Have you tried to cook fried rice for 350 people for seven hours straight? Or washed thousands of dishes?
As a psychology graduate, that was what Jiamin Choo-Fong found herself doing in her first year of service – sailing across continents, preparing meals and washing dishes for crew members on board the historic vessel built in 1914, just two years after the Titanic.
But this incredulous story started even before Jiamin entered university. Having been challenged by a church friend, Jiamin decided to put her break after A-Levels to good use.
“I thought going on a mission trip was one of those things to check off on the to-do list of a good Christian,” she confessed.
“I also thought it was payback time. God had been so good to my family ever since my father passed away when I was in Secondary 1. So I desired to give two months of my break to serve Him in missions, as a way to thank Him.”
That’s when she decided to join the Operation Mobilisation (OM) ship, MV Doulos, an ocean liner turned floating book fair that travelled the seas to share knowledge and bring help and hope to the nations.
STEPPING ONTO DOULOS
Here’s a quick rundown for those who aren’t familiar with Doulos: Before the ship was retired in December 2009, she typically spent a few days sailing, and docked at ports from anywhere between a week and a month.
In places that had limited access to good literature, Doulos would see thousands of people coming onboard to buy some of the 6,000 English titles, with subjects ranging from education to science, business, sports, cookery, children’s books and faith.
But Doulos wasn’t just a floating book fair.
When docked, onboard programmes such as school visits and cultural events were organised. The international crew of more than 300 volunteers would also take turns to head onshore to serve communities in partnership with local organisations and churches.
Yes, you read that right. 350 volunteers from 40 to 50 different countries, from the captain to the engineers, medics and other crew members.
Half of them were families, such as deck and engine officers bringing their wife and kids onboard. The other half were young people.
And unlike 18-year-old Jiamin who had only committed two months on a short-term mission programme, most of the volunteers set aside two years of their lives to serve God among the nations.
“As a Singaporean, taking a gap year to serve God full-time never even crossed my mind,” Jiamin recalled. “I always thought I had to finish (my studies) all the way to university and then work.
“That example of young people serving God in missions awakened something in me. That there was more to life than the safe path I knew back in Singapore. I began to ask, “What is Your will for my life, God?”
A GLIMPSE OF HEAVEN
Life on Doulos was definitely different from what she knew back then.
Being a volunteer meant that crew members not only didn’t get paid – they had to raise funds to cover their costs of serving on Doulos. In addition, they were responsible for the ship’s upkeep!
Crew members were grouped into different departments. Once assigned, everyone had to work an eight-hour shift for five days a week.
Describing it as a full-time job, Jiamin pointed out: “It was laborious because we ran the ship ourselves. Who cleans the toilets? Us. Who picks up the food waste? Us. Who cooks, who scrubs? Us.”
And it was there where she found herself assigned to catering duties, where she spent hours preparing food for deckhands and engineers in the mess and running the ship’s coffee bar.
But it wasn’t just the physical labour that was challenging.
“I’m Singaporean, I love my food and I missed the international variety of food back home,” she smiled sheepishly.
“On the ship, we had cold cuts and cheese every day for lunch. We only had eggs on Sunday. It’s not like the sumptuous buffets on cruise liners.”
However, what amazed Jiamin was the faith and unity of the international community onboard, with Jesus followers from all over the world.
“I was surrounded by people from 50 different nations and yet we could live, work and play together, and worship and sing in one voice. We praised the same God. It was like Revelation 7:9-10 in the Bible coming alive,” she recounted.
It wasn’t a perfect community, Jiamin noted, as there were times they got on each other’s nerves due to cultural or personality differences. But it was like a glimpse of heaven for her.
During her two months onboard, Doulos was in the Philippines. Along with other crew members, Jiamin visited villages, slums and the streets to serve the local communities.
For the first time, she felt the immense joy of sharing God’s message of love and hope with people outside her home country. And God broke her heart to care for those who were different, forgotten and marginalised.
Slowly but surely, her worldview shifted within those two months. And this would set the stage for her to commit her youth to serving her Heavenly Captain back on the seas.
THE JOURNEY BACK TO DOULOS
The decision didn’t come easy though – among her concerns to join Doulos after graduation were worries about her family. As the eldest child, she felt responsible for her widowed mother and siblings.
But after she returned to Singapore from her short-term mission programme, Doulos was often on Jiamin’s mind, especially whenever she saw the sea. She also followed the ship’s newsletter and regularly wrote to her newfound friends who were still onboard.
And as God’s call on her life to serve in full-time missions became clearer, the pull became stronger.
“The idea of working just to get money and have a good life – to me, cannot already,” Jiamin explained.
“For me, specifically, life’s purpose has got to do with so much more. It’s about serving God, touching lives and remembering the nations. It goes beyond Singapore, beyond the four walls of the church.
“So what really drew me back was God’s call to serve Him in the strength of my youth, to make Him known among the nations.”
FROM STRANGERS TO SISTERS
Even after Jiamin took a leap of faith and left the safety of her harbour after university, the journey wasn’t smooth-sailing. Homesickness crept in from time to time, especially during festive seasons.
