There are 9:24 p.m. text messages that no service corps program director ever wants to receive. The following was not one of them: “Father Stube and I are going on a ship to say Christmas mass and celebrate the Eucharist tomorrow at 6, and thought it would be cool if you wanted to come.”
The Servant Year member who sent the text to me, Trish, is spending her year volunteering at Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI). SCI provides services and support for 30,000 seafarers each year. Most of the crews are male and usually work 6-9 month contracts, away from their families and home countries for long stretches of time. Due to visa stipulations, many crew members are unable to disembark from the cargo ships while in port. Without SCI’s visits, these crew members would have no access to resources (like warm winter coats, phone cards to call their families back home) and company over a home cooked meal.
After a 5 second deliberation, I enthusiastically accepted the invitation to see SCI’s ministry firsthand. The next day I bundled up (tonight’s low will be 14 degrees), not sure what to expect beyond a chilly walk from SCI’s van to the ship.
As we walked toward our ship, the overwhelming smell of chocolate filled the air. Turns out some of the cargo they brought from Nigeria included cocoa beans that crunched underfoot as we made our way up wobbly metal stairs to the ship. Upon boarding, we were ushered to a small, plain room where a small group of Philippine seafarers waited to worship with us. One wall had a homemade banner proclaiming, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” next to a Christmas tree with some decorations.
Father Stube told the nativity story churches around the world proclaimed on Christmas, found in Luke’s Gospel. We sang Christmas carols and prayed together, especially for the sixteen Philippine sailors missing from a cargo ship that sank off the coast of Vietnam last week. We celebrated the Eucharist with one another and I was reminded, in this season of Epiphany, of God’s welcome to people from around the world who gather to encounter Christ. We ended with applause from the seafarers, thankful for SCI’s presence and work on their behalf.
Soon one of the cooks brought out trays of cookies, sandwiches, and soda for us to share. The seafarers silently waited for us to partake in their hospitality. We asked where they were ultimately headed and they said, ”Columbia. We’re picking up some cargo in Albany, then going to Columbia.” Then probably home for 3 months before heading out to sea again. We talked a little bit more about pirates in Nigeria, boxing, and how badly Brazil was blown away in the World Cup semi-finals. Everyone thanked us for coming and shook our hands, watching as we made our way back to dry land that some of them wouldn’t be able to touch for many, many months.
I walked back into the chocolate cocoon, surrounded by a distant smell from another land and thought again of this season. There are countless exotic gifts I take for granted every day, from coffee to chocolate, brought to me by seafarers on ships like the one I visited. I am thankful for the dangerous and difficult work these men undertake each day to bring us gifts from afar.
Lindsay Serves as Program Director and Associate for Young Adult Ministries.