The sharing of God’s love and care for people can occur anywhere. For Sharon Ruggles Williams of Clinton, her ministry was on a ship. She has just recently returned from two years of service aboard the Africa Mercy off the coast of Africa.
Williams served as ward nurse during her two years onboard and even met her husband while preparing for the medical mission trip.
Mercy Ships is a global charity that has operated hospital ships in developing nations since 1978. Mercy Ships brings hope and healing to the forgotten poor by mobilizing people and resources worldwide, and serving all people without regard for race, gender, or religion.
The mission of Mercy Ships follows the 2000-year-old model of Jesus, bringing hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor. Their vision seeks to become the face of love in action, bringing hope and healing to the poor. The staff attempts to instill in themselves and those whom they serve by modeling Jesus as they seek to love God, love and serve others, be people of integrity and be people of excellence in all we say and do.
Williams is currently back in her old job as a registered nurse at Sampson Regional Medical Center where she worked prior to her leave to serve on the mission ship, but her memories are vivid about her time there.
The young nurse explained that in 1994 one of the medical ships was in port in Wilmington and her parents, Paul and Pam Ruggles, took the family for a tour.
“After the tour, I told myself that one day I would work on a ship like that. And, in 2008, the Lord said to me, ‘It is time for you to go,’ and I did,” explained Williams.
She sent in her application in October 2008 and boarded the ship for a three-month stint for her first trip. The ship was anchored in Benin, West Africa. Williams served as a ward nurse caring for patients following surgery, a job she did on both her voyages.
“The ship is anchored in a port and it is amazing to see how poverty stricken and devastated some of the places we visited are as compared to what we have. I is a very humbling experience. The things we saw and did helped me to become more thankful and to realize how blessed we are to be in America,” stated the nurse.
Williams shared that the ship was a small world in itself. “There were people on the ship from 35 to 40 countries and spoke many languages. I made a lot of life-long friends aboard ship and in the ports we visited,” expressed the medical missionary.
There are two categories of volunteers on the ship — short term and long term volunteers. Short term volunteers can go for two weeks up to six months and the long term volunteers can serve up to two years. It is not a free ride either. The volunteers are not paid for their labor and even have to pay for their room and board. Williams shared the cost could run from $325 for long term volunteers to $650 for the short term volunteer. Williams was assisted by Heritage Church in Hope Mills and by family and friends while she served aboard ship.
“We provided modern medical care to those people in desperate need in poor countries, and many times it was difficult for the people where we were to understand that all we gave to them was free. They would say to us, ‘We never get anything for free. Why are you here?’ We had spiritual teams that would try to lead these people to a better understanding of what we were doing was through the love of God and we were trying to carry out the directives given us by Jesus when he said for us to ‘go out and serve others.’”
While on her first mission trip, Williams made three great friends, two American girls and one British. They decided to return for a long-term commitment and had to go to Texas for an eight-week training session. It was during this training session that she meet her future husband, Alex Williams, a British subject.
In 2010, Sharon finally was assigned to the African Mercy and left for Togo, Africa on her two years of service. Alex was already on board. He worked in the dining room, supply office and with those patients who were terminally ill.
“We had become good friends during the training session, and eight days after I came on board Alex asked me if we could start dating,” stated Sharon. They got married in South Africa in September 2010.
Williams explained that they would stay in each port about 10 months providing medical services to anyone they could.
“I discovered that even though you thought you were going to serve others and provide something to them, in actuality I received more from them than I was able to give. It was truly a blessing and an amazing and inspiring experience,” cited Sharon.
The chief medical officer about the ship had been serving for about 25 years and his medical speciality was clef lip/pallet and other facial deformities. “For the people of Africa anything such as a clef lip was considered a curse and we were able to help so many people overcome these ailments and return home and live normal lives. Part of the mission work we were able to do as a team aboard ship was to help them to understand that what was wrong with them was not a curse through explaining God to them and Christianity rather than some of the mysterious beliefs they worshiped,” explained Williams. “The spiritual teams did a wonderful job in this area.”
Williams shared that there were so many opportunities to share God’s love with others.
The challenges of the medical mission has not been all that has served to make her work a challenge. Sharon and Alex were married while the ship was undergoing repairs in South Africa. They were able to stay aboard to live and traveled around the South African countryside during the five months they were there. There were about 150 people aboard while others had traveled home during the down time. Because the ship is like a small community it has its own academy with services for infants through 12th grade to provide for families of staff members. Sharon was able to help with some of the procedure paperwork for the medical teams while Alex worked in the dining hall.
The couple completed their tour of duty and went to England in December 2011. Sharon was able to stay for six months until her time as an American citizen expired and she had to return to the United States. However, Alex is still in England attempting to get all the paperwork done for his green card so he can come to America and join his wife. The couple completed several volunteer ministries while they were still in England but are now struggling with the separation.
“We are hoping that all the barriers that are keeping us apart now will soon be overcome. We both learned a lot about patience aboard the ship and during our ministry there. We are relying on God to bring us through this chapter soon so we can once again be together,” remarked Williams.
If anyone is interested in learning more about Mercy Ship, would like to volunteer or contribute to support the medical missionaries, visit mercyships.org.