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A “Global” Ministry with Seafarers

An LTSP seminarian movingly describes his field work interaction with seafarers from around the world and pays tribute to those who deliver at great risk and cost to themselves the goods on which we depend

By Jonathan Westerlund

Jonathan Westerlund with a crew member

Jonathan Westerlund with a crew member

I’ve had the unique opportunity to serve at the Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey as a part of my field education experience at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP).

This ministry focuses on caring for merchant seafarers. These men and women serve aboard ships that bring almost 90 percent of the goods we use every day to our country —clothing, electronics, fruit, fuel, steel, gasoline, oil, chemicals, rock salt, cement, etc. These huge vessels typically have crews of 20-25 people who serve for 6-9 months at a time or more while separated from family and friends.

As chaplains, our focus is pastoral care. We serve the seafarers’ needs: spiritual, emotional, and physical.  We sit with them in their homesickness. We transport them to get necessities, gifts, and items to keep them from going stir-crazy and feeling lonely during brief shore leaves, if they are fortunate enough to have permission for such leaves. We supply them access to internet and phone cards so they can talk with their loved ones. We advocate for them when pay is being withheld or when they are being treated poorly. We pray for them, worship with them, and support them in whatever way is needed. This is a much-needed ministry, and one that is unknown to most people, although these seafarers, working “behind the scenes” make it possible for store shelves and auto dealerships to be stocked to meet our needs.

Chaplain Bill Rex and Jonathan Westerlund with a ship's crew

Chaplain Bill Rex and Jonathan Westerlund with a ship’s crew

Last week I had the opportunity to assist my Field Ed supervisor (Pastor Bill Rex, Seafarers International House chaplain working in conjunction with SCI Philadelphia) during a Eucharist Service aboard a ship named Tectonicus, a bulk carrier, bringing steel to the Fairless Terminal on the Delaware River in Bucks County. Fairless is the northernmost Pennsylvania berthing place in the Port of Philadelphia. This crew had requested a “mass”, especially as they haven’t had an opportunity for worship in some time — most ships are in port for less than 48 hours, some as little as six hours so don’t have time to do much of anything — let alone worship.

As we began the worship service we offered individual blessing and anointment. This activity was so powerful for me, as powerful as for the seafarers, if not more. They approached me with reverence and gratitude as I made the sign of the cross on their foreheads and prayed for them personally in the name of the Triune God.

Chaplain Bil Rex ministering to a crew member

Chaplain Bil Rex ministering to a crew member

Through this service, the seafarers seemed to feel close to God again, sense that God was watching over each of them individually. As we blessed their ship, I could see the confidence rise in their chests. They hadn’t had a blessing or had someone pray for them in so long, that the reminder strengthened them and their relationship with God.

As the liturgy progressed, we shared the Eucharist. Again we were approached with such strong reverence, and afterward one seafarer grasped my hands strongly with intense gratitude. He bowed his head to shield his eyes as tears welled up and he repeatedly said “Thank you.” In that moment and many more while aboard ship I felt the Holy Spirit moving around and through us. I felt Christ’s love and the Creator’s sheltering hand holding us. I felt a moment of peace and together we found sacred space in the common place of the mess hall in a merchant vessel.

Chaplain Bill Rex speaking with a crew member

Chaplain Bill Rex speaking with a crew member

I’ve been blessed to be a part of this ministry, a ministry which I’ve seen as a true “ministry of presence.” I’ve met people from almost every part of the world, sat with believers of many different religions, and heard the concerns of crew members of every position, whether it’s the lowest man on the totem pole who’s frustrated because his contract keeps on getting extended by his company, keeping him away from his family for an unexpectedly long period, or a captain going through a difficult medical examination, or a chief officer who just found out that his childhood friend passed away, and he can’t get home to attend the funeral.

These are extreme anecdotes, but as I board a ship, I never know what has happened or what to expect, never know what these seafarers are going through, but I pray that for a few moments, Christ’s love can shine through me.

The author, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church in Rocky Point, New York, is a middler at LTSP, enjoying classes this semester in Old Testament, preaching, contemporary Lutheran theology, and youth ministry and formation. “I am more of a hands on person, and so field work is important to me,” he said. “I hope to serve in parish ministry. If the parish I serve is close to the port I would love to involve the congregation with seafarer ministry in addition to my serving as a port chaplain.”

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