Secretary General Andrew Wright Visits the Mission in Australia

27th May 2016

During these last ten days visiting the Mission to Seafarers in Australia, not only have I experienced once again that characteristic and generous Australian hospitality (despite England’s recent victory in the Ashes series – the men’s one that is!) but I have also been inspired by so much that I have seen. I began in Albany (be careful about the pronunciation – I got it wrong!) where Mission to Seafarers is celebrating 50 years presence in the port.

This MtS operation highlights one of the great strengths of MtS Australia – a strong tradition of volunteering. Lead volunteer Norm Stevens, together with his wife Jane, has been working with the Mission for 24 years – driving the bus, visiting ships and giving the kind of passionate support to seafarers which they will never get. The community of Albany gathered in some numbers for a celebration service and reception afterwards. Many stories were told of the changes which have been seen in this relatively small (around 160 ship visits a year) but lively port. MtS is clearly in very good heart here…and yes I saw my first wild kangaroos and even a distant whale in this beautiful part of the world.

On to Fremantle port, where the large MtS operation is well known and loved by so many seafarers – a fact reflected in its recent award by International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN). This work is headed up by the equally well known chaplain, a legend in fact, the long serving Dennis Claughton. It has not been an easy year for the region with the economic reality of a collapse in raw material prices and this has impacted on the Centre. However, the MtS operation plays a vital role in the port and is very well respected. A key focus of the large team here is an extensive transport operation , regularly linking inner and outer harbours (the latter an hour’s drive away from town)  with port, centre, city and airport. Regular transport services operate throughout the day and the evening and provide a vital lifeline for seafarers, who also clearly enjoy the extensive facilities of the Centre. As elsewhere, there are many, many stories of the ways in which lives have been changed, sometimes dramatically, and issues resolved by the quality of care given here.

From Fremantle I headed a long, long way north to remote Port Hedland, the world’s largest iron ore exporting port. The statistics are staggering. Equally staggering is the MtS Centre, hosting 4000 seafarers a month, providing a high level of facility, including the best and most modern Centre supermarket I have seen anywhere in the world. In addition it runs a small fleet of different size buses and operates water taxis. These latter bring crew from the ships, allowing them to access both Centre and town. These water taxis, without losing any seafarer focus, are also used to take tourists on tours of the harbour, introducing them to the world of ships, to the lives of their crews and to the seafarers themselves. Chaplain Alan Mower is a truly dynamic force, heading up a strong team, and showing probably the best entrepreneurial skill I have seen in any Mission in the world. It was impressive and inspiring. Here I also met some key managers from the mining company, discovering the high value they place on the vital services of the Mission to Seafarers not just in Port Hedland but also in nearby (relatively!) Dampier where excellent Chaplain Ian McGilvray recently dealt with the tragedy of six deaths in one week (five seafarers and one harbour worker), as a result of four different incidents, a stark reminder of the ongoing dangers of this industry, despite so much progress in safety.

And so I moved south and east, flying to Hobart , Tasmania, for the very important celebration of the centenary of MtS in that city. In fact the celebration service took place on the exact anniversary of the opening day – August 30th, 1915, no doubt when many of its young men were away fighting in Gallipoli and elsewhere. Again the community, headed up by the Governor, gathered in force for a great service of thanksgiving, organised by Chaplain Bruce Mitchell supported by his committee and volunteers. The Centre itself is an iconic building on the front, ideally situated especially for the crew of the many visiting cruise vessels which make up a high level of the port’s shipping. Again a bus is run to the more remote parts of the port. Internally the Centre is in the midst of a makeover and modernisation and I look forward to seeing the result. Clearly visiting seafarers clearly value the ministry here greatly. Of particular note was my amazing meeting with Jack Tomes who has been volunteering here for 78 years!

These four ports behind me, I am now at a fifth, Australia’s Newcastle New South Wales, another huge bulk port, this time exporting more coal than any other port in the world. I am here for the Regional conference, which brings together Mission to Seafarers teams from the 27 locations where we are currently present in Australia. On view is the passion for seafarers, and the passion for the Christian faith which lies at the core of all we do, which I remember so vividly from last time. These are all independent stations, self-funding and dependent on their own efforts, large and small, some all-volunteer and some with paid staff. This gives them a particular vibrancy which is so, so important.

The theme of the conference is “Over the Horizon” and together we are looking at how the Mission to Seafarers goes forward in Australia over the coming years. There are many challenges, shared across the world, as we adapt to a changing shipping industry, as we seek to bring in new chaplains and recruit a new generation of volunteers, as we seek to raise profile and find the funds that can ensure sustainability, as we seek strong partnership with others and as our ministry develops in new ports – and excitingly it looks as if the Chaplain in Dampier, after long efforts, will at last see a new Centre at the vital nearby Port of Cape Lambert.

The Mission to Seafarers is very much alive and well in Australia and there is much to learn from it. It is “hats off” from the Secretary General who will leave feeling very positive and with much “best practice” to share. In the meantime it is back to the conference room and on to one final port……Sydney.

Andrew Wright – Secretary General

Twitter: @RevWright58

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