Remembering her first Christmas in South Asia, Jiamin described how she hid in a corner of the ship’s main lounge after the onboard Christmas service.
“I was crying and journalling that I wished I could be home. I hadn’t seen my family in a year. I didn’t know when the ship would next dock in Singapore.
“I just felt so homesick and alone.”
But she wasn’t the only one.
“I had three cabin mates – Roze (Netherlands), Eliane (Switzerland) and Ria (South Africa),” she said.
“When we first got together, we dedicated our cabin to God, asking Him to bless it as a place of refuge and rest. We also said this cabin would be our home. We could relax, laugh, keep quiet or talk as much as we want.
“And if one of us was feeling homesick, had a bad day or quarrelled with a crew member, we would cry together. And we prayed for each other.”
From strangers, they became sisters. They were each other’s family when home was far away.
“My family has gotten so big. It’s beyond my biological family. I have sisters and brothers-in-Christ around the world now. That friendship is so special because we served God on Doulos and shared life together.”
But one big challenge Jiamin would face was the challenge to extend her term of service.
After her first year of catering duties, Jiamin was invited to join the Line-up department.
She would be part of advance parties sent ahead of Doulos to work alongside local authorities, church leaders, the media and businessmen to make preparations for the ship to dock in various countries. These teams would also organise ministry opportunities, help with publicity and find sponsors.
However, the role would require Jiamin to be with Doulos for another two years.
She was 24 by this time. Jiamin’s peers were building their career while hers – including her love life – was put on hold. Coupled with homesickness, the decision to stay was accompanied by conflicting desires.
“I could make every reason why I should go home – and the list was long,” Jiamin admitted. “And on the other side, why stay? Because God said so.”
She continued: “What God was asking from me was obedience. Would I trust Him to take care of my family for another year? Trust Him enough to offer another year of my youth to serve Him on His ship – was it worth it?”
Eventually, Jiamin decided that that one reason from God was enough, noting that everything else paled in comparison.
“It was clear to me. I heard the call to stay. I saw the beautiful work God was doing through the ship ministry, and I desired to be a part of it.”
“IT WAS WORTH IT”
Looking back, Jiamin shared that she had no regrets. In fact, one of her most memorable moments was forged during the additional two years she spent onboard.
Recalling the time where her ministry team went to visit a prison in Papua New Guinea, Jiamin befriended an inmate Anna (not her real name) and prayed for her.
Upon returning to Doulos, Jiamin heard a prompting that went, “Anna, Anna,” while walking past the Bible section of the ship’s book fair.
“I wasn’t sure if Anna knew God personally, so I thought why not I get a Bible for her so that she can read?” Jiamin explained.
Together with a letter and some other books, Jiamin passed the Bible to the next ministry team who was visiting the same prison on Sunday morning.
That evening, she received a letter pinned to her cabin’s door. It was from Anna.
“She wrote: ‘Dear Jiamin, what a blessed day today is, and words cannot express enough how grateful I am for the gifts…
“Towards the end, she said, ‘P.S. Only last night, I prayed to God asking for a new Bible. I guess my prayer was answered today!'”
Teary-eyed, Jiamin added: “I got the chills. God had spoken to me about Anna and the Bible even before Anna prayed.
“One would think that behind bars, people are locked away and forgotten. But God loves the prodigal child who did something wrong and got shut out of society. God’s love knows no boundaries.
“Anna was not forgotten. Anna was remembered by our Heavenly Father. What a privilege to be used by God to bring His written Word to His child in prison.”
Ending off the story with a smile, Jiamin said: “It’s God moments like these that makes it all so worth it. I could be His vessel because I was available.
“If the whole purpose for me to extend that one more year on Doulos was to be used by God to bring that Bible to Anna, it was worth it.”
It’s been 12 years since her faith journey on the sea was completed, but Jiamin will never forget her four years on the ship.
She concluded: “If I could live my life all over again, would I have chosen this path? Yes, if this is what God has planned, I wouldn’t want it any other way. There is no greater joy than obeying my God, being where He calls me to be, doing what He calls me to do.”
Doulos has since ceased her operations, but her sister ship Logos Hope continues to sail for God’s glory.
Encouraging others to consider serving God, Jiamin challenged people to ask “why not” instead of “why”.
“Onboard Doulos, we really see God’s miracles every day because to keep a 105-year-old ship going is already a miracle,” she said with a laugh, pointing to how it was God’s grace that kept the ship going for so many years.
She quipped: “For Titanic, someone said that not even God Himself could sink the ship. But for Doulos, it was really only because of God that we could stay afloat.”
This story is part of a special series produced in collaboration with OM Singapore, which is celebrating 40 years of God’s faithfulness in missions this year.
Jiamin has also written a book about her faith journey based on her journal entries onboard Doulos. Available at selected local bookstores, Out of the Harbour is a reminder of what God can do with a life surrendered to Him.
- How would you describe your life’s purpose?
- What are you primarily using the strength of your youth on?
- Have you ever felt a strong pull to share God’s love with the nations?