Covid-19! Perhaps in the long history of The Mission to Seafarers, not even war has had quite such a sudden, unexpected and profound impact on our work.
It has meant the speedy desertion of our office at St Michael Paternoster Royal. More importantly, it has made it very difficult to sustain much of our front-line work across the world. In the light of national and local regulation, and in pursuit of best practice, most of our Seafarer Centres have had to close. Similarly, our transport services are now very limited indeed. Where it is allowed, ship visiting continues – but only as far as the gangway, with full distancing and hygiene measures observed. Sustaining a significant pastoral conversation at 2 metres, perhaps with a mask on as well, can be difficult. However, at least some contact can be maintained, and some help offered.
Even where ship visiting is not allowed, many chaplains and teams have been proactive, for example in preparing care packages for others to take on board. Some very good stories have emerged. A few of these have been picked up by local and national media. The delivery of requested supplies to the gangway has been particularly valued by crew. In some cases, exchange takes place via a bucket lowered from the deck above. Sometimes the old technologies are still the best! The determination, courage and creativity shown by many of our teams is a source of proper pride.
All this has come at a time of great anxiety and challenge for the seafarers we serve. Closure of borders and a radical reduction in airline capacity have made it very difficult for seafarers to transit to and from ships. That has meant that many have been unable to leave at the end of their contracts and are having to work extended time. Others due to join ships have been unable to do so, causing financial hardship. Often crew are denied shore leave when arriving in ports, and even where it is permitted there is often no access to shops, medical facilities and seafarer centres. Many seafarers are very worried about families back home. MtS has been proactive in working with partners to flag these issues up at the highest levels.
All this has had a big impact on the morale of the crew and on their mental health. Ironically, perhaps the restrictions now placed on many of us have caused us to experience isolation which is perhaps just giving us a hint of the daily life of a seafarer. It is my hope that this is one of those moments when the world will sit up and recognise just how vital seafarers are to their daily lives. Against a very challenging background, they are keeping the supply lines moving, including food and medical goods. Without them, we would really begin to know the meaning of empty shelves! Alongside others, they deserve our profound thanks and warmest applause. These amazing men and women are heroes and heroines indeed!
In the middle of all this difficulty so much is happening. I have already mentioned efforts made at the front line. In addition, digital chaplaincy has become very important. Many chaplains already sustain relationships with their seafarer networks via social media. Many have significantly enhanced this aspect of ministry. In addition, in very short order, we have created a “Chat to a Chaplain” facility. This enables seafarers to connect instantly to one of 25 chaplains on duty around the clock. They are able to respond with friendship, advice, emotional and spiritual support – perhaps even a prayer. We are working closely with ICMA and this programme has strong ecumenical elements alongside its MtS focus. Five of the chaplains will be from our ecumenical partners. I am delighted with the very rapid way in which this has evolved and believe it is something not just for now but for the future.
We are also pioneering new approaches to challenge events and a more digital approach to Sea Sunday. These are difficult days, but they are also days for opportunity and exploration.