Arlene Bridges Samuels
In Essentials, Unity

Friend Ships: Christian Group Leaves Waves of Mercy in its Wake on Syria Border

Friend Ships’ Camp Ichay was located on the Israel/Syria border along with IDF’s Operation Good Neighbor. On September 13, 2018, the IDF announced closures due to increased volatility with the return of the Assad regime to power in southern Syria.

Last month, I attended the Christian Media Summit in Jerusalem hosted by the Government Press Office. (GPO) The excellent Summit deepened my advocacy for Israel and provided a context for meaningful, new friendships and initiatives. Media professionals from 40 nations plus other Christian and Jewish leaders bonded around the theme of truth-telling to combat Antisemitism against Israel and Jewish communities worldwide. Two leaders of Friend Ships, a Christian humanitarian organization, expanded my definition of friendship and gleamed as one of my most rewarding encounters!

One morning during the summit, I walked into the plentiful breakfast buffet at our hotel, filled my plate, and wondered where to sit. I then noticed someone sitting alone at a table next to the sunny courtyard window. Feeling drawn there, I walked over asking if I might sit down. Her friendly “Yes” was the beginning of a wonderful conversation. I soon learned that Teri Shields served on the staff of Friend Ships which her parents, Don and Sondra Tipton founded.

I was astonished and delighted! Why?

I had followed their compassionate ministry on the Israel/Syria border for months. I also seriously considered applying as a volunteer for a few days at their Camp Ichay after the GPO summit. Then I read that they and the IDF had evacuated due to increased volatility on the border. After breakfast Teri invited me to enjoy Shabbat with them on the Golan Heights when the summit ended. That Friday evening inspired me and gave me another example about the strength and cooperation between Israelis and Christians.

The current Friend Ships team at Shabbat dinner. Founder Sondra Tipton is on the front row, second from right. Her daughter Teri Shields is on the front row far left.

Our Jewish friends helped our Christian team to help Syrian Muslims. We are one heart…God’s heart, with the Israel Defense Forces when it comes to the Syrians. Sondra Tipton

Together, Israel Defense Forces and Friend Ships blessed thousands and thousands of endangered Syrians Photo: The Christian Broadcast Network

During and after dinner, I felt humbled to hear the team’s stories, heartbreaks, and joys. They welcomed more than 8,000 traumatized Syrians during their ministry on the border. My first question of course, “How did a ship ministry end up on the Israel/Syria border miles away from an ocean?” I learned that Don Tipton founded Friend Ships in 1983. Previously his lifestyle included hanging out with famous stars in Beverly Hills and he lived next door to former President Ronald Reagan. He radically changed direction when his Christian faith became the bedrock of his life. He first founded the Friend Ships charity with Park West Polo & Hunt Club in Beverly Hills which reached out to battered and handicapped children. Then in 1985, the charity acquired a ship, outfitted it and now for decades a small fleet of Friend Ships has served the poor in nations worldwide. Today they also help communities in the United States devastated by natural disasters.

At Friend Ships, headquartered in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Don and Sondra began to prayerfully consider how their ministry could help after hearing the horrific stories coming out of Syria. They already held a strong connection with Jewish people and Israel because of their Christian faith and regarded Judaism as the cradle of Christianity. And they, like Jewish communities worldwide, embrace the value of helping others regardless of religion or nationality. They began making inquiries first through contacts in Lebanon and Jordan. In both countries they learned that any humanitarian goods shipped in would likely be stolen before getting to those in need. With that door closed, the Tiptons turned to Ran Ichay, a close friend who is Director General for the Ministry of Jerusalem And Heritage. They had become friends through previous missions to Israel. Ran set up discussions with the IDF’s military brass in charge of Operation Good Neighbor. The IDF had worked on the Israel/Syria border since 2016 covertly sending in humanitarian aid and providing medical help.

Don and Sondra’s prayers were answered when the IDF accepted their offer to set up an additional humanitarian outreach under the IDF’s policies and protection. Friend Ships got to work beginning in early 2017 and by August, they opened the “doors” to their tents of mercy. For months the operation was undercover and that suited the Tiptons just fine. In their own ministry, they preferred to work in the background anyway and lift others up instead. The civilian team and their volunteers grew accustomed to bomb concussions, IDF nighttime operations delivering goods cross-border, and check points to first vet and then allow Syrians in for a day to get medical care, medicine, food, clothing, household goods and hugs from welcoming arms.

