About three weeks ago, my 2-year commitment with Mercy Ships came to an end. I boarded a plane and flew to the United States of America. Au revoir, ma belle Afrique, I said.

People told me moving home would be hard for reasons I couldn’t anticipate. Reverse culture shock, or some such state. I nodded and said thank you – but I’ve been home to visit in the last two years. No one need worry about me. I’m a pro at hopping across the Atlantic. I can live in a world with traffic laws one week and without them the next.  I’m versatile. I’m strong. I flawlessly be-bop between continents. Watch me fly.

So I completely deserved it when Mr. Culture Shock met me at the airport in New York and kicked me in the derrière.



Let me tell you what it’s like.

Being disoriented by things in your native country comes in several stages. At first, it’s a honeymoon. Everything is cute and new. The apps are genius. The food is incredible. There is so much new music to download that you could cry. And the wine – oh my gosh, the wine.

After about six days of this, you will be doing laundry when you realize you don’t have a return ticket. Wait, what? I mean, you knew this, of course, but suddenly it’s real. You are here. Now you are a person who has a bathtub. “Home” isn’t 8,000 miles and seven time zones away anymore. Africa will feel real and far, recent but foreign.

For the next two weeks, you will still be doing laundry you will fall into a delightful pattern of alternating confusion and criticism. Why does everything cost so much? How are there stores dedicated to only selling cupcakes? Who are the Duggers? Why do they have so many children? Bitcoins?

Which brings us to Day 21. On this day you will finally want to write about it. Welcome.

Ultimately, I am grateful for the emotional side of coming home. These three weeks have revealed ways I’ve changed. They have been valuable for reflecting on the journey that brought me to today and the world I’ve come back home to live in.

That world is different in many ways. Actually, if there is one thing that has stood out to me more than anything else so far, it is how often I hear and see people use the word “obsessed.”

People in America seem to be #obsessed with a lot of things – photos of baby squirrels, new shoes, guacamole, a tiny rainbow seahorse, a new shade of lipstick. The tag has more than six million hits on Instagram. I am fascinated by this.




Now, I appreciate hyperbole. I understand that the use of “obsessed” by my Millennial peers is intended to express love of something, it shouldn’t be taken literally, like: “I find my thoughts continually preoccupied with Game of Thrones to a troubling extent.” Right? (Although, as it is said in a favorite quote, “watch your words, for they become your actions…”)

In Africa, no one says they are obsessed. People profess love for each other, but I didn’t hear them professing love for their belongings. The Africans I know are made of experiences, not possessions. I want that for me and you. In Africa I saw that loving people fulfills you in ways loving objects cannot. This is one of those principles that is easy to know, but forgotten in practice.

What if we were obsessed with restoring sight to children blinded by congenital cataracts? Or ending poverty? Or educating girls in developing nations? Can you imagine a world where people are more obsessed with taking care of each other than taking selfies? That’s where I want to live.

In the last phase of culture shock, I guess the dust will settle and the little things will be forgotten. So here I am to write as much of it down as I can. Because really, this isn’t about taking issue with a trendy word, it’s about the lessons I want to remember and carry forward. 

So friends, please don’t let me forget it – and I promise I’ll try to do the same for you.



In 2010, a copper mine collapsed in northern Chile, trapping 33 men nearly half a mile underground.

 I was a journalism major at the time, and staying on top of headlines was the name of the game. Iran was shopping for nuclear weapons, the buzz-word-du-jour was Wikileaks, and something called an ‘Arab Spring’ was brewing. It was also the summer Sandra Bullock could do no wrong and Tiger Woods was still in time-out. Did we know who Miley Cyrus was yet? I can’t remember.

 At first it looked grim for the miner’s 33 families camped out above ground, but two weeks after the collapse the miners were located – all had survived. Suspense mounted as officials tried to figure out how to get them out of an underground house of cards.

A month into the vigil, one of the miner’s wives discovered she was pregnant. She sent a letter down to tell him. What he wrote back to his wife was so touching I saved it on a sticky note: 

“Even in the deepest part of the earth, there shines light.”

 That sticky note became somewhat of a fixture, one that I never really stop to read anymore. It just sort of faded into the background. But it caught me last week in a quiet moment from the corner of my eye. For the first time in a long time, I remembered the story of that man, the light in the darkness, and the 33 miners who were safely rescued after two months below ground.

–   –   –


Photo: Catherine Murphy, Mercy Ships


Last Wednesday, we saw more than 7,000 people on Screening Day. The line wrapped up the block and back again. Overall, the day was a success, but there were still thousands of people Mercy Ships could not treat. Thousands.


