of a small club.” That’s what a friend told me not long ago.
I was at a meeting where a young missionary couple had just finished presenting why they had left their ministry and had come back to the States. A former missionary myself, I made my way to the husband to thank him for sharing. Then my friend and his wife joined us. They had returned from the mission field, too. My friend said with a sigh, “We’re part of a small club.”
It is a small club. And when you’ve come back well before you thought you would, when you didn’t come back celebrating a finished work or returning to a greater ministry, when you’re still in the process of refinding your place back home, it’s a club that can feel smaller than it really is.
A few days later, I read an article in Christianity Today about a still smaller club. It’s a club that currently has just one member. Her name is Carys Parker.
Carys is a TCK and an MK. And she’s the only person to have been raised on a Mercy Ship from birth through high school graduation. Spun off from Youth With a Mission (YWAM), Mercy Ships is a Christian ministry providing free health care in port cities around the world—mostly in Africa—from the decks of its floating hospital.
Carys is the daughter of Gary Parker, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, and Susan Parker, an executive assistant. The couple met while working with Mercy Ships in 1987. Carys lived on the ship Anastasis until she was 12 years old, then moved with her family, including a younger brother, Wesley, to the Africa Mercy.
At the graduation ceremony for Mercy Ships Academy last year, Carys and her two classmates, aboard their home docked at Conakry, Guinea, addressed the audience. Carys began her speech,
I grew up here. And without a doubt, my 18 years on a hospital ship in Africa will define me—even when I no longer live here. For just as every person’s worldview develops out of their unique set of experiences, living in this place, with all of you, has profoundly formed and shaped me. And I am deeply grateful for a lifetime in this community.
And she ended with these words:
There’s an ancient African proverb that says this: “If you want to travel fast travel alone; But if you want to travel far, travel together.” I’m glad that we’ve traveled this road together. I’m so grateful for you—as well as many former crew, who have passed through my life and now have gone on to other things. By God’s grace, may I always be faithful to keep the main thing the main thing. Thank you.
Carys is now beginning her second year at Whitworth, a private liberal arts university. About the decision for Carys to attend the Presbyterian-church-affiliated school, Susan told Whitworth University News, “We come from a small shipboard community, and we know that the quality of the community is directly related to the quality of the product—whether that be healthcare or education.”
According to Whitworth University, their community is a campus located in Spokane, Washington, with 3,000 students . . . one of whom grew up on a boat off the coast of Africa, with 400 crew members representing more than 35 countries.
The Whitworth article includes links to segments from a 60 Minutes show that aired last year. The first is a 12-minute spot on Africa Mercy and the inspiring work done by Mercy Ships in Togo, West Africa. The second is a closer look at the Parker family, part of 60 Minutes Overtime.
Reporter Scott Pelley spends considerable time with Gary Parker and his family, and we hear about the staff’s amazing medical ministry as well as what it’s like raising a family in a 630-square-foot ship’s cabin. “The only life the kids have known has made them strangers back home,” he says, and Susan Parker tells TCK stories about her children: In the States, Carys didn’t know what a mailbox looked like, and Wesley (a white child in a white family) came back from school one day to tell his mother that in the past Americans had made slaves out of “our people.” Producer Henry Schuster describes Carys’s life in a way that would be familiar to Third Culture Kids: “She’s got one foot in America. She’s got one foot in Africa. But she’s in this other place in between.”
Living on a ship, of course, has its tensions and difficulties. “It’s not all sweetness and light,” Pelley reports, noting that Susan has not always wanted to raise her children onboard long term. But now, she believes that a ship is the best place for her and Gary to bring up their children, and she no longer wants to return to the States. “There’s nothing wrong with living at home,” she says, “but I don’t think it’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Pelley calls the ship “a tribe unto itself.” That’s a term I’ve heard—tribe—used to describe those who are or have been missionaries. I count myself a member of that tribe. I’ve never been part of a hospital ship, but I know the camaraderie and purposefulness of being part of a mission community.
The 60 Minutes segments tug at my heart. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out “what we’re supposed to do.” Sometimes it’s not easy at all. We think, we pray, we talk, we argue, we worry, we wonder, we decide . . . and then we stay or we go.
Hearing Carys and her family’s story helps me better appreciate my club, my tribe. But I understand that I’m now here, raising my kids here. And that means I’m no longer part of a more exclusive club, those who are still there.
(Kate Tracy, “Carys Parker, Raised Entirely aboard Mercy Ships, Drops Anchor,” Christianity Today, July 8, 2014; Carys Parker, “Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing,” doingmercy, May 24, 2013; “Student Disembarks at Whitworth after Life at Sea,” October 16, 2013; “Africa Mercy: Hospital of Hope,” 60 Mintues, CBS, February 17, 2013; “Raising Kids at Sea: Meet the Parkers,” 60 Minutes Overtime, CBS, August 4, 2013)
[photo: “Africa Mercy,” by Denise Miller, used under a Creative Commons license]