“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us”. John Steinbeck
Shortly after I started to work for the Mission to Seafarers’, I read this seemingly rather dire warning. It then proceeded to float around in my thoughts for a few weeks like an annoying pop song. This was probably because I had started a new journey myself far from the usual rhythm of parish life. However, as the days turned into weeks, I could see that the words didn’t really apply to me at all, but those I had been sent to serve; the people who bring us over 90% of the goods we enjoy.
These are the people who, from the decks of their ships, see the hidden landscapes of our towns and cities, the places where the public no longer wish to, or cannot venture. This might be all many seafarers see. The constant drive to efficiency, the reduced number of crew on ships and the speed of discharging and loading cargo, means that time ashore is reduced and rare. All too often, the hours of their days are spent working or sleeping, as time blurs into weeks, months and years.
Ship visitors and port chaplains visit these people, to hear their truth and be a presence, being willing to help in any way they can. In the last 100 days, I have prayed, offered cakes, literature, woolly hats and scarves. I have heard about beautiful lands from people who wish they were back home with their families, I have heard from older seafarers who have had to go back to sea because their children and grandchildren can’t find work, and I have been asked the big questions about life, death, faith, love and suffering.
I have been with seafarers’ in those liminal spaces that sit at the edge of some of our towns and cities, not quite within and not quite without, where every ship extends a warm welcome, without exception. There seems to be an understanding that I am there to listen and learn. Seafarers’ never merely take what I offer, there is always an exchange: I receive knowledge, information, and sometimes unanswerable questions that help me to understand the importance of the work of the Mission to Seafarers’. There is something revolutionary about seeking out those who are almost invisible to everyday society, whilst wandering with purpose through the ports, to see what God has to offer.
I have made mistakes. There are some questions that seafarers’ find difficult to answer. Any question about the future, is usually met with a kind of wistfulness. The answers usually go something like ‘Today we know, tomorrow is uncertain, beyond this we know little or nothing.’ I have noticed that they seem to measure their journeys not simply in distance between ports, but the manner in which the journey has informed them about life, faith and humanity.
Close to the beautiful and terrifying power of creation and far from the assurances of family life at home, uncertainty is always present. For us ashore this would be a disaster, we like to place our events and appointments in diaries which stretch through the next weeks and months. We seek certainties in our lives if nothing else to give us an illusion of control. It is not so for seafarers: As the days remaining in their time at sea counts down, the weight of time bears heavy, waiting features prominently and any sense of having any power, or the ability to control their own destiny, seems distant.
I have found seafarers asking me for souvenirs; fridge magnets, postcards and badges, anything that represents the nation, city or port. Initially, I thought this was just a hobby for a few seafarers who collected such things. Recently, I discovered that these have a much more important task. They are to mark the passing of time, reminding them of where they have been, so that the days, weeks and months might not become a blur. One wise and almost mystic chief engineer said: “If you can’t remember where you’ve been, the journey seems to be never-ending.”
Steinbeck’s keen social perception of being ‘taken by a trip’ is present for seafarers’. If you visit a ship in port, you will meet older seafarers, full of stories of what they would do if they had their time again. Then there are younger seafarers, full of excitement as they visit new lands for the first time. Then there are those seafarers who seem to be lost on the journey, taken, waiting until they can find context in their lives once again.
I have heard the most deeply moving and haunting words used to describe life at sea, and it is a privilege to listen to their truth. The practical help the Mission to Seafarers’ offers is comprehensive, however, it is the time and presence that is much more difficult to quantify. These pauses are when we really glimpse the world of the seafarer, even only for a few moments: it informs what we do and helps us to focus on the issues that affect these people that work so hard for us.
Mental ill-health is common amongst seafarers’ and particularly difficult to recognise. Cultural differences mean that some might be less likely to explain how they feel. For others, the concept of pastoral care is distant on their own difficult and dangerous journey. For others, the challenges of the job mean that some have little time to speak. The presence of the Mission to Seafarers’ extends beyond the barriers of culture and language, to that shared humanity – we visit to hear of the trip which has taken them, physically, mentally and spiritually.
There is something of the beauty of God in a ministry which drives us from the comfort of our own surroundings to meet those in need of any kind, never quite knowing what we will find. There is also something of God’s purpose in seeking out those who serve us well, in a society which rarely acknowledges their service, but completely relies on them.
In my first 100 days, I have spoken and preached many times to support the work of the Mission to Seafarers’ at churches and groups across Wales, from the North to the South. I usually tell people facts about the shipping industry. One such fact reminds us that a single bulk carrier can carry enough bananas to give one to every person living in the whole of Europe and North America, this is 748 million bananas. People are genuinely surprised at this fact because it is difficult to imagine that many bananas. I have also come to realise that this fact isn’t really that helpful. Recently, that I also learned that globally there are 50,000 merchant navy ships, 1.5 million seafarers’ that work in conditions that can be difficult, dangerous or lonely. There are over 2,600 casualties a year and the loneliness, separation and depression mean that the rate of suicide is three times that of shore workers.
These are the statistics that should surprise people – these are the statistics that should make people think about the 1.5 million people without whom the world wouldn’t be the same.
So, in 100 days I have learned a dozen new things every day. Information from seafarers’ who in exchange for my presence give me valuable information about the truth of their lives. Of how a journey has taken them across the world, and how difficult it is to still feel part of the world in which they live.