Four years into my time at The Mission to Seafarers I have just made my first, and long overdue visit, to our work in India and Sri Lanka. We work in four places in India and two in Sri Lanka. We have a fabulous team of chaplains, working against challenging circumstances.
My visit highlighted a number of themes which are of relevance not only to India and Sri Lanka but have a bearing on the whole Mission. In Mumbai, the vigorous work we have done over the last two years in opening our operation at JNPT, India’s largest container port, continues to be hampered by a number of issues and the rigours of Indian bureaucracy. Our work there is based around an innovative partnership with a duty-free operator, with whom we will share a building from which we will operate both a transport service (bus already in place) and a ship visiting service. Such creative partnerships are precisely amongst those things we need to explore as we move forward. However, obtaining the necessary port passes and licenses has proved far more difficult than we could ever imagine. I hope my visit will have helped move things forward but we will see. In the meantime, the Chaplain is working vigorously to ensure progress and is relating to as many seafarers and their families as he can.
This issue of port passes is a big one in India – but also elsewhere. In one port where we have been working happily for many years, port passes were suddenly withdrawn this week. Even in some Europe ports we face difficulty. It is becoming a major issue and a threat to our work. Sometimes it arises because those responsible have no experience of seafaring and do not understand where our work fits in – it does not seem to align with some of the boxes they have in front of them. It is a major concern on which we need significant work.
In Mangalore, another of our ports, I attended an excellent two-day conference. This conference drew together representatives from all the dioceses of the Church of South India. Together we were exploring the launch of a Seafarers Family Network for India. We heard movingly from a number of seafarer families about the stress they face and how we might help. We look forward to seeing this project take shape over the coming months – another step in our commitment to developing comprehensive and effective family work. Of note was that this was an initiative from the church which we, in partnership with the Sailor’s Society, is seeking to encourage, help and support. It is so good when the energy comes from the ground!
In Chennai, I preached in the church of St Mary, the oldest Anglican church east of Suez, and the one where Clive of India was married. There the vicar is also a highly effective and engaged Honorary Chaplain, one who models precisely how that role can work.
In Tuticorin, I saw what is surely one of the world’s most attractive Centres, run by a dynamic chaplain and his excellent team. Their work has included the support of the imprisoned crew of the Seaman Guard Ohio, work which has been sacrificial and has created a number of difficulties for them. We still await the outcome of the most recent appeal in that case. While in Tuticorin I also travelled to a village mainly made up of seafarers, fishermen and their families. I met with many of them in the local church where I heard at first hand some of their concerns and some of the support they felt they needed. Of grave concern remains the fact that many of them find themselves in financial difficulty as a result of having to pay very large sums of money to dubious agents in order to obtain work. This is a very major problem which The Mission to Seafarers will continue to work with others to address.
In Sri Lanka our Chaplain in Colombo, Father Crispus, is a remarkable man who has the most incredible stories, both about the many years he spent working in the heart of civil war country and of the impact of the Boxing Day Tsunami on him and his village – he buried 80 bodies, many of them well known to him, on the first day alone. The Mission in Sri Lanka is respected and appreciated locally, although the Centre faces all the challenges with which we are all so familiar. I was surprised at the large size of the port, recently extended, and we were able to discuss some significant plans for the future and, as elsewhere, to meet key players within port, church and community.
My final stop was Galle in the far south of Sri Lanka. There the focus of our interest, alongside a small level of commercial shipping, is the huge fishing fleet of 600 boats. Each of these is manned by 6 crew who go far out for around a month at a time, in boats which are comparatively small for the size of the crew. Again we heard of challenges for families and the crew themselves. Fishing is, of course, increasingly a focus of our thinking alongside our traditional work with commercial shipping. There is no doubt of the need.
It is great to see such work at first hand, to meet the people, ensure mission teams of their value in the context of the global mission family and observe the challenges for myself. Such visits are vital as we develop our strategic thinking in a changing world. Sometimes, perhaps, I am able to help move things forward a little – I do hope so – but what I can certainly do is ensure that I bring something of their story to our wider community. To you! Please keep them and their many challenges in your thoughts and prayers. Their challenges are our challenges, their concerns and frustrations are surely ours as well. The New Testament speaks of the church as a body, where the different limbs and parts cannot exist alone but are all part of one whole. Such it is for the church. Such it is for The Mission to Seafarers.