This picture hangs in my office. It was taken over a year ago, in Madagascar, next to the M/V Africa Mercy, just after our wild and holy beach weekend with 50 Malagasy girls.
The picture is a million times more precious now, because a week ago, the guy in the green shirt, Tom Waechter, a man who probably didn’t know he was one of my heroes, died of a heart attack.
And I’m still so sad about it, I hardly know what do. Flannery O'Connor once said, I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say. So I'm doing that.
Tom Waechter was WD40 and Duct Tape. He was cool like Danny Ocean and sweet like Mr. Rogers, a growing legend, like early-70’s Elvis. He was your MacGyver, your Dad, the patron saint of your ice cream runs, and the guy everyone looks for in emergency. Tom was always on watch for the cool things of God, and would never let you miss playing handbells for the patients on Deck Three.
“Ok sure. Wait, what are handbells?”
I’ve heard the words “Tom what’s your location?” spoken over his radio a dozen times by a dozen people in a thirty-minute span, yet somehow Tom always had time to stop and shake a man’s hand and look him in the eye. How is that possible?
It's possible because Tom was a full-time construction worker in the Kingdom of God, building stuff that makes earth look more like heaven.
One thing I admired about Tom was, I never saw him starry-eyed over his work aboard the Africa Mercy - bringing hope and healing to the world’s forgotten poor.
He loved it of course, but he knew it would cost him, and he chose it anyway. Because it was never about him, he kept choosing it, day after day, far from the family he adored, serving, looking for opportunities to build skyscrapers and rose gardens in the yet invisible Kingdom of God.
Tom carried his cross, the one Jesus told his followers to pick up, about as well as anybody I’ve ever seen. I think, because Tom loved God so much, he was always looking outward at everyone else, seeing them, us, me as beloved children of God.
He was, at once, tender and a force of nature, and people loved him back.
OnBoarding made us colleagues. The Esther Project made us friends.
Most people would agree, that inviting 50 abused, abandoned and orphaned girls in the world’s 6th poorest nation, to a beach getaway, to demonstrate how much they matter, is a fine idea. Fewer would try it though, because the risk is crazy high.
I had written a well-considered, but totally bonkers proposal to the Mercy Ships International Management Team, asking their permission, but I couldn't bring myself to send it. I was backpedaling and rationalizing my way out of it, trying to craft a story that didn’t have regret as its central theme.
Then Tom called from Madagascar.
He listened to my fear, and in his gentle way said,
“Erin you will never regret doing something for the Kingdom of God.”
I slept on that, and the next morning, walked into my office and hit send. Then I walked outside and cried in the parking lot. Tom, of course, was thrilled and began moving stuff out of the warehouse to make room for the girls, long before we had permission.
The Esther Project was just one of Tom’s capers. The pvc walkers were another.
The story goes, Tom found a pile of extra pvc lying around in the warehouse. Because the Africa Mercy does a lot of orthopedic surgeries on children, Tom decided to make little walkers out of the pvc to help the kids, literally, get back on their feet. This isn't Tom in the picture, it's Doug, his buddy. They worked on the walkers together. Check out the racing stripes! Who thinks of things like that?
Tom was happiest when he was doing what God would think was the right thing to do, his beloved wife Ann-Marie wrote to me yesterday.
My heart aches for Ann-Marie, their children and grandchildren. Tom talked about them all the time and being apart from them was the heaviest part of the cross he carried. While I am so sorry his grandkids will grow up without him, a mess of kids on the Africa Mercy got a bonus grandad.
A bunch of teenage girls in Tana did too.
So while I'm happy that Tom's with The Lord, I'm sad for us. It makes me feel better to imagine Tom and Jesus eating ice cream and talking things over. I'll bet they're laughing and somewhere in the conversation is the phrase, "well done faithful servant."
Love to you Waechter family.