In His Majesty’s Service: A Salute to the MV Doulos

Debbie Meroff | International

She freighted onions as the steamship Medina, delivered religious pilgrims to Rome and emigrants to Australia as the SS Roma, and served as a supply ship in both World Wars. Later the American-born vessel was transformed into the Italian Costa Line’s first class luxury liner MS Franca C, capable of pampering up to 900 pleasure seekers at a time. By 1977 the ship was 63 years old, more than double the average lifespan of a vessel and threatened with being scrapped. But a Christian charity called “Good Books for All” was established and came to the rescue with a fourth (and what many thought would be a final) commission. For the next thirty-two years the ‘grand old lady’ would sail as the MV Doulos: a Greek word meaning ‘bond servant’.

Refitted as the world’s largest book fair of Christian and education titles, the Doulos was destined to be welcomed in over 600 ports to 104 countries by presidents, prime ministers, and princesses. And as soon as the ribbon was cut, crowds eagerly surged on board to take advantage of resources that in many cases they could never before access. Visitor numbers could reach 10,000 in a single day and once topped 24,000.

Along with buying books, local people enjoyed programmes designed for schoolchildren, businessmen, church leaders and other audiences, in the ship’s lounge. Other programmes took place on shore. Countless numbers of orphanages and hospitals, schools, nursing homes and prisons also benefited from the work of practical teams. After the 2004 tsunami devastated Sri Lanka, crewmembers helped to rebuild homes. Relief supplies have been donated to developing countries from Cambodia to Cameroon. And along with the physical, medical and construction help the teams addressed often-overlooked spiritual needs. For tens of thousands of local churches and millions of believers, the arrival of Doulos brought a fresh wind of encouragement; a renewed impetus to reach out to others, both locally and globally, with God’s love. This was particularly true in Latin America, where interaction with the ship served as a major catalyst for international mission involvement.

Of course, central to Doulos’s appeal was her unique crew. The book ship was completely run by volunteers, 350 dedicated men and women who represented over 50 countries. As one visiting ambassador observed, this was a ‘united nations’ that was truly united. It wasn’t unusual to find a nurse from Austria cleaning toilets, or a Canadian businessman washing dishes in the galley. Recruits shared small cabins, homesickness and seasickness during their one or two-year commitments. But they also shared the thrill of seeing God reach through them to a needy world. Unsurprisingly, the children and even grandchildren of some of the first crewmembers later signed on for the same experience. 

And although it was no secret that this was a Christian ship, Doulos was warmly welcomed in countries with a Buddhist, Hindu, Animist or Muslim majority population. The book ship was even invited to Communist countries. The spirit of joy carried by the staff and crew allowed them to make friends wherever they went. Only in one case did they meet with actual harm. On August 1991, terrorists threw grenades onto the stage of an international music night that was being held ashore, on the island of Zamboanga in the Philippines. Two young women were killed and several other crewmembers seriously injured. No one will ever forget this tragic attack, but even through the grief and loss, crew sensed God at work to bring healing and forgiveness.

God’s protective hand was evident through harrowing typhoons, political storms and financial crises. Book sales provided only a third of the income needed for daily expenses, and while supporters helped to keep the ship moving, the crew were always conscious of their divine Master’s provision. Berth fees or tugboat fees were often reduced or waived entirely by port authorities. Donations for fuel and repairs came at the last moment from unexpected sources. Local believers surprised the crew with gifts of everything from fresh milk and produce to sheep and cattle for the freezers.  

Over her long and distinguished career Doulos accumulated an impressive array of awards in many languages; official tokens of thanks for the ship’s cargo of knowledge, help and hope. In 1992 she won a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest operating ocean-going passenger vessel. Movie producers even sought to borrow Doulos for period films including the WWII epic, The Thin Red Line, because it was one of the few in existence with an authentic, riveted hull.

But the best tributes are the intangible ones: the smiles of over 21 million ordinary men, women and children who climbed the Doulos gangways. The hugs from all the other friends made ashore.--Like Sean, the young Indian in South Africa who confessed to a crewmember who had befriended him: “I have always hated white men. You are the first white man, Kevin, that I have ever liked. I’ve seen Christ living in you, and I love you.” Or the retired New Zealander who finally accepted God’s good news was for him and observed, “For 77 years I was blind, but now I can see!” Or like the destitute Filipina mother who, out of gratitude for the crew’s kindness, actually named her newborn son Doulos.  

After sailing thousands of nautical miles between six continents, the Doulos officially finished her course on the last day of 2009. But although the 95-year-old vessel has dropped anchor for the last time, her influence is not yet over. The majority of the Doulos crew “graduates” continue to use what they’ve learned as they serve God around the world. The resources that were distributed and people who were impacted will go on touching other lives. The final port report of the Doulos story will have to wait for eternity.

Published: Friday, 05 March 2010
Credit: Debbie Meroff
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