Photo: Michelle Murrey, Mercy Ships


Photo: Deb Bell, Mercy Ships

Photo: Deb Bell, Mercy Ships


Photo: Michelle Murrey, Mercy Ships

Photo: Michelle Murrey, Mercy Ships



Photo: Catherine Murphy, Mercy Ships


I visited with a woman named Elodie shortly after she learned that surgeons would operate on her 4-year-old son Emanuel, who has a tumor in his throat. She was exactly as relieved and joyful as you would expect. I smiled back at her, but my mind had wandered. Twenty feet to my right there was a steady flow of “no” patients being escorted toward the exit gate.

Saying “no” is one of the hardest things we have to do, but it’s a stark reality that goes hand in hand with saying “yes.”

I took a break after speaking with Elodie. The only empty bench outside faced the stream of people that, unlike her, had been told no. I sat and tried to focus on the apple I was eating, not the people walking past. Then something caught my attention.


photo courtesy Jay Swanson, www.jayswanson.me

Photo: Jay Swanson, http://www.jayonaboat.com


There in the stream I was trying not to focus on was my friend John, carrying this boy in his arms.

There shines light. 



Photo: Catherine Murphy, Mercy Ships


Sometimes God shows us that there is light in the darkness, even when that darkness seems all encompassing. And the light seems too feeble to force it all away. 



Photo: Catherine Murphy, Mercy Ships



Photo: Catherine Murphy, Mercy Ships


Sometimes God catches our eye with words we have forgotten, from a story from a far corner of the world. Sometimes he sends friends like John walking through our field of vision, carrying a sweet boy we can do nothing for but love. Sometimes God does both of these things at once to see if we will connect the dots.


Photo: Catherine Murphy, Mercy Ships

Photo: Catherine Murphy, Mercy Ships


As the field service begins, I’ll keep my eyes on the job we are here to do. I’m comforted knowing that should I glance right or left, I will see that, oh yeah, God is working over there too.

Which is where people like John fit in. John is our Finance Director, he spent all of Screening Day walking those who could not walk themselves out. His wife Tracey is in the US right now with their two girls. The day after screening, John received some special news:

Tracey is pregnant – and it’s a boy.

 Even in the deepest part of the earth, there shines light.


Photo: Michelle Murrey, Mercy Ships

Off the Record No. 1

I can never repay you, I don’t have the means to repay you. If I could, I would carry each Mercy Ships crew member and day worker on my back to thank you.”

– a Mercy Ships patient,
December 2012.

For several months now, I’ve been jotting down the beautiful, insightful, witty things people say to me (or my colleagues) so I don’t forget. I’ve got a nice collection mounting over here in the form of iPhone sticky notes. What shall I do with my pocket full of proverbs and colorful dialogue scripts? I think I’ll share them.

Because this theme needs a name, today is post 1 of what I will call the ‘Off the Record’ series. I don’t know why I want to call it ‘Off the Record’ perhaps in part because it has a certain ironic value. Or perhaps it’s because ‘Off the Record’ sounds kinda catchy. Like it could be the name of an NPR program or the title of Barbara Walters’ autobiography. The quotes you’ll find here are not things shared with me in confidence, but just daily tidbits I treasure, things people say.


I am eager for you to discover the joy/confusion/hilarity of my day-to-day conversations, so I can illustrate for you: 

a)     How beautifully familiar some things are here

b)    How extraordinarily foreign all other things are here

c)     The art of being completely lost in translation (at this I am especially gifted)

d)    What it feels like to be in my shoes, to hear the things I hear and taste a flavor of Africa.

and most of all, because:

e)     People say lovely things. You will be better off knowing them, you really will.

Alors, OTR posts will carry on sporadically (& anonymously) until people here stop making noteworthy comments, which will be day after never. 

This will be fun.

A Tale of Two Cities

After six months of working in a developing nation, I have been exposed to true human suffering. I’ve witnessed hardship and felt compassion like I never have before. When it came time to board a flight to Paris to visit my family for Christmas, my happiness was conflicted. On my way to the airport we drove through slums; I struggled to reconcile the happy anticipation of traveling with what was happening outside my car window. It didn’t seem fair. How could I fly away from this to the land of milk and honey conscience-free? In a weak moment, I missed the guiltlessness of life before Africa the way one misses childhood – but not for long.


Since I had arrived here by ship, this was my first time flying in this part of Africa. It was 8:45 pm when we took off from Conakry’s 3-terminal airport. I have become accustomed to the nightly power outtages and unreliable electricity here. It isn’t uncommon to be enjoying fish and chips beachside on a Friday night when the power goes off. Flashlights, matches and candles come out, and the live music carries on without so much as a pause. 

So maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me, as we flew low over Conakry, how few lights there were among such a densely populated peninsula. From an airplane the city looked rural even though Conakry has a population of 2 million people, as estimated by the U.S. Bureau of African Affairs. It was astonishing. I flew away from Conakry finally understanding something I already knew: most of my neighbors were at home in the dark.

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