Personal touches make lasting connections

MtS chaplains bring considered gifts to crews to let them know that they are cared for

By Verity Relph

Most of the world will never get the chance to hear about, never mind taste, a Welsh cake, but the port chap- laincy team in South Wales makes sure visiting crews get to experience this local delicacy. These homemade cakes, and the many other gifts that are handed out to seafarers around the world, are a central part of the work of The Mission to Seafarers. This goes hand in hand with ministry, sharing hospitality and welcome, saying thank you to seafarers and offering help.

The gifts vary enormously from country to country and port to port. In Busan, South Korea, they show respect for different cultures by preparing cookies and cakes for national holidays, such as Myanmar Day and Philippines Day. In Rouen, France they hand out miniature Eiffel towers, while in Seattle they prepare holiday ‘ditty bags’ for seafarers, homemade sewn bags containing hand-knitted woolly hats, toiletries, playing cards and sweets.

The Revd Cristi Chapman, executive director of the Seattle Seafarers Center, gives an example of how the bags can act as a gesture of goodwill to seafarers, crossing cultural and religious divides: “Ken Hawkins, my predecessor, always tells the story about a Hindu seafarer who was unsure whether to accept a bag because he was not Christian, and Ken responded by saying, “here, take two!”

Many ports offer something local to the area, allowing seafarers to get a taste of the country they are in. In Panama, for instance, crews are welcomed to the port with gifts of Panamanian coffee and chocolates. With most crews unable to get ashore, this has been a particularly poignant gesture during the pandemic.

In other parts of the world, gift giving has a special cultural significance. In the port of Yokohama it is inspired by the Japanese custom of always taking a gift when you visit someone. “When arriving at a home, bringing along a small gift, called omiyage in Japanese, of snacks or fruit is always appreciated,” Andrew Dangerfield, port chaplain in Yokohama, explains. “It doesn’t have to be expensive or big but putting it in a nice bag and presenting it in a polite manner is a central part of Japanese culture.

“While giving a gift, most Japanese people say “tsumaranai mono desu ga” which means, “it’s nothing special but here is a little something for you”. It’s a humble way of offering thanks without making it a big deal. We put local Japanese snacks into a bag for the entire crew to share. The reaction is always positive, and the seafarers receive them with thanks.”

Impact of Covid-19

The practice of giving gifts has been challenging during the pandemic, with chaplaincy teams only able to meet crews at the bottom of gangways, if they are lucky.

Monica Park, port chaplain in Busan, has seen first-hand the effect that these small gifts can have: “Crew always show a way of thanks like bowing or saying “thank you” loudly because we have to keep away. Just a few days ago, I left the gifts on the gangway, and the Myanmar crew member picked them up and went back to the deck. When I got into the driver’s seat, I saw him raising his arm and he waved until I left. I was so moved.”

With face-to-face contact so limited, the gifts have also been an important way for teams to show that they and the rest of the world still care and that seafarers are not forgotten about. As Cristi in Seattle reflects: “When we didn’t know what else to do, when everyone was in intense lockdown and all we knew about the virus was that it was dangerous and very scary, it was the gift giving that helped refocus us and remind us of the core of our ministry.

Gift giving was the first (and only) thing we could do for a while, and it helped us regain our footing to find new and different ways to connect with seafarers. Generosity provided the way forward and ended up being an antidote to fear and uncertainty.”