A FRIEND recently asked me why I am involved in a ministry to seafarers at the Seamen's Church Institute (SCI). The real question probably is: Why is this ministry important?
SCI is an ecumenical ministry of chaplains and ship visitors who board about 1,800 ships yearly at 28 terminals along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In these visits we inquire about the needs of the seafarers, who spend nine to 10 months at sea, and provide communication and transportation services to them. Theirs is a most lonely life, and we bring a moment of grace in their lives before they head back out to sea. At times we will also be their advocates in wages and working- conditions disputes.
I have been a priest in the Episcopal Church for 35 years, the last 10 at SCI. Two things about my faith undergird this ministry.
The first is my understanding of hospitality as rooted in the Bible. The biblical writers reminded the people that since they were once strangers and sojourners in a foreign land, they needed to attend to the needs of the stranger as well.
The stranger may, in fact, be God himself. Abraham found that out when he entertained the three strangers by his tent in the wilderness. The strongest image of hospitality comes from the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (25th chapter of Matthew) when Jesus said, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me. . . . As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me."
If you have ever traveled to a foreign country, it is quite normal to feel a sense of vulnerability and fear. Most of the seafarers who come here experience the same thing. They are grateful for our hospitality, which goes beyond simple hosting, however. We are concerned about their spiritual, emotional and physical well-being. The simple acts of caring are often most important for the seafarer.
The second thing I have is a passion for justice and fair treatment of seafarers. Working in a largely unregulated working environment, seafarers are sometimes exploited and treated badly. When crews are not paid for months at a time, their families must sell their possessions to eat and often lose their homes to foreclosure. In these situations, the seafarers need an advocate who will intercede on their behalf. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, maritime chaplains willingly confront the owners and captains who are exploiting seafarers and make them accountable. While we may never see these seafarers ever again, we know that they are very appreciative of the strength of this witness. *