Phil DuFrene opens a wooden box and extracts two ceramic sparrows. The eyes of 10 men are held fast by his storytelling as he uses the birds to illumine Christ’s work on the cross. He lifts one sparrow—the one that was slain—and describes the ceremonial cleansing in Leviticus 14.
The men in this impromptu chapel service represent half of a Philippine crew aboard the Isabella Manx, a bulk carrier in the Fraser-Surrey docks of Vancouver, British Columbia. DuFrene is their guest, who brings treats, toothbrushes, and the little essentials they can’t get at sea. He’s also their friend.
DuFrene is an unconventional chaplain. Instead of running a terrestrial center the men disembark to visit, he is the center. “It’s all in my briefcase and backpack,” he says. Most critical of all is a Wi-Fi router, his most surefire way of getting on board a vessel. The router allows the men to check their messages and even video chat with their families without using their limited data.
“My greatest joy is seeing the guys with their families,” says DuFrene, who lost his wife Debbie to cancer in 2018. He’s observed men using cell phones to put their kids to bed on the other side of the world, blow kisses to their wives, and share quiet meals. It pleases him to realize, “That’s my server doing that!” By just hanging out and getting to know the crewmen as people, he wins them over so that by his third visit, the captain will often permit a short chapel service.
A former missionary to Indonesia, DuFrene taught aviation in the early ’80s at a Christian college not far from the Fraser-Surrey docks. One semester, he paired up students to do cross-cultural ministry and found himself aboard a docked Russian cargo ship, sharing the gospel. The opportunity left a deep impression on him.
The DuFrenes moved throughout the Americas while Phil managed nearly 50 language projects for the JESUS film, but he never forgot the joy of connecting with seafarers. When the couple set their eyes on a return to the Vancouver area, they launched Port of Hope Ministries.
On each ship, DuFrene looks for the true, committed Christians. They are few, lonely, and surrounded by temptation. So while it’s important to share the gospel with non-Christians, he always makes time to encourage those who already believe. A Burmese officer once explained that the Christian seafarer may be ready to give up, but since “he can tell [the others] about Christ better than you, spend your time with the Christian.”
For three years now, DuFrene has gifted the In Touch Messenger—in the various languages of these crews—to those who want to go deeper. Some men simply enjoy hearing their heart language as they drift to sleep; others send notes back about the impact the audio lessons have had. While sailing on rough waters toward the Gulf of Alaska, one man from India wrote, “This has saved my life.” It’s the kind of note that drives DuFrene forward, continuing to help these men find their way home.
Photography by Audra Melton