By Warren & Virginia Paulson
A mission field comes directly to our shores in the form of freighter crews from all over the world stopping at U.S. ports. They are only in port long enough to unload their cargo of imports and load another of exports. But while in port, seafarer missions help meet their needs and have opportunity to deal with special concerns.
We knew the port of Savannah was large, but it is more vast than we imagined. There are four sections. The main one is for container ships, but there is also the oil ship section, the bulk section such as for Caterpillar heavy duty equipment exports and automobile imports, and the sugar company and ships that bring in sugar for it.
Most of our volunteer service is at the container port but occasionally at the sugar port. We need to wear safety glasses when we go on ships there, beside our usual steel-toed shoes, yellow or orange vests, and hard helmets. At the sugar depot our car gets covered with sugar dust, but most of it blows off as we drive.
These ports are all next to each other along the Savannah River. To get in and out we go through security with three picture ID’s around our necks. We drive near the ships but constantly have to be alert to what is going on in all directions, including above and below us.
The moveable cranes which lift the semi-trailer-size containers on and off the ships are horseshoe or upside down U-shaped and 10 stories high. Containers are lifted directly off or onto the semi trailers, so there is a constant stream of trucks. We need to be cautious when driving or walking from our car to the ship! It’s awesome.
The gangways are along the side of the ship, and we walk up their 50 to 90 steps to get aboard, then sign in and receive a visitor’s pass. Port workers are friendly, courteous, and helpful. We have found that is true of most people in Savannah. Most of the crews know some English which of course helps with communication.
Crew members often need U.S. phone SIM cards, phone calling cards, and transportation to shopping areas. The mission provides them for a recommended donation which covers the cost and provides some support for expenses.
Transportation provided is much cheaper than taxi cabs. It is free to the Seaman’s Club or mission house where we have a room, bathroom, and shared kitchen. Those who have stayed here before or currently have not kept the place as it should be, so Virginia has been doing a lot of cleaning to get things in shape.
At this mission house there is free WiFi, and phone booths which connect directly with an international operator. Thus the seafarers can email or phone home. Many bring their own laptops with Skype and make use of the WiFi. In the midst of these activities they can talk with us about personal problems or concerns and spiritual matters.
Besides helping to clean and straighten the Mission House we serve the crew members with a listening ear and counsel. We have had the opportunity to run services and bible studies and we try to share Jesus with each person we meet through these activities and prayer. We are grateful to our Lord and for the strength and guidance which He provides.
One of the early times we boarded a ship an anxious young seafarer met me before we signed in, and seeing “Chaplain” on my helmet immediately began talking about difficulties he was having with his captain. I asked him to come along with me to where we could talk privately.
I listened as he said the captain had reported him to the company head, and he was afraid he would lose his job and be sent home. I said I could talk with the captain if he wanted, but probably the captain would only defend the report and his criticisms.
He agreed it would be better if I would check with the chaplain director of the Bethel Maritime Mission for suggestions and get back that afternoon with him. I had a prayer with him and later got back to him with a contact number from the Seafarers Welfare Society who would advise him on the matter.
We are grateful to our Lord and for the strength and guidance which He provides.
On another occasion at the Mission House when only one seaman was there he spoke with Virginia on a family concern of great personal importance for both him and his wife. He requested prayer since he would be going home on furlough soon. They prayed and wept in a significant personal, emotional, and meaningful time together.
Crew members would often express that they felt alone in their faith, for not many on board were Christians or interested in Bible study or spiritual matters. Those who were Christians frequently desired a Communion service, which I would often conduct on a Saturday or Sunday evening at the Mission house.
The sermon would include a true story of an experience on the sea. When speaking on Titus 3:1-7 and the grace of God I told of the life of Isaac Newton, the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” who spent much of his younger life on the sea and prior to his conversion had been captain of a slave ship. A popular hymn, its stanzas express experiences with which many people identify.
During the service I would ask for volunteers to read the two selected Scripture readings, and there were always two who would speak up. Following the service I would give the readers a copy of “Water Words,” which is a contemporary translation of all the passages in the Bible which speak of water, the sea, or fishing. It is the translation we use in the services.
On one such occasion another seafarer from the same ship requested a copy, which I gave him, and encouraged them to use it in Bible study together. On other occasions the men would ask that I pen them a note and sign it. I made it personal for each and included my e-mail address should they wish to contact me after our two-month service was over.
One impressive moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget was when there were only two men present who had requested a Bible class. We concluded it with communion. As I began to speak the words of consecration they both spontaneously joined in reciting the words perfectly from memory. It shows how meaningful and important receiving Communion is for these men of the sea.
Virginia and I plan to volunteer for two months again next year, providing our health is still good and God continues to enable us. Much of this ministry depends on volunteers and so–God willing–it may be something for which you or others want to make themselves available.