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Network of port ministries serves the world’s seafarers
Ships carry about 90 percent of the world’s goods, according to the International Maritime Organization. But the seafarers who work on the cargo vessels and tankers that crisscross the globe are largely invisible to most people.
Today’s mariners come from many regions, including Southeast Asia, Central America and Eastern Europe. As a result, their personal backgrounds are as diverse as the goods they carry.
Apostleship of the Sea (AOS), a Catholic port ministry, meets the personal and spiritual needs of seafarers in nearly 400 ports around the world. With a dedicated network of chaplains and volunteers, the organization fulfills its Christian duty by ministering to all seafarers, regardless of creed.
“As Christians, we’re called to be Christ in the world to whomever we come to meet, and so that’s a very important part of what we do — just carrying out Christ’s mission to work with the poor, the oppressed, anybody that’s in need of our help,” said Paul Rosenblum, AOS regional coordinator for North America and the Caribbean.
Value of a port ministry
The logistical and regulatory frameworks that govern the maritime shipping business create many challenges for seafarers. Rosenblum, based at the Port of Charleston, South Carolina, noted some of the circumstances seafarers face while in port. Due to security measures, they often can’t leave the ship unless they are escorted by an authorized port agent or minister. They have few transportation options, aside from taxis, if they need to shop for personal care products or see a doctor.
Although he hasn’t personally witnessed many problems with taxi services, Rosenblum recalls hearing stories about drivers in other ports charging exorbitant rates.
In Charleston, AOS has access to three vehicles, a sprinter van and two minivans, which volunteers use to transport seafarers to destinations outside the port, Rosenblum said. The ministry offers this service, and all others, at no cost aside from an optional donation.
AOS also has dockside trailers located at three different terminals in the Port of Charleston, which seafarers can walk to without an escort. These trailers, Rosenblum explained, have computers which seafarers can use to communicate with loved ones. Most of them appreciate the opportunity to leave the ship.
“They talk sometimes about their ships being floating prisons, because without somebody to help them get out, they are basically stuck,” Rosenblum said.
Support in hard times
Seafarers that pass through Charleston usually say they’re treated fairly, according to Rosenblum. But elsewhere in its global network, AOS has dealt with more desperate situations.
The cargo ship Trans Gulf has been detained in the Port of Mobile, Alabama, since March 2016, according to an AOS press release. For more than two years, a rotating group of Mexican crew members have maintained the ship.
“It’s almost cliche, but they are almost under a house arrest. They have food, they have a little bit of freedom, but they can’t go home,” said Deacon John Archer, an AOS port chaplain based in Mobile.
Archer explained that he has kept in touch with crew members on the ship since the end of last year. The first crew he met, a group of men from Veracruz, Mexico, never received fair compensation for their work. Some grew depressed because they couldn’t provide for their wives and children back home, he recalled.
For the past few months, the ship’s crew has consisted of just one man, a foreign seafarer who must sit by himself all day, on a “bucket of bolts in a back harbor in Mobile, Alabama,” as Archer put it.
The Trans Gulf effectively has no value. The owner doesn’t have the money to move it out of port.
Even the International Transport Workers’ Federation, Archer said, wouldn’t be able to recover its own legal fees if it took possession of the ship.
Despite the lack of financial support for the Trans Gulf, Archer stays in close contact with its crew, making sure they have the supplies they need. If they get permission to leave the ship, he takes them shopping. Last Christmas, he even brought a small group of them to Mass in downtown Mobile.
“They’re very appreciative. It’s almost impossible to say no to them because they’re really, really appreciative,” he said.
Growing the AOS network
AOS doesn’t deal with situations like the one in Mobile very often, Rosenblum explained. Still, most seafarers have demanding jobs, even under normal conditions.
On Sept. 19, Captain Pero Ljilja of Croatia got a brief chance to relax at one of the three dockside trailers that AOS Charleston shares with the Charleston Port and Seafarers Society, an ecumenical group.
“The hardest part, in port, is to get some shore leave, which is very seldom and difficult to arrange, so that’s why we appreciate very much this service here,” Ljilja said as he reclined in the well-furnished trailer during his seven-hour port stay.
Ljilja indicated that AOS Charleston is unique in the level of service it provides. Although many major ports have a ministry, some are more active than others.
Sister Joanna Okereke, the national director for AOS based in Washington, D.C., said her organization has grown dramatically since the 1940s, when it started in the United States. Still, she admits more work has to be done.
“Some of our ports, they don’t have chaplains there, so my goal is to make sure that in the next two years, all of the ports have a chaplain and all of the ports have volunteers,” Sister Okereke said.
As regional coordinator, Rosenblum encourages AOS representatives in other port cities to grow their ministries and draw volunteers from surrounding parishes. He has experienced the impact of local support firsthand, as he first heard about AOS through his home parish.
Even in cities like Charleston, where nearly 40 volunteers help out at the port, Rosenblum said Apostleship of the Sea always needs more people to serve seafarers.
“It’s a way of saying thank you to them and recognizing their importance,” he said. “Everyone wants to be recognized that they’re doing something important and worthwhile, and one of the ways that we can do that is to minister to them.
Sam Bojarski writes from Pennsylvania.