Posted on : Monday October 24, 2011

By Sharon Mager and Shelley Allen, BCM/D Correspondents

SIERRA LEONE, West Africa—South Columbia Church member Michelle Cristion has always had a beautiful smile. Some might disagree, especially because Cristion was born with a cleft lip and palate. For a long time she did not understand what this was or why it made her different from her friends. Adults didn’t notice too much, but other children did. Now, however, she wears her smile proudly. It’s rare to ever catch her not smiling.

Michelle Cristion, member of South Columbia Church, entertains a burn victim as she ministers aboard Mercy Ships. Photo courtesy of Mercy Ships.

“If I wasn’t born with a cleft, I don’t believe I’d be anywhere near the woman I am today,” Cristion says. “In high school… I learned to accept how God made me and use it to make a difference.”

Lately, God has used Cristion in ways she never imagined to help transform the lives of people just like her. Mercy Ships is a global charity organization that operates hospital ships in developing nations. It was founded in 1978, and “brings hope and healing to the forgotten poor by mobilizing people and resources worldwide, and serving all people without regard for race, gender, or religion.” ( They strive to follow the example of Jesus in loving and serving the needy.

Cristion became connected with Mercy Ships through her parents, John and Connie Cristion, both members of South Columbia Church, who have also been involved in mission trips aboard the ship. Connie, is a nurse who has worked with Operation Smile in the past, but was always looking for a Christian organization to work with. She began ministering with Mercy Ships in 2005 and serves about once a year. John took his first trip in 2006. Michelle Cristion came along with her mother on the fourth trip. In 2009, Cristion, a recent college graduate with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Acting, spent three months on a Mercy Ship in Benin.

“Being on the ship completely challenged every belief I had and turned my worldview upside down,” she admits. “The trip made me realize the little bubble I live in called America is nowhere as impoverished as much of the rest of the world.”

She recalls visiting the ward for the first time to see a grandmother in bed with a one-month-old baby with a cleft. Cristion told the grandmother that she, too, was born with a cleft, and how she had it repaired. The grandmother was in a state of shock. She went on to tell Cristion that her people believed this only happened to people in Benin, and it was a sign that a witch had cursed the child or his/her mother. Most people hate these babies and believe they are demons, and it is common for a mother to toss the child into the bush, where it is believed the child will take the form of a demonic animal. After learning that Cristion had the same problem, the woman promised she would tell everyone in her village that it was not confined only to Benin.

The ship Cristion serves on has a staff of 400 people and represents at least 41 countries. It boasts a hospital, dining room, Starbucks, store, post office, library, bank, pool, hotel, gym, restaurant, office building, warehouse, and school. Mercy Ships currently serve in West Africa, from the Senegal down to Angola, in Togo, Benin, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

“Our crew brings medical relief to countries where the health system is either corrupt, virtually non-existent, or both,” said Cristion.

Cristion said the goal of Mercy Ships is to “help train up surgical staff who can perform the surgeries in the future so that they can build up their own healthcare system and become independent once again.

“We also work toward independence for the locals through the agricultural program and Mercy Ministries, where we work hand and hand with local humanitarian companies to help them find a sustainable solution to their issues.”

Much of Cristion’s job entails working as a receptionist. She also visits the wards and teaches drama to some of the crew children who attend school on board.

“I’ve seen God move in so many ways,” says Cristion. “He’s allowed the blind to see, people who were once cast out and abandoned to be touched and loved by the crew, then accepted back into their homes. I’ve seen crew who were once focused on only their wellbeing and their lives back home, change everything about the way they view the world and the way they live. Nothing is perfect here by any means- we still see death, pain, sorrow, but the impact God has allowed us to have is absolutely life-changing.”

Those interested in volunteering with or donating to Mercy Ships may visit their website at Michelle Cristion also writes a blog about her experience,