Reaching out to US partners

The Mission is proud to support the Houston and Point Comfort seafarers centres

By Verity Relph

How to ensure that as many seafarers as possible have access to port welfare services? Data from the Seafarers Happiness Index suggests that there are many who do not have sufficient access to welfare facilities ashore. In part, this is down to barriers such as shore leave restrictions, but there are also ports around the world where welfare support and facilities are limited or simply do not exist.

Reaching more seafarers across all vessel types is a key feature of the Mission to Seafarers’ (MtS) current strategic plan, and one region of focus has been the US.

MtS has enjoyed a relationship with several American stations over the years, but its main connections are with Baltimore on the East Coast and Seattle on the West. With many ports in the US serviced by relatively small, independent welfare groups, MtS has been working to establish new partnerships in several ports with a view to enhancing welfare services for visiting crews.

The ever-expanding Port of Houston is one of the largest in the US and covers around 52 miles of waterway. It includes eight public terminals and is ranked the 10th largest container port in the world. The port is served by the ecumenical Houston International Seafarers’ Center (HISC), which has been operating since 1963.

Since October 2023, MtS has been providing a chaplain to provide pastoral care and practical assistance to seafarers visiting the port, adding to the services already provided by HISC.

The Revd Thomas Morrow has perhaps one of the most extraordinary backgrounds of all MtS chaplains. Prior to joining MtS, Thomas lived with his family in Zambia where he ran a successful orphanage.

Though incredibly humble, he recognises how his experiences enrich his role as port chaplain. “My extensive experiences living in over 20 countries around the world and learning many of their customs, cultures, and languages have given me a unique ability to connect with the diverse group of foreign sailors I encounter,” he says. “These life experiences allow me to relate to them on a personal level and offer support and understanding.

“Additionally, raising my six children in a village in Zambia has provided me with a profound understanding of the challenges families in developing countries face,” he adds.

Having a strong port chaplaincy presence in Houston means seafarers spending long periods away from their families have access to a friendly face and listening ear, and stress and mental health support if they need it. They also have access to practical assistance, such as transportation, internet and language translation services. Thomas adds that it is also about “finding a sense of community and companionship” while they are in port.

Improving well-being

“Overall, a port chaplaincy presence in Houston is crucial for the well-being of seafarers visiting the port,” says Thomas. “It enhances their quality of life, provides essential support, and helps them navigate the challenges they may face during their time at the port.”

One recent incident that vividly illustrates the importance of a chaplaincy presence is that of a container ship that encountered disaster at the start of the year. While refuelling, the vessel had caught fire, causing the deaths of two crew members and leaving one with burns and severe lung damage.

On hearing the news, Thomas went immediately to the terminal, where he provided pastoral support to the Russian, Ukrainian and Tanzanian crew, who were in a state of shock. Over the next several days, Thomas continued to visit the crew, accompanying them to Walmart to buy essentials and supporting them in the aftermath of the incident. He continues to visit the Tanzanian seafarer who was badly hurt in the fire and is still recovering in hospital. After many weeks, he is making good progress and is finally able to speak and walk again. It is the ongoing support and also the small gestures, such as gifting the seafarer a Texas baseball cap, which make a difference.

Some 100 miles west of Houston is another port where MtS has formed another new partnership.

Point Comfort is a chemical port on Lavaca Bay in Texas. The ecumenical ministry team provide a range of services, including ship visiting, transportation, shopping and a special ‘Christmas at Sea’ programme, taking gifts from the local community on board during the festive season. They first began ship visiting in 2019, but a seafarers’ centre in the port had been a long hoped for dream.

Rhonda Cummins, president of the Point Comfort Seafarers Center, and fellow board member Tom Wise took on the mighty task of effectively building the new centre themselves. They spent many months measuring, painting, and doing all manner of construction work with donated materials.

The new centre, made up of two small buildings joined together, was opened in May 2023. It is located inside the secured port area, meaning seafarers can easily walk there from their vessels.

Open 24 hours seven days a week, the centre gives crew space for rest and relaxation. They have access to free Wi-Fi, books, TV, a pool table, refreshments and a chapel.

Making an impact

The response to the new centre has been fantastic: “The centre is being used at all hours of the day and night as crew members are off duty,” says Rhonda. “Most visitors are signing the guest- book and many leave comments. One of the best said our ‘centre was petit but complete’. Some of the guys send notes of thanks through Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and email. We have even had notes and photos left in the centre for us to find.

“I have been told that it means the world to them. Having a place off the ship where they can relax, communicate with their families, update computer software, activate devices (all on the free internet), enjoy basketball and billiards or take a quiet moment in the chapel area is critical for their well-being. Being able to offer them that respite is an amazing opportunity.”

Rhonda knows only too well how challenging a life at sea can be. “I used to work on boats and was away from home when good and bad things happened,” she comments. “I have taken my memories of the loneliness and isolation along with ones of strangers that helped me along the way to guide my efforts. It is important to let our seafarers know they are not forgotten or alone. We try to make them feel welcome in port, sharing smiles and friendly conversation.”

The team in Point Comfort are indefatigable, with further additions to the centre still underway. “Smaller details are coming together,” says Rhonda, “including our outdoor basketball court, other outdoor games and hopefully a herb garden. A snack vending machine is coming soon and we will learn what items the seafarers want us to stock.”

The new centre has increased their visibility in the port, helping to expand their team of volunteers and educate the extended community about the port and seafarers. But above all, it is a place where seafarers can relax and recuperate away from ship.

“It is very meaningful to have a presence here,” says Rhonda. “Because the port is small, it allows for more personal attention. With returning ships we are able to build friendships and learn from each other.”

Verity Relph is the grants and impact manager at The Mission to Seafarers.