Pascagoula man makes a difference with Mercy Ships

Esther and Laurin Avara stand on the dock in Madagascar with the Africa Mercy, where the couple live and volunteer together.
Esther and Laurin Avara stand on the dock in Madagascar with the Africa Mercy, where the couple live and volunteer together. Mercy Ships 2016

Pascagoula native Laurin Avara has found a way to put his faith to work — literally — as a volunteer with Mercy Ships in Africa.

A 2006 graduate of Pascagoula High School, Avara worked at Northrop Grumman Ship Systems and Austal USA as a pipe fitter.

“I learned about Mercy Ships via the Internet,” he said in an email interview while aboard the Africa Mercy. “I have always wanted to work on a ship and see the world, but I knew that the Lord had called me to be in the ministry of some kind.”

A search engine brought up Mercy Ships first when he searched “missionary ships.”

“After reading about what they did, I fell in love with their ministry, being the hands and feet of Jesus bringing hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor,” he said.

In June 2014, he joined the ship in the Canary Islands. Today, he is working as a mechanic/fitter on the ship and is in training to eventually become an engineer onboard.

Mercy Ships is a global charity that has operated hospital ships since 1978, with more than 2.54 million people receiving direct benefit from its services.

Operations include cleft lip and palate repair, cataract removal, orthopedic procedures, facial reconstruction and repairing an obstetric fistula, which is an injury that can happen to a woman after severe or failed childbirth when there is inadequate medical care.

In dental health, more than 143,000 patients have received 377,000 procedures.

Dangerous surgery

While Avara deals more with the mechanical part of the ship, he has had some opportunities to work with the “people” side of the charity, too.

In 2015, a man named Sambany who lives in Madagascar learned about Mercy Ships while listening to his radio. It was about his only contact with the outside world, because for about 36 years, he had suffered with a tumor growing on his neck. Eventually, the tumor grew to a little over 16 pounds.

People laughed at him or feared the growth was contagious. Sambany’s home became his world as he sought refuge from the almost constant pain of the tumor and the reactions of others. He had tried several options, including a witch doctor, but nothing helped. His family was poor, so seeking expensive medical treatments were out of the question.

So when he heard about Mercy Ships’ free medical care, he was determined to go. His family sold a rice field to cover his expense, according to the Mercy Ships website, and five people took turns carrying him on their backs for two days. After a painful six-hour taxi ride, Sambany made it to the ship.

The surgery would be extremely dangerous. During the 12-hour operation, more than twice of Sambany’s body volume of blood was lost and replaced. Mercy Ships crew members — 17 people from six countries — gave blood. The surgery was a success.

Taking Sambany home

When it was time for Sambany to return to his village, Avara got to accompany him back home.

“The trip taking Sambany back to his village was an adventure that I will remember all of my life,” Avara said. “It took us two days walking through the bush of Madagascar just to get him home. All along the way, every time we stopped at little villages, the people would come out and recognize Sambany from his trip to the ship many months before with the massive tumor on his face. They could not believe it was the same man. They thanked us and talked about how much of a blessing it was. It was a truly amazing thing to be a part of.

“When we made it to his village, every person there came out to see him. The entire village walked through his house and shook his hand. The day we were to leave the village, elders came to see us off in their very finest clothes. They took turns thanking us for returning Sambany to them safely and they made a presentation to us of three chickens, which we ate that night on the return trip.”

That journey made an impression on Avara.

“Seeing the poverty that these folks deal with every day did much to change the way I see life, but not as much as seeing the joy they had,” he said. “Even though they have far less than we do, they are the most joyful, truly happy people I have ever encountered, and I will never forget that.”

Romance on board

Something a little more personal happened to Avara while he has been with Mercy Ships.

“I met my (now) wife Esther a few weeks after joining the ship,” he said. “We met in the dinner line, and she immediately had my attention with her British accent.”

Esther had been serving with Mercy Ships since March 2013 as a nurse. She now is the ship’s ward nurse maxillofacial team leader.

What’s it like dating onboard a ship?

“Dating on the ship is not like dating anywhere else,” Avara said. “Life moves a little faster here and so do relationships. In a normal dating setting, if you go on a date on a Friday night, you are not likely to see that person for at least a few days. However, on the ship, if you go on a date on a Friday night, you might see them the next morning in the community breakfast line.

“The crew of the Africa Mercy is like a big family so, in essence, it’s like dating directly in front of your aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.”

He and Esther dated for about a year onboard, got engaged on July 4, 2015, in Pascagoula during a trip to visit his family and were married on Dec. 12, 2015, in Wiltshire, England, Esther’s home county.

The Avaras try to visit both South Mississippi and the United Kingdom once a year but responsibilities and travel cost can hamper that.

“We are hoping to get to Pasacagoula and a few other placees at the end of this year but only God can tell,” Avara said.

Working with Mercy Ships continues to be a rewarding experience for him.

“The most rewarding part of my job is knowing that what I do really means something,” Avara said. “Yes, I might simply be cleaning a fuel filter or fixing a pump, but if I don’t and the lights turn off, someone might not have their life-changing surgery that day. I don’t have regular contact with the patients and that can make it easy, at times, to forget why I am really here, but I know that God has me and my wife exactly where He wants us, and we can’t wait to see what happens next.”