American evangelical group arrives in Ashdod on solidarity
26 October 2006
After a stormy 35-day journey at sea, a group of American
evangelicals traveling on a creaky World War II-era cargo
ship landed in Ashdod on a solidarity mission only to run
aground in red tape, with long delays in unloading their
cargo of clothes, toys and medical supplies.
Still, the 42-member crew was unfazed Thursday, keeping a
positive, enthusiastic attitude in a colorful
demonstration of the growing alliance between
fundamentalist Christians and the Jewish state.
"The Bible says, 'Who blesses Israel will be blessed,"'
said Don Tipton, the group's leader. "We believe that."
The "Spirit of Grace" steamed into the Israeli port of
Ashdod in early October from Louisiana, flying an American
flag and a huge banner reading "Jehovah" in Hebrew
letters. Three weeks later, the low, gray-painted ship is
still docked, its 900-ton load of goods bound for local
charities stuck on board as the gears of Israeli
bureaucracy slowly turn.
The band of evangelical Christians on the "Spirit of
Grace" are bearing the delay the same way they sailed
their weather-beaten cargo ship through three fierce
storms in the Atlantic Ocean on the voyage over: with a
cheerful faith that their mission is God's will.
"It's taken a bit longer than we expected, but it's given
us more time to tour the country, and we're having a great
time," said Sandra Tipton, Don's wife.
Julio Lieberman, the group's Israeli shipping agent, said
the delay was due to paperwork that the government
requires for charitable donations from abroad. "It's taken
far too long, but it should be sorted out in a few days,"
Yigal Ben-Zikry, a spokesman for the Ashdod port, said
workers could unload the ship "in half a day" as soon as
government approval comes through.
The "Spirit of Grace" - formerly the U.S.S. Pembina, a
62-year-old Navy ship that saw action in World War II - is
operated by Friend Ships, a foundation run by the Tiptons,
born-again Christians originally from Beverly Hills. The
group owns four other ships, as well as landing craft and
a helicopter, all based in Lake Charles, Louisiana, at a
facility that the group has dubbed Port Mercy.
Like the "Spirit of Grace," the vessels are staffed
entirely by volunteers and used to deliver supplies
donated by Christians to disaster-struck countries around
But the mission to Israel is different.
"This is not aid, it's an expression of friendship and
love," Don Tipton said. The members of his crew, he said,
like many other evangelical Christians, see supporting
Israel as a divine commandment. They were further spurred
on by the recent war in Lebanon, he said.
"After the war, we saw that Lebanon was getting lots of
aid and friendship, and I thought, hey, they're not the
ones who just got mugged," Tipton said. He had
preparations for this journey, which had been planned
before fighting broke out, sped up.
The voyage of the "Spirit of Grace" reflects the growing
alliance between American evangelicals and Israel, a
relationship which has seen evangelical Christians become
more vocal politically and more generous financially in
their support of the Jewish state.
Despite some hesitancy In Israel about the evangelicals'
political agenda for Israel, which opposes any territorial
compromise, and about their religious beliefs - some see
the ingathering of the Jews to Israel as a necessary
prelude to a cataclysm in which anyone who isn't Christian
will die - the friendly feeling has generally become
Today, one of Israel's biggest and most accepted charities
is an evangelical-funded group, the Chicago-based
International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which
distributes $30 million a year to different projects in
"We love and admire Israel - we tell our congressmen and
senators this, and we stand behind Bush," said Tipton, 62.
"We won't let anything happen to Israel."
Tipton's crew is a diverse group. Its oldest member is the
chief engineer, Wally Barber of Seattle, 83. Its youngest
is Ruth Larson, four months old, who came along with her
Serving on the ship is "a calling," Lloyd Williams, a
white-bearded veteran sailor from Durban, South Africa,
said over the noise of the engine room. Williams wore a
Star of David on a pendant around his neck.
Merrie Uddin, originally from Detroit, was working in a
Louisiana casino until a hurricane destroyed it last year.
"It was a blessing," Uddin says, because the loss of her
job led her to sign up with the "Spirit of Grace." Kristin
Boettcher of Des Moines was in college when, she said,
"The Lord got ahold of my life," and she found her way to
the ship. Jim Fotia, a Californian with long hair and a
beard, said he joined the trip because he "felt the call"
to come to Israel. "I'm amazed at how much it's like
southern California," Fotia said.
Despite the bureaucratic foul-ups that have kept their
charitable cargo stuck on board, the Christian sailors
said they've been warmly received at this busy port, where
their vintage vessel, its earnest crew and its
blue-and-white "Jehovah" banner stand out among huge
international cargo ships, grimy tankers and Israeli naval
craft. Workers have invited them for dinner in the port's
cafeteria, and the port has waived some of its usual
tariffs, Donald Tipton said.
"We had to be nice to these people," port spokesman Yigal
Ben-Zikry said, "they're more Zionist than any Israelis I