BEIRUT, LEBANON — Her first duty was transporting onions from New York to Texas some 90 years ago. But since starting a new career in 1977, she has received more than 17 million visitors.
The MV Doulos is the world's oldest passenger liner still sailing the seven seas. The ship is also the world's largest floating bookstore.
The Doulos is owned and operated by the German charity organization Gute Bücher für Alle (Good Books for All). Its mission is to provide literature at affordable prices in port cities where books are not easily accessible. The ship's crew also participates in different forms of humanitarian aid.
Earlier this week, the Doulos completed a two-week stopover in Lebanon - the 100th country the ship has visited so far. Its next stops include Egypt and Jordan.
The floating bookstore offers 7,000 titles. About half of the books available are Christian literature, but secular selections range from literary classics to cookbooks to language reference books. There is also a large selection of children's books.
Nearly all the stock is in English, except for a few French and Arabic titles.
The Doulos crew is made up of 300 volunteers culled from Christian churches in 40 different countries.
"We want to reflect the love of our Creator through our ordinary lives and our charitable works, so we sail the world to bring knowledge, help, and hope to the peoples of the world," explains Daniel Chae, the ship's director. "This is an expression of our submission to God." Doulos means "servant" in Greek.
Sponsored by a church or individuals in their homeland, volunteers serve on the Doulos for two years, with the chance to extend service indefinitely.
Some volunteers say the time they spend on the Doulos transforms them.
"My time on the ship is opening my eyes to the needs of the world," says Didier Astorga, who had previously served in the French Navy for 10 years.
"Now I don't want to go back to Paris, just to enjoy life, because I realized that life is not just about making money. We need to give. Life is about giving."
But some volunteers say they also end up doing some receiving. Gary Bartop of San Diego, the ship's electrician, is the most senior crew member. After spending 42 years in the telephone industry, he sold his company to volunteer.
"This is a great way to serve the Lord, but somebody prepares my meals for me, does my dishes and my laundry," he says. "It's the best job that I've never been paid for. It's a good deal for an old bachelor."
But Mr. Bartop also uses his time on the ship to share his Christian faith.
When the ship stopped in Burma (Myanmar), he says, "a couple of people had walked for two days to get to the ship so they could buy a Bible. Bibles are scarce in that country." However, when they arrived they realized that on their meager wages - which amount to a few cents a day - they could not afford the book. That's when Bartop organized a Bible fund for the needy, which continues today.
When the Doulos visited Nigeria, 8,000 people visited the boat daily, most of them waiting in line for several hours to come on board.
"It was a comfort to me to see how people have this hunger for books, for literature," says Daniel Yap of Singapore. "I've seen some people moved to tears when they finally found a book they wanted, they were so happy."
In addition to selling books at rock-bottom prices at each port, Doulos also offers discounts to schools and public libraries, and donates a large number of books to the needy.
Doulos organizers point out that their follow-up studies often show a marked increase in book sales in the cities where the ship has visited. "People who never took reading seriously are now interested in reading," says Simon Chen, a journalist from Malaysia.
Crew members benefit from the ship's extensive cargo, too. "I had read maybe two books in my life. Now I'm on my 184th book," says Bartop.
Community outreach is also a crucial part of the Doulos mission. The crew has a "discovery day" each week for humanitarian activities ranging from soccer games for underprivileged children to installing plumbing in refugee camps.
Serving on the Doulos "really changes your view of the world," says Mr. Yap, whose professional background is in mass media. "Before, I was in control of my life. I did what I wanted to. Now it's the other way around. I'm just letting God take the lead for me."
• For information about volunteer opportunities on the Doulos, visit www.mvdoulos.org.