Andrew’s March Blog 2023

27th March 2023
I am having an exciting week in Panama. Panama is one of the great maritime hubs, with its magnificent canal, key to global shipping movements and world trade, and several important ports.

It lives and breathes maritime. We began work there in 2018, inspired by Dr John Meredith CBE, himself a seafarer before leading transformative change and development in port infrastructure around the world. A long-time friend of MtS and resident in Panama, he has been integral in all that has happened.

In 2018, Fr. Ian Hutchinson Cervantes was appointed as Chaplain and Regional Director – Latin América and Port Chaplain – Panamá. He has led with dynamism, deep faith, and extraordinary determination – which he combines with an intense level of engaged compassion for seafarers. The early months were frustrating in a place not familiar with maritime welfare. While Ian may not appear to be the door-kicking type, he has done just that. With the help of our Director of Programme, Ben Bailey (who himself did his fair share of door damage) – and assisted by some key relationships and agreements, including a formal one with the Maritime Authority here (signed at the IMO) – we began to make progress.

Visiting now, not yet five years later, I am seeing dramatic progress. We are well-established and clearly very well-known and respected in the ports. Port workers stop and chat with Ian when on his way to the ships, regularly asking for a prayer or a blessing. During the pandemic and assisted by Andrea Meenken (of whom more later) and some wonderful volunteers, he has sustained an extraordinary ministry against that background of intense stress. “A mental health epidemic paralleling the pandemic”, as Ian described it. Regular readers of this blog will recall some of his shopping exploits, including 28 pairs of shoes delivered to one ship. With shore leave limited, that work continues. This has been a five-year journey of immense progress and energy.

And so to the next chapter. I am here this week with Matthias Ristau, General Secretary of the Deutsche Seemannsmission, to launch our new partnership. Andrea Meenken has been one of our volunteers here (although she had formerly worked with the DSM in Germany). Now she has been taken on formally as a DSM Chaplain. In addition, we are employing a third chaplain, jointly funded by both organisations. We plan to work together in full coordination under a shared name of The Seafarers Mission – Panama. Both logos will stand side by side.

I am delighted by this initiative which is in line with our strategic commitment to partnership and which will bring fresh people and financial resources, enabling expanded work. Looking to the future, we have big ideas in mind for expanding welfare in this maritime hub – including potential anchorage work or even “sailing chaplains” accompanying ships through their canal passage. Our partnership was launched at an event hosted by British Ambassador to Panama, Tim Stew MBE, at his Residence (Tim is also our Patron in Panama) in the presence of a large number of distinguished guests, many of whom have been key to our progress here.

It has been great to see some of Panama’s ports, to meet with maritime authorities, government officials, the Chamber of Shipping, the Bishop of Panama, clergy and church people, our excellent and passionate local committee, pilots, port authorities, and many more besides. This work, like all our work, demands a partnership in every sense of that word. It is brilliant when you see it in action.

Of course, Panama also hosts the world’s largest ship registry. This makes our relationships there even more important. Panama is to be thanked for its leadership during the pandemic in relation to crew change (and it was great to see a dedicated seafarers’ immigration lane at the airport) and crew vaccination – and our Chairman and team were closely involved in making the latter happen. Shore leave is slowly coming back, here as in so many other places, but our team are encouraging it to be facilitated as easily as possible in the new environment. It is so important for mental health!

I am staying alongside the canal, an amazing place to watch the ship convoys coming through – and I thoroughly recommend a trip to see the locks in action!

So, an exciting time in an exciting place to witness exciting developments. I am inspired and proud, as in so many of my visits. Next week, Costa Rica where our work is also new but further behind the curve. I hope to help the opening-up process. I will no doubt be further inspired.

With continuing thanks to you all.

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