by Norise Jastillana and Sandy Van
There's just no telling what will happen when God's people ask in faith for miracles and He takes them at their word. This year, for the first time in history, two decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutters-the White Sage and the White Holly-will set sail to provide much-needed medical missionary service in the North Pacific. The vessels are currently being refitted and reactivated following what was, literally, an "Act of Congress" last year.
Never before has a decommissioned Coast Guard cutter been released to a civilian organization to be placed into service; instead, these vessels are typically "recycled" as part of foreign aid packages or museums.
"We were able to obtain these vessels only because God took an active part in the proceedings," said Mike Hakanson, a chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserve and a member of Canvasback Missions. "All the way through, we could see God's hand at work."
Canvasback is a nonprofit Christian medical organization providing health care to remote islands of the Pacific. For 14 years, Canvasback co-founders Jamie and Jaque Spence have operated a 71-foot catamaran, the Canvasback, that provides medical care and missionary outreach to the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.
These nations have long been plagued by poverty, poor health education, and a lack of modern health care-factors that have resulted in sometimes appalling conditions. Nearly half of the population-even some teenagers-has adult-onset diabetes; 63.3 babies per thousand will die in infancy; and half of the deaths of children under age five result from respiratory infections, malnutrition, pre-maturity and diarrhea. About one in three outer island children never grow up.
"Every year our mission grew and grew," said Jamie Spence. "By 1997, our medical ministry had outgrown the Canvasback. God directed me to start planning two new ships. I worked with a marine architect, and we designed the ships we would need to continue to meet the needs of the people our ministry had been created to serve."
Unaware of Canvasback's work, Hakanson had a similar dream of providing medical service in the South Pacific when he spotted a small vessel in a Fort Bragg, Calif., shipyard. The officer in charge recommended instead another vessel that might better meet his needs: the White Sage, a 133-foot Coast Guard cutter in the process of being decommissioned.
Hakanson learned that in order to get the White Sage, it would literally require an act of Congress. He was advised to find a representative willing to sponsor the bill. Congressman Frank Riggs, First District, California, agreed to support the measure.
"Then it hit me…I stood a good chance of acquiring a 133-foot ship-and I had no idea how to sail it!" says Hakanson. That's when he contacted Canvasback, discussed common goals and decided to join forces with the organization.
"When Mike contacted me, I was pessimistic at first, (but) "I asked Mike to send me the plans for the White Sage. This ship was exactly what we needed, even down to the length and space layout. I knew God was leading," said Spence.
But Canvasback needed two ships, not just one. Spence called Hakanson back and said, "See if you can get your hands on another ship, too."
Though it seemed an impossible feat, Hakanson was amazed when he got a call from the Coast Guard, offering him another vessel, the White Holly, also a 133-foot cutter. The proposed bill was edited to read "two vessels" instead of one. "Then we prayed," Spence added. Their prayers were answered when the measure passed the House of Representatives.
There were still two more major hurdles: finding a senator to support the measure and identifying a larger, existing bill to attach it to, to ensure it reached the floor for a vote.
"And then, God took a hand again," Hakanson recalled. "Our friendly staffer in Congressman Riggs' office called us and said, "I've got a bill for you. It's called the Coast Guard Re-authorization Act Bill. Your bill would fit perfectly as a rider.'"
The staffer directed Hakanson and Spence to the Senate Commission on Oceans and Fisheries. The name rang a bell; they had sent a fax to the commission four months before. "I called and was told, "I'm so glad you contacted us! We got your fax, but couldn't read the contact line, so we didn't know who sent it,'" Hakanson remembered. "The office had wanted to reach us after the fax came to the attention of U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, who determined it should be added to the bill. "Her staff said this rarely, if ever happens. God had seen to it that our bill was protected."
The next morning, Hakanson awoke early and went into his office to do some work. On the desk was an unopened packet of information Jamie had sent on Canvasback. "I had never had a chance to read it, so I tore it open and began to go through it," says Hakanson.
"At 6 a.m. the phone rang. It was our contact at the Senate Commission on Oceans and Fisheries. They were in committee going through final revisions on the House and Senate versions of the bill, and wondered whether Canvasback could handle ships of that size. He began asking me questions."
Hakanson looked down at the sheet he was reading-the information being requested was literally in his hand. "I read the answer. He asked another question. The answer was right there. We went through the packet, page by page, and it provided the answers to all their questions. If I hadn't had it in my hand right then, the bill probably would have been dropped."
But it wasn't dropped. The bill was approved, the president signed it on November 13, 1998, and Canvasback had their ships! What's more, the bill was approved in such a way that Canvasback ended up with a "blank check," which allowed them to acquire a half million dollars worth of shore boats, tools and equipment off of other decommissioned ships to enhance the operability of the ships.
But there was a catch: The legislation included a clause requiring Canvasback to have $800,000 in a trust account for the operation of the vessels in order to take possession, and Canvasback didn't have the money. The organization was given about ten months-until September, 1999-to come up with the money and take legal possession of the ships. Despite fundraising efforts, Canvasback was unable to gather the dollars necessary.
"Mike and I went to the shipyard and got aboard the ships, still talking about whether or not we would be able to take possession of them in thirteen hours," Jamie says. While they we were talking, Jamie got a message to call California. He called on his cell phone, talked for a few minutes, then put his hand over the phone and said, "We have the $800,000!"
The money came from the Marshall Islands, where the Marshallese president and cabinet had just approved setting aside funds to be used in maintaining and supporting Canvasback's medical ministry to their islands. The funds were to be delivered in increments over the next four years-exactly what Canvasback needed in order to sign.
"We walked on the ship that morning as guests, and walked off that night as part of God's Navy," he says. "It was amazing."
Canvasback has delivered about a million dollars per year in health care and medicine to the Marshall Islands. The Marshallese government, for an investment of about $800,000, has made it possible for them to not only continue doing so, but to double their services.
Both ships are in Baltimore for refitting, which is necessary for both documentation and insurance purposes as well as readiness to provide medical service.
"We have a shopping list," said Spence. "First, and most obviously, we need to raise funds to finish paying for the refit, the crew, and the voyage to the Marshall Islands. At that point, the trust account kicks in to pay for the upkeep and operation of the vessels.
"Equally important, we need volunteers, and qualified Christian seamen and women. There are lots of jobs for both skilled and unskilled volunteers to help get these ships ready for service."
To finance the modifications, put the crew on board, and deliver the vessels into service in the Marshall Islands in 2000, Canvasback launched a capital campaign for $7,272,392. So far the campaign has raised $5,800,000, leaving a balance of $1,472,392 still to raise.
"This is an exciting time, and a scary time," Spence added. "It has been incredible, seeing how God has held His hand over this whole process. We look forward to continuing our work with Him."
Canvasback Missions, Inc., 940 Adams St., Suite R, Benicia, CA 94510,
can also be reached by phone (800-793-7245),
or online www.canvasback.org.