She had to decide right then. Should she stay or should she go?

In early March, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, hundreds of volunteers aboard the Africa Mercy gathered in the ship’s lounge for a mandatory meeting. The American Embassy had announced a special repatriation flight for US citizens, and the staff on the ship anchored outside Dakar, Senegal, providing medical care and humanitarian aid to the Senegalese, had to choose whether or not to write their names on the “fly list” and return home.

Beth Kirchner, a kindergarten teacher, had talked with her family before the meeting, but now the decision was hers. An initial wave of nonessential volunteer staff had already left the ship, but then the city’s airport canceled all international flights. This flight was the last option if she was going to leave.

She couldn’t sit on the deck of the ship at sunset and allow the dolphins and turtles and other creatures of the sea to speak God’s peace to her. There was no time.

From school teachers and caregivers to health care workers and heads of state, no one was unaffected when the virus swept across the globe in early 2020. Many people had to make decisions about safety and risk, and some, like Kirchner, faced existential questions of calling.

As with many aid workers and missionaries, Kirchner’s job wasn’t a job so much as a part of her core identity. It was how she answered the question “Who am I?” and connected her deepest self and God’s calling on her life.

It was her answer to that call in the first place that put her in the lounge, facing the decision to stay or go. More than a dozen years earlier, Kirchner had become a kindergarten teacher at a Christian elementary school in California alongside her twin sister, Kate. After some years teaching, she sensed a stirring in her heart. When her sister married and moved to Texas, Kirchner wondered if God had something else in store for her future. Catching up with an old friend that spring, she found he had just returned from volunteering with Mercy Ships, an international Christian charity providing state-of-the-art medical care to the world’s poor. He had served on the Africa Mercy as a surgeon.

The ship, he mentioned, was looking for a kindergarten teacher for the workers’ children. Would she be interested?

“His words felt like a collision of so many things I love,” Kirchner recalled. “If it had been any other grade, I wouldn’t have even applied, but I knew that as different of a life as this would be, and as far away from my family as I’d have to be, if I was with kindergartners, I’d be okay. They are my people!”

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Kirchner had actually worked on a ship before—a Disney Cruise Line ship. She understood the challenges of living in a small space alongside people from all over the world. But as an extrovert, she also knew she thrived in tight-knit communities.

She had also been to Africa before, on a trip to Uganda. The continent never far from her heart, she dreamed about the day she could return for a more significant amount of time.

Here was the opportunity: on a ship, in Africa, doing what she loved with her kindergartners. Kirchner applied almost immediately and arrived on the ship less than four months later. She was excited, but there were a lot of unknowns.

“I didn’t know what our patients would look like, or what it would feel like to encourage both my students and myself to play with patients who have wires coming out of their fingers or tumors protruding from their faces,” she said.

She didn’t know there would be regular pirate drills on the 499-foot metal ship, which felt small against the vast expanse of sea. She didn’t know there would be “stowaway watch,” when staff members had to make sure no one was hidden on the ship before sailing.

And she didn’t know that a new coronavirus would spread around the world, infecting a few hundred people in early January and then thousands more in February and March, when the first few cases were reported in Dakar.

For Kirchner, the reality of the pandemic revealed itself slowly. The yearly Association of Christian Schools International conference she and the rest of the teaching staff planned to attend was canceled. Recommendations from the WHO and a local team of health experts warned against activities that could spread the virus.

She didn’t know yet it would force her to re-evaluate her calling, but Kirchner felt like her life on the ship had become a Jenga tower: Integral parts were constantly being taken away. Stability did not seem part of the game.

But contagious diseases must be taken seriously on a ship. In March, 800 crew members on the USS Theodore Roosevelt tested positive for the virus. Likewise, on the Ruby Princess cruise ship, about 900 people tested positive and 28 people died. Mercy Ships knew the decision to send home volunteer staff members wasn’t only a matter of safety but also one of justice: If even a single volunteer contracted COVID-19, the organization could harm the very people it was trying to serve.

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When the leadership of the Africa Mercy began holding daily meetings in the lounge, change came quickly and furiously. The ship suspended all medical activities. Future surgeries were canceled, and patients were sent home. Days later, staff with underlying health conditions were asked to fly home.

Then everyone was told to consider leaving. It felt like the longest two weeks of Kirchner’s life.

