In Liberia, people knew Aminata as "the witch of Freetown." Elsewhere in Liberia, 40-year-old Beatrice's appearance was so shocking, local taxi drivers refused to pick her up. In another rural area, Angelle's relatives thought someone had cursed the orphan girl, so they kept passing her off to other caregivers.
Aminata, Beatrice, and Angelle all had one thing in common: Large tumors grossly disfigured their faces. In many parts of the developing world, such untreated facial tumors can grow enormous, distorting eye sockets, foreheads, and jawlines. People afflicted with these tumors are severely stigmatized: some think they are cursed, while others just find them repulsive. The complex facial surgery necessary to treat these tumors and reconstruct a face is not widely available for the chronically poor. But if left untreated, the tumors will keep growing, sometimes suffocating the victim. The non-malignant, 6-pound tumor on Beatrice's face so restricted her eating and breathing it nearly killed her.
While the Western world has plenty of surgeons who can deal with such tumors, the developing world has few. Which is why on July 7, 1982, the Anastasis, a rehabbed 1953 Italian cruise liner, set sail for major ports throughout the majority world. It was the beginning of Mercy Ships, founded in 1978 within the nondenominational mission agency YWAM (Youth With a Mission).
As a floating hospital, its mission was to bring world-class surgeons and free medical care to the poor in the name of Christ. It was a dream come true for missionaries Don Stephens, his wife Deyon, and a dogged group of YWAMers who volunteered their labor for years before the Anastasis entered service. "Mercy Ships focuses on the lowest tier of need," founder Stephens ...