Like Abraham and Sarah, Daniel and Emily Womack stepped out in faith, not knowing where they were going, only doing their best to faithfully follow where they sensed God was leading. That sense of call eventually led them across the world on a floating hospital ship.

The Womacks, members of Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Houston before their mission trip, started talking in late 2017 about making a move, but they weren’t sure where. Both had been pondering the possibility, but until then they hadn’t discussed it together. The fact that both sensed it was time for a change confirmed for the couple that God was nudging them toward something new.

“We both had a sense of call to serve someplace where neither of us would be a ‘one-plus,’ tagging along,” Daniel said. “We were open to a variety of possibilities, as long as it was something that would include Molly.” Their daughter Molly was 5 at the time.

“I was traveling a lot for my work; Emily was home raising Molly and doing volunteer work at church,” he said. “I wanted to do something more fulfilling, both personally and spiritually, than making money. We wanted to do something together—as a family.”

Before marrying Daniel, Emily had served as a volunteer for Mercy Ships, an international organization that runs hospital ships providing humanitarian aid. Each ship operates as a floating hospital, docking in various areas around the globe to serve communities.

The Womacks decided volunteering for a Mercy Ships mission would be a good fit for their family. They would live with a community of around 500 mission-minded people. Daniel and Emily could both serve, and Molly would be with them and have playmates and school onboard.

At the time they were discussing a family mission trip, Daniel worked in safety compliance for oil and gas companies. He traveled around the world training workers on oil rigs and ships drilling for natural resources, which gave him experience in both international travel and marine safety.

Emily had earned paramedic certification in addition to her prior Mercy Ships experience. At the time of their discernment, she was a full-time mom and part-time youth ministry volunteer.

“The more we discussed the idea of Mercy Ship, the more it seemed like the right decision,” Daniel said. “We could do that as a family. Molly could have dinner with Daddy every day, which she could not do with Dad’s oil and gas work.”

The Womacks were accepted for an assignment on the Africa Mercy and then had to raise money to cover their expenses. Christ the Servant has a long history of ministry outreach programs, and supporting the Womacks was one more way the congregation continued that work.

“As long as I’ve known the Womacks, they have articulated a call to some sort of mission,” said Jason Thomas, director of youth and family ministry at Christ the Servant. “Even when Daniel worked in oil and gas and Emily volunteered in the youth group, I could see they were people who felt called to something. A strong sense of call is integral to who they are.”

In summer 2019, the Womacks began their journey from Texas to Senegal, where the Africa Mercy docked in August. Daniel served as the ship’s security officer. Emily helped in the ship galley and hospital ward when Molly had school or activities. She also applied her youth ministry experience to work with the numerous children and youth onboard. It was the perfect situation for their family—until it wasn’t.

Anchored by faith

The Womacks thought they’d stay docked in Senegal until May or June 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ship had to leave in March.

“Authorities were nervous about ship communities after the news about pandemic outbreaks on cruise ships,” Daniel said. “Senegal was not prepared to respond to a pandemic outbreak on the ship. We had a hard time finding a place to go.”

The ship relocated to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Because of Mercy Ships’ long history in the islands, the Africa Mercy was granted permission to dock there, but passengers weren’t allowed onshore.

“We didn’t sign up for something that intense. Staying on the ship fulfilled our calling to serve others in unanticipated ways.”

Many of the 500 people onboard were from various African countries, so they stayed on the ship to finish the school year in May and then went home. Others, such as the Womacks, had to remain on the ship until it returned to the United States. The hospital ward closed, the ship population dropped to around 120, and the Womacks became one of the few families with children onboard.

Molly became the ship mascot, Emily said, adding, “She was Miss Sunshine, going around the ship just loving on people.”

Daniel continued serving as the ship’s security officer. Emily and Molly found various ways to invest their time and provide service: assembling hospitality packs with fresh linens and towels, refurbishing worn-out furnishings in the community living room, organizing the ship’s library books, preparing the dining room for each meal and cleaning up afterward, and even hosting “Molly’s Movie Night” on Friday evenings.

“Once the frontline people all left, we focused on the crew—doing what we could to keep up their morale,” Emily said.

The Womacks wound up living on the Africa Mercy from summer 2019 to October 2020. “The experience tested us big-time,” she said. “We didn’t sign up for something that intense. Staying on the ship fulfilled our calling to serve others in unanticipated ways. We’re still in touch with some of the crew.”

When the ship returned to the United States, the Womacks had to quarantine for two weeks in Tyler, Texas, home base for the Mercy Ships organization. They then returned to Houston in November 2020 to briefly visit Daniel’s family, their friends and their church home at Christ the Servant.

“When we finally left [the ship] in October, we focused on giving Molly a more stable environment,” Emily recalled. In early December, the Womacks settled with Emily’s mother near Little Rock, Ark., in time for the holidays and before Molly began her first semester of regular school.

For spiritual nourishment, the Womacks rely on Thomas, their friend and mentor from Christ the Servant. The pandemic has made getting acquainted with any Little Rock–area congregation nearly impossible, so virtually reconnecting with their Houston congregation was an easy decision.

The Womacks spent Lent 2020 stranded on a ship. This year, Daniel said, they spent Lent “praying and trying to discern what God has in mind for us.”

Much like their spiritual ancestors, they hear God’s call to follow where God leads.

Kathryn Haueisen
Kathryn Haueisen is a retired ELCA pastor writing from her home in Houston about good people doing great things for our global village.

Read more about: