It wasn't long after Rob and Sandra Stip arrived at the Pago Pago Seafarer's Center in American Samoa in 1998 that they fully understood why God had called them there. They were comfortable with their role sharing the gospel of Christ through hospitality ministries and discipleship. But they soon saw how God had uniquely equipped them for ministry in ways they had never imagined.
The children of the community found a loving environment where they could learn about Christ and successful living. Unpaid Asian seafarers learned Rob Stip knew government agencies well enough to effectively pressure their employers to play fairly. And abused indentured workers at a nearby garment factory came in desperation to the Stips and ultimately saw conditions change for the better.
"When we first came here we thought we were going to be passing out Kool Aid and pool sticks," said Rob Stip. "We didn't realize we would be involved in actual life-and-death things."
The Stips are among missionaries featured during the 2001 Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 4-11. Until early this year they served as Mission Service Corps volunteers at the Seafarer's Center, which has been operated by the North American Mission Board and the Hawaii-Pacific Baptist Convention since October 1995. The American Samoan experience was just the latest ministry effort of a family that has reached out to those they know best, those who prefer life on the water, and others who often don't seem to fit in to conventional society.
Rob Stip, in particular, is no stranger to living on the fringes. He grew up in the hills of Tennessee, and as a car thief at seventeen was offered a choice of either military service in Vietnam or jail. He chose the military, and his familiarity with guns, hunting, and tracking handed down from his Cherokee Indian grandfather helped make him "very proficient in the art of war."
In the early 1980s he described himself as "not a nice person: drunk, antisocial, and very belligerent." The Stips owned a house initially, but ultimately felt confined on the land and moved to their boat.
One night, returning home from a bar, he sank his dinghy and was pulled out of the water by a man named Frank Mullins, president of Gospel Ship Ministries, and onto the ship "Saved By Grace." It was through that encounter that Rob — and later his wife, Sandra – eventually came to faith in Christ.
"My marriage was falling apart. I just decided, 'What have I got to lose?'" he said. "It was like once I started listening and reading my Bible, I found a reason for everything that had gone wrong in my life."
The transformation wasn't immediate, but Stip said the Holy Spirit eventually helped him submit to God's will in his life. He also felt called to reach others like them – first in the Tampa area, then back in South Florida, then in Beaufort, N.C.
With Intracoastal Waterfolk Ministries in Beaufort, they visited people on pleasure boats and conducted worship services — with Sandra drawing on her own talents as a musician in leading the musical part of the service and Rob serving as harbor chaplain. It was there that they became Mission Service Corps volunteers. Later, when they were asked about taking on the leadership of the Seafarer's Center in Samoa, they initially were reluctant but finally consented.
"It just scared us to death; we didn't think we were ready for this," Rob said, adding that God had worked it out. "I speak a little bit of seven different languages. My military background came into play in dealing with governments, and the languages and traveling experience helped in communicating with different cultures."
The routine at the center includes regular hours for recreation time for seafarers in port. They also operate a special international call center that allows seafarers to pay by the minute for calls to home at cheaper rates than would be available elsewhere.
"It's a clean, safe environment where international seafarers can come for recreation and help, whether it be medical, legal, or spiritual," said Sandra Stip. "And we must be here on call for them twenty-four hours a day, regardless of what their needs may be."
Ministry often starts with just the simple things: assisting with international phone calls or listening to seafarers talk about the families. "First we have to develop trust," Stip said. "Once they develop this trust in you, then you can start ministering."
Last year more than a hundred seafarers made professions of faith through the ministry — many from countries where such decisions mean certain persecution even from their own shipmates. A Chinese mission meeting at the center includes many dedicated seafarers who have seen their faith forged by fire.
"There have been reports that some of them have been beaten unmercifully on these ships because of it. But they will not turn around," Stip said.
While the Stips initially saw their role as primarily one of hospitality and evangelistic ministry, opportunities for being advocates for the seafarers and others quickly began to appear. One ship had "never paid a penny to anyone, and if the crew complained, they were thrown off the ship, arrested, and deported," Rob said. Crew members from that ship sought Stip's help, staying at the center and joining in Bible study and prayer.
"At the end of ten days, the fishing agent came to us and said, 'What is it with this God of yours? I can't eat. I can't sleep. … What is it going to take to make you guys happy?'," Rob Stip said. Ultimately, the agent brought $35,000 in cash to the center, spread it out on the table in the chapel and "paid them every penny that was owed them."
On another occasion, several young Vietnamese women appeared at the center with the story of how their families had paid thousands of dollars for the right to work in promised high-paying jobs in American Samoa. When they arrived, they found only meager wages and intolerable working conditions. Because they were indentured workers, the management of their company felt justified in the abuse, the Stips said.
Police were called, investigations were conducted, and eventually some relief was secured. During the turmoil, Sandra helped found a Christian grassroots advocacy group called Concerned Citizens for Asian Workers that became an ongoing watchdog for injustices at the plant.
"The Samoan people have gotten together and said, 'How is it that we can live in a country where God is supposed to be in command and yet we are allowing young girls like this to be mistreated?'" Sandra said.
The youngest Stip, twelve-year-old Scott, was the impetus for another aspect of their ministry focused more on the local Samoans than seafarers or immigrant workers. One of the first things the family noticed about the Samoan culture was that children are treated differently, often neglected, and even abused by mainland standards.
"My son said, 'Dad, how come only adults can be missionaries? Why can't kids?'" Rob said. "And I looked around at the crime, the drugs, the abuse, … and we started working with kids on our day off."
The ministry settled into a one-hour Bible study each Saturday, followed by a couple of hours of free time for the children in the Seafarer's Center.
The Stips became role models for the children, not only sharing Christ with them and seeing many come to Christ, but also serving as surrogate teachers and parents.
They also encouraged them to stay in school and set their sights high for the future. One young man who had quit school began coming to the Seafarer's Center. Not only did he return to school with tutoring help from the Stips but he excelled. "He graduated with the highest SAT scores in the history of Samoa," Rob related proudly.
A Sunday worship service also was started at the Seafarer's Center similar to the one they conducted in North Carolina. It was intended primarily for pleasure boaters who visit the port, but it also has included some of the children and other local residents.
"We sure didn't come here with the expectation of becoming the pastor of a church or the head of a youth ministry," Rob said. "It wasn't my choice. It wasn't my wife's choice. The Lord led us here."
In the latter part of 2000, however, a series of events resulted in the Stips deciding that God was calling them back to the United States. The deciding factor was a doctor's medical advice that Rob's recurring health problems meant he would be risking his life if he didn't live near more advanced medical facilities than are available on American Samoa.
The Stips planned to return to the Tampa, Fla., area in January, and tentative long-term plans call for the two of them eventually to return to ministry to pleasure boaters in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia.
"We hate to leave … but I can see the good in it," Sandra said, noting that they plan to continue to build a network of ministries similar to theirs. Also, several key leaders are coming into place that will help continue some of the roles they have filled — and steps are already being taken to recruit their replacement.
"God is still working here," she said.