STORIES OF SEAFARERS
THIS IS THE WORLD WE LIVE IN ...
By Arnd Braun-Storck, SIH Port Chaplain in the Port of NY & NJ
(Spring 2021) "This is the world we live in, and these are the hands we are given...”
In the past several months I have listened to the often played song ‘Land of Confusion’ by the English rock band Genesis. It seems that DJs find it fitting for a time when crowded cities like New York feel abandoned, places like Times Square and street life in general look deserted. There is no rush hour, stores and businesses have closed. For many, this coronavirus pandemic involves the most dramatic kind of fight - for life, for food, for economic survival.
For others, it can feel like a petty little thing as they stay inside - a fight against boredom, too much eating and drink-ing, isolation, or simply dealing with the education of their children.
My ministry as a port chaplain with Seafarers International House (SIH) is affected by these changes as well. The crews of the many ships arriving in the ports of New York and New Jersey are not allowed to go ashore any more. And truth be told, very few would attempt to set foot outside a vessel anyway because of the fears and anxie-ties that are the prevalent feelings right now: of getting infected by a deadly virus. For the past year, seafarers have continued to endure a very difficult time on their vessels. Rationally, they under-stand that their ship offers the safest environment at the present time. But emotionally seafarers suffer from many ailments in body, mind and spirit. Just simple tasks like a doctor’s visit in a port, can become a very stressful expe-rience as they have to jump through so many hoops to make that happen.
Yet, I still make my rounds at the terminals and visit ships. These visits don’t take place over a cup of tea or coffee in the mess room any longer, but have become ‘gangway visits’, with the recommended social distancing of six feet. I am not fond of this term because I try to do the opposite: ‘social closeness and nearness’ while maintaining ‘physical distance’ and keeping all the necessary precautions. It is an important message for seafarers to know that in all the stresses they are going through, the seamen’s mission has not forgotten them.
As I visit, I find two needs expressed most often. One is the wish to have someone to talk to. Pastoral and spiritual care is more appreciated, and most conversations circle around the feelings of anxiety and fear. During this crisis, many seafarers express their basic human need to be connected and to talk about how this need is threatened by ever increasing isolation, including their need for certainty, meaning and purpose, self-esteem, and sense of belonging with others. Many seafarers are worried for the well-being of their families back home. Others worry about the status of the vessel in case someone becomes sick. Will their ship become ‘untouchable’, an outcast for the authorities and abandoned out at sea, left to their own devices? It is these stories I have been listening to and which seafarers need to communicate during this time of stressful existence. As chaplains, we provide a listening presence in a time of uncertainty, and yet also try to be a source of reliable information about what is going on in New York, the port community and ultimately back home, in order to alleviate and help with the many anxieties seafarers facing.
The second need expressed is the need for basic services such as SIM cards, souvenirs, toiletries and often enough something for the sweet tooth to get them through the day. Seafarers are very concerned about their own health and well-being, and requests for hand sanitizer, face masks, vitamins are common. So, for SIH and its chaplains the demands have increased manifold. Besides these regular on board visits by the gangway for pastoral care, I have developed a high efficiency and literacy in maneuvering the ever increasing demands of crews to provide and contribute to the personal needs. Shopping in supermarkets and online has become an integral part of daily chores, and yet it never seems to be enough. Transportation to and from various shopping malls and the sightseeing trips to NYC remain on hold for now.
The times are unsettling. We worry about the future of our ministry, our environment, our health, but ultimately realize that we have no control over most of these things. So, as chaplains, we do what we are called to do: we support seafarers in spiritual dis-tress and help them to identify and draw upon their sources of spiritual strength, hoping that we can provide some relief from stress that they are experiencing on a daily basis.
There is always danger
By Ruth Setaro, SIH Port Chaplain in New Haven, CT
Eleven men climbed into the van to go shopping. The crew in the back were laughing, joking and singing along with the music playing on the radio. The captain sat in the front seat very somber and quiet. My attempts to engage him in any kind of conversation fell on deaf ears.
We soon arrived at Exit 9 and I drove around and explained all the shopping opportunities and then left everyone off at Best Buy. I gave them my phone number “just in case” and it was determined that I would pick everyone up at 2000 hours at Target.
At the appointed hour, eleven men stood in front of Target loaded with bags and boxes. After squeezing everything in we started back to the ship. As we got back on the highway someone in the back asked if we could stop at a gas station so they could buy cigarettes. The captain, still quiet, explained that their rationing of cigarettes was gone.
As we pulled into a mini market, ten men jumped out and headed into the store. I commented to the captain that his crew looked so young, most of them looking to be maybe in their early twenties.
Then the flood gates opened and for 20 minutes the captain seemed to open his heart. He told me how tired he was, that after sailing through the trials of rough seas that even in port there was no time to rest. There were forms and paper work to file, things to repair and hours of inspections to navigate. He was TIRED. He learned that a car carrier ship that he had sailed on had either encountered a rogue wave or sudden wind that had turned it on its side. Luckily a Japanese naval ship was in the area and was able to rescue the crew. There had been no time to put down lifeboats and the crew was floundering in the sea. The naval ship threw down nets for the men to grab and thankfully all were saved.
“There is always danger,” he told me and “life as a seafarer is very hard. No one can really understand the sacrifices that have to be made for this life. Several months ago, one of my crew jumped overboard. Suicide is a real problem. Depression is a big problem, but what are you to do? This is the lot of the seafarer.”
The conversation quickly ended as the men climbed back into the van. Back at the ship the captain reached over and took my hand and with a quiet smile said “thank you.”