And she certainly wasn’t alone. One of her fellow volunteers had been with Mercy Ships since 2013, working in hospital administration during her retirement years. As 68-year-old Chris Glasgo weighed her decision to stay or leave, she began with a statement about her identity: “I’m a nurse. We nurses always want to fix the things that are broken.”

Administration wasn’t essential work, though. So she asked herself two questions: Should I stay? Should I go?

Beth Kirchner in front of the ship in the Canary Islands
Image: Courtesy of Beth Kirchner

Beth Kirchner in front of the ship in the Canary Islands

“How do you leave when your heart is broken and the last thing you want to do is leave?” Glasgo said. “I knew that I had to go, and soon. If I stayed, I would eat up valuable resources. It wouldn’t be responsible to stay.”

When Glasgo made the decision to leave, the effects were swift: Within 48 hours, she found herself on a flight back to Ohio.

Another nurse, Amber Greenhow, also wrestled with the decision. At first, she thought she would stay and continue working as the screening clinical supervisor. Her fiancé, Abel, a Cameroonian citizen, worked in the ship’s engineering department and had been deemed an essential worker. If she returned to Pennsylvania, they didn’t know when they’d see each other again. She decided she would stay.

But as Amber prayed, she felt a nudge that she had made the wrong decision. After she and Abel fasted and talked to their families, they changed their minds: She would return to the United States. Finally at peace, the pair enjoyed their last moments together before an indefinite separation began.

Kirchner, watching her friends wrestle with these choices, praying about it, and talking to her family, decided to stay.

“Honestly, it didn’t even cross my mind to leave, at least not at first,” she said. “When leadership asked everyone to think and pray about whether they should stay or leave, I just kept thinking, ‘As long as my kids are here, it’s a good place to be.’ ”

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Kirchner remembers laying on her thin mattress at night in the two-berth cabin she shared with her roommate. She recalls asking herself, “Where would I go if I left? This is my home. This is my community, my everything.” She could go to California, where her parents and college-age sister lived. She could go to Dallas, to live near Kate, Kate’s husband, and their three young children. But none of those places felt like her home. This was her place now—this ship her calling.

She didn’t know what would happen, but she hadn’t known what would happen when she first began volunteering with Mercy Ships either. Though the unknowns had been overwhelming, there was one thing she was always sure of, one thing more important than anything else: God would continue to be with her and teach her exactly what she needed.

Take, for instance, a lesson plan established months in advance: The very week the WHO declared a global pandemic, she had planned to help her students memorize John 11:35.

“Here you have one of the shortest verses in the Bible, ‘Jesus wept,’ ” Kirchner said, “and here you also have the entire Africa Mercy crew grieving, weeping, crying. Suddenly, the verse felt truer than ever to every single one of us on board.”

She began to implement grief maps into the students’ curriculum. Along with the other teachers, she helped them identify and name the myriad feelings, like anger, sadness, and loneliness, that surface when something unexpected happens.

Kirchner was staying. There was work to do.

A few days later, the Dakar airport canceled all international flights, and there was no way to leave the country. Then the embassy announced the special flight, and everyone was called back to the ship’s lounge to decide again whether they would stay or go. But they had to decide right then.

As she thought about writing her name on the “fly list,” an emotional dam broke inside Kirchner. She ran out of the lounge in tears. Her decision had been made: Kirchner would become one of a couple hundred volunteers who stayed.

The Africa Mercy—mercifully free of any cases of COVID-19—left a while later at the request of the Senegal government, sailing for the Canary Islands to undergo repairs and wait for the mission to begin again.

“Mercy Ships was active in Africa before COVID-19,” said CEO Tom Stogner. “We are active during COVID-19, and we will continue once COVID-19 is long forgotten.”

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For Kirchner and for rest of the volunteer crew, choosing to stay or leave wasn’t easy. The decision was as personal as the invitation to follow a call and serve in the first place. After all, vocational identity is often a person’s identity—the deepest parts of a servant’s spiritual being intertwined with the nudges, stirrings, and whispers of the Holy Spirit.

The question, for them, wasn’t really about the one right answer, but about whether God really does dwell in the mystery and meet people in their indecision.

Cara Meredith is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of The Color of Life: A Journey Toward Love and Racial Justice.

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