PORT MANATEE -- A Chilean cook who makes his living aboard a freighter sits speaking at a computer screen at the Anchor House at Port Manatee. On the other end of a Skype camera connection, his wife and children talk back, crowding close to their own screen. Periodically, over the course of a 90-minute conversation, the man leans in close and makes kissing sounds as he presses his lips to the screen.
It's one of the most beautiful things Tim Huppert has ever seen.
Huppert, a chaplain and executive director of the Anchor House, learned long ago the secret to lifting a person's spirit at the port's mariner mission. It's the tangible things -- a hot meal or a free WiFi connection to home -- that open a sailor's heart.
"My wife put it to me like this: 'If you can meet somebody's needs, that's where success begins and ends,'" said Huppert, who is in his ninth year of ministering to the thousands sailors who visit the growing Florida Gulf port of call.
The Anchor House is more than a Christian ministry. Yes, its staff and volunteers gave out 552 Bibles written in 33 languages last year. And Huppert and his co-chaplain, Trish Alligood, did dozens of prayer breakfasts and shipboard worship services.
But what most of the mates, cadets, seamen, boatswains, engineers and stewards visiting the tidy, one-story mis
sion remember is the hospitality. It's a place to get a cheap hot dog for lunch, wire money home, buy a few toiletries after weeks at sea or bend a friendly ear about family or work.
That goes double for the men and women who work at Port Manatee, who have access to the Anchor House every day.
"It helps the soul a bit," said longshoreman Joe Bracken, who takes his lunch break at the ministry and has spent time talking to the chaplains about his brother's and sister's ongoing battles with lung cancer.
Founded in 1992, the Anchor House is the center of the port's social scene. Huppert was the mission's original chaplain, and chief fundraiser in the early years. He came to the mission after founding a similar organization in the Philippines in 1986. A local, nondenominational ministerial association helped craft the Anchor House's raison d'etre.
Serving needs for many
The Port Manatee mission got its big kick start that first year when the International Transportation Workers Federation gave Anchor House a $170,000 grant. The money funded a complete renovation of the building, and the purchase of the van the mission uses to take more than 1,000 sailors into Bradenton, Ellenton, and Palmetto each year.
Eighteen months ago, the Anchor House added a big screened porch to accommodate sailors who want to use the mission's WiFi connection after hours. Huppert said that only made sense, as many are "from the other side of the world where it's day when it's night here."
Chaplains at the mission each day take care of sailors' physical and emotional needs, but they never lose sight of the fact that they are there to spread the teachings of Jesus Christ. To meet sailors where they are, their approach at prayer breakfasts, Bible studies, and in private counseling is ecumenical.
"You don't fracture the face of Christ at the waterfront," Huppert said.
In living this religious ethic, the chaplains have garnered respect from ship captains and masters. Sometimes, they use it for the good of the sailors. It is not uncommon for one or both of them to raise concerns on behalf of a sailor or an entire crew when working conditions aboard become intolerable. There have been occasions in which they have even called police or other authorities to deal with a shipboard matter.
Most of the time, they just do friendly, ship board greetings. Last year, they went aboard all 256 ships that came to the port.
Corps of volunteers
The Anchor House operates on donations and a bit of money earned selling lunches and sundries in its small convenience store. In all, the mission served more than 7,300 meals in 2013. Most of the labor to run the mission comes from a corps of about 30 volunteers.
Huppert and Alligood said they plan to stay at the mission for the long term. Alligood started at the mission in 1992 as a volunteer until she "felt God leading me to be full time." Huppert left the mission in 1996 to go back to his Wisconsin dairy farm. He returned in 2009 when the Anchor House needed a new chaplain.
The mission future includes pursuing funding to equip all of Port Manatee with wifi services to accommodate sailors unable to come ashore because of the lack of a proper visa.
The Anchor House will hold its annual fundraising banquet Friday. Those wishing to attend can call 941-722-0764 to purchase tickets or sponsor a table. The mission will hold its annual fundraiser golf tournament in September.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.