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God’s navy

Brisk ocean air wafted over the deck of the ship Faithful on a Saturday in southern California. Don and Sondra Tipton, founders of the Friend Ships ministry, stood on the deck of their seagoing vessel and shared how God led them to launch this ministry to the world’s poor.

Until 1985, the Tiptons were living the American dream — limousines, polo clubs, gourmet meals — and rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. They owned an exclusive equestrian club in California and were advisers to the Gaming Alliance of Nevada. But somehow they knew there was more to life than business deals, opulence and parties.

When they committed their lives to Christ, they began to view the world differently. It troubled them to watch peers crack open expensive bottles of champagne. It was disturbing to see friends pay $50,000 for a horse just so their children could hang a ribbon on the wall. And they became convicted with their own lavish ways.

"When Jesus came into our lives," Don says, "we began to see the contrast between the needs of the rich and the needs of the poor. A stirring began to grow in our hearts to start a new life in full-time service to the Lord."

They started reading the Bible and couldn’t escape the principle that Christ’s followers were commanded to help the poor. "Before I became a Christian I had shown little concern for the homeless man on the street," he says. "I felt I had made my own destiny, and it was up to him to make his own way." But now he and Sondra couldn’t shake the reality that thousands were dying every day because of starvation and disease. God seemed to infuse them with newfound compassion.

As they prayed for new direction for their lives, God gave them a vision to fill a cargo ship with food, clothing and medicine that could be delivered to needy people around the world. Don and Sondra owned a 40-foot yacht, but they knew nothing about going to sea in a large ocean liner. "Lord," Don and Sondra prayed, "we are the least qualified to do this work. You will have to provide and show us the way, but we are willing to give up everything to follow this vision if this is what You have called us to. We want to be a part of Your navy."

They flew to Tacoma, Wash., in September 1985 to inspect a ship that was on the market. The ship could carry 5,000 tons of cargo and her hold was refrigerated. She needed a lot of refurbishing, but nothing could have diminished her beauty to Don and Sondra. They felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to speak with the owner about donating the ship. The owner paused, then said, "Meet me at my lawyer’s office tomorrow. I’ll give you the ship free and clear."

That first ship, named Spirit, was the beginning of many miracles for the ministry. Today they have seven ships and warehouses filled with food and other supplies to help the poor. "We pay for very little," Sondra says. "God moves on people’s hearts to give — free trucking, fuel and much more." Mission America Placement Service volunteers, for example, have donated their time to work on Friend Ships projects.

Friend Ships has given away $120 million in commodities around the world. They have taken voyages around the world, offering help to hundreds of thousands of desperate people. The ministry is also active in the United States. About $40 million in goods have been given away domestically to churches and other organizations.

The Tiptons call the Dream Center, co-pastored by Tommy and Matthew Barnett, their church home. "The Tiptons are without a doubt two of the most amazing people I have ever met," Tommy says. "Their grasp of the awesomeness of God is unbelievable."

"We are so grateful for what God has done for us," Don says. "We didn’t walk away from anything. We accepted a promotion that God was offering us. We live in our warehouse. We sleep in our offices. It’s very different from when we lived in Beverly Hills, but it’s a far better life."

— Hal Donaldson


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