Traumatized Syrians arrive with nothing and leave with something to help them. Photo: The Christian Broadcast Network

Later, the IDF and Friend Ships operations became public. Their compassionate efforts appeared in Israeli news, USA Today, and teams coming to film their work from The Christian Broadcast Network, Trinity Broadcast Network and Fox News. The media exposure proved to be a boon for recruiting volunteers, humanitarian aid from Jewish citizens in the Golan Heights, and financial donations. Teri Shields commented, “Even the Jewish people in southern Israel living under years of terror rockets and now fires, sent two buses of volunteers with donated items.”

Friend Ships built a welcoming playground for Syrian children at Camp Ichay. They taught the Syrian children how to swing and jump on a trampoline since the 7- year war has robbed them of knowing how to play.

An older woman arrived with three small children. When she saw the playground she fell to her knees and cried. Through a translator she told me that her husband had left their home in Syria to look for food and never came back. Her daughter and two sons had been killed. Teri Shields

Jewish communities in the Golan Heights donated an “avalanche”of food, clothing, and household goods for Syrians

After dinner, writing as fast as I could, I asked the team to share some of their thoughts. Seeing their sincerity and humility, my appreciation grew as I listened to these brave people. They managed a few laughs as they described working with an audio background punctuated with Assad’s helicopters dropping barrel bombs and Russian jets streaking through the night delivering more death. But their joy in helping and their heartbreak in saying goodbyes to desperate Syrians came through louder and clearer. Here are a few of their insightful, inspiring quotes.
Sondra reflected,”The Syrians knew we didn’t have to be there. And the Jewish people have been through so much that they have a soft heart for others in need. Through translators Syrians have told us that Jews help them more than Arabs. And as my husband often says, ‘We don’t speak their language, but we do speak the language of love.'” (Don was in the US when I was at the team’s Shabbat dinner)
Jake and Jeanne-“When the Syrians arrived they were fearful not knowing what to expect from us. Seeing their transformation was amazing. By the time they left, they were kissing us on the cheek.” Jeanne went on to say, “God gave us an opportunity to love them. And we were so touched with the big, beautiful hearts of the Jewish people who donated so much.”
Rebecca commented,”When we and IDF evacuated, they were crushed.The soldier’s hearts bled for the children.”
Teri observed, “Many of the girls arrived dressed as boys because it was more dangerous for them to travel. Their fears dissolved with the children’s laughter that hung in the air. It broke down the walls. Peace settled in.”
Josh shared, “I grew up in a missionary family in Ethiopia. There we could restore hope and dignity. Here we could try, but all hope is gone.”
Jonathan described the volunteers, “When they rolled through even for a few days they encouraged us for the long haul.”

Oliver North with Teri Shields, Missions Director-Friend Ships
Friend Ships founders, Don and Sondra Tipton at Camp Ichay
on the Israel/Syria border.

What’s next for Friend Ships? Although they have physically evacuated from the front lines of compassion, their hearts to help remain the same. The team is prayerful and meeting with Israelis to determine their next steps. Other outreach locations are in the mix, but one thing is clear. They remain devoted to others who are desperate for help delivered through hands of love instigated by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

By the way, if the Friend Ships story has inspired you, please donate. You may be surprised to know that the staff itself is volunteer,in need of personal support to continue their mission, and donations for the mission itself aligned with Israel and other parts of the world. Here’s how:

About the Author
Arlene Bridges Samuels is a pioneer in pro-Israel Christian advocacy for more than two decades in positions with Israel Always and Earl Cox, Israel's Goodwill Ambassador to Christians and Jews, SE Region Outreach Director at American Israel Public Affairs Committee, (AIPAC) and International Christian Embassy Jerusalem USA's project, American Christian Leaders for Israel. Since 2020, she is the weekley featured columnist at The Christian Broadcasting Network Israel, and frequent Guest Columnist for Allisrael News and The Jerusalem Connection Report. Arlene co-edited The Auschwitz Album Revisited. Traveling to Israel since 1990, by invitation she attends the GPO Christian Media Summit and serves on the board of Violins of Hope South Carolina.
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