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Interview: John Attenborough, port chaplain

04 November 2016

‘The gratitude shown by the seafarers has been the most surprising thing’

Jamie Smith

I am the Port Chaplain for the Mission to Seafarers here in Southampton. I started my working life in hotel and catering, and I sort of fell into the Mission. Someone suggested that I should write to the Mission and ask them for a job, and I’ve worked for the Mission for the past 20 years.


I started at the Port of Immingham, then moved on to Mombasa, Antwerp, Port of Tilbury, and the Medway, and have spent the past two-and-a-half years in Southampton.


The Mission to Seafarers looks after the social and spiritual welfare of all seafarers, regardless of race, colour, or creed. We offer practical help and assistance to the seafarers, and we’re a welcoming face in a foreign place. You can say that we offer the hand of friendship. As Jesus said, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”


I usually meet up with my assistant just after 9 a.m., and head into the port. We spend several hours visiting the different ships that have come in during the night. Sometimes, the crew just need practical help, like an internet card; some just like to chat; others might like to go out to the city for a breath of fresh air. Later in the afternoon, it’s back to office, paperwork, emails, trying to engage with new volunteers.


Today was a great example. We were on an Indian container ship where some of the guys wanted things like telecommunication products, but another guy had his wife on board, and was picking my brains about going to London. Then we were on another ship with Romanians who needed transport to the city; so we arranged that for them. It’s left to the Mission to arrange this. Seafarers could take a taxi, but they don’t have the sterling to pay. Some taxi drivers would either accept dollars but charge a terrific exchange rate, or just refuse to take seafarers. We give them a lift for free into the city and back, and so it’s a lot easier to change their money and do their shopping. It’s a very practical thing we can do.


The underlying thing is that seafarers know exactly who you are and where you’re coming from. They never question it, because they just know we’re Christians.


This country, as an island nation, depends upon seafarers. These are people on the edge of our society, and the sort of people we should help. People see the passenger liners come in, but they forget the container ships that come in, providing all the stuff we need on a daily basis.


You get a lot of seafarers who are very religious, particularly from Asia. But I don’t purposely engage people in talking about faith. Seafarers are adults, as well as anyone else, and can choose to talk about faith if they want to.


The [interdenominational] Sailors’ Society and the [Roman Catholic]Apostleship of the Sea also work in Southampton. The Mission is there for all seafarers, regardless of what faith or denomination they are.


It’s being open and honest, and not pretending to be something that you are not. My nine years in Mombasa made a huge impact on me: dealing with seafarers who had been abandoned, and were totally dependent on the Mission to survive.


Mombasa had a huge centre with a swimming pool, basketball court, bar, restaurant, and so on. Antwerp was a vast port: more than 16,000 ships a year, and one small centre, but a large ecumenical team that worked well. This has to be my favourite place to have worked, followed by Southampton. Of course, Antwerp has to be number one: it’s where I met my wife, and our son was born there.


Dealing with an abandoned ship in Mombasa, the Samer, was one of the most satisfying experiences. There were different nationalities of crew members, no pay, no food, appalling living conditions. We looked after them for six months.


Then there was an Indian cadet, Vijay, who needed to go home as he had exams at sea school in India. We paid for his trip home. Ten years later, I met him again, by then a second officer on a ship. He remembered me, and said he had prayed every day to meet me again. He told all his crew mates that I had saved his life. He is now a chief officer, and is going to be a captain. Sometimes, the simplest of actions can have a big effect on someone.


The gratitude shown by the seafarers has been the most surprising thing in this work. It seems that, by going on a ship, being there for them, helping them, just being friendly and helpful, makes such a positive difference.


The Port of Southampton has had a Seafarers centre for many, many years. This all changed this year with the closure of the centre. It was all to do with running costs and not enough support. So we have gone from centre-based ministry to a more fluid ministry, reaching out and visiting more ships, offering transport service throughout the day as well as the evening, taking seafarers to the city and showing them the sights. Of course, the closure of anything is sad, especially when there are many decades of history attached to it; but I’m a glass-half-full sort of person: we can be more flexible and responsive to people’s needs.


What we actually need is more volunteers. The transport side does concern me. We haven’t got quite enough people doing the driving. We also need more financial support, but I want to speak to some shipping companies to see if they can help with that. There are a number of them who are really trying to do the right thing for their crews.


I was raised and brought up in an Anglican church, but it wasn’t until I was 18 that I really felt God in my life. I had this overwhelming feeling of God taking away all my burdens. I remember telling my friends that I felt so light that it was like walking on air.


God is ever-present in my life. The trouble I have is that I have more and more things to deal with and cope with. I feel that I am weighed down by all of it. It’s difficult to balance my time with all the different things going on at the moment. Getting the seafarers’ transport service going, recruiting volunteers, fund-raising, and visiting the ships in the port. There seems to be so much going on that my mind is sometimes in a whirl.


I was born in Ilkeston, to very loving parents who worked very hard and long hours to raise my sister and me. My sister was the bright spark, and I always felt that I lived in her shadow; but we just had different talents.


I’m married to Yara, who came from the Crimea. We met in Belgium, learning Flemish. Needless to say, she’s fluent, and I’m not. John junior was born in Antwerp; so he’s our everlasting Belgium souvenir. We live in Southampton with Yara’s mother. There’s a fair amount of Russian going on, because we’re trying to raise our son bilingual; so he has to speak to his mum in Russian, and to me in English, but I’m beginning to speak a little myself, which comes in very useful on the ships.


My dad was a man of few words, but he has to be the one I looked up to. He worked at a job for 20 years, a job he really disliked, but it was a job that provided a fairly good standard of living. This was dedication, service, and putting the family first.


I’ve always been a big fan of Adrian Plass. His books are Christian by their very nature, but they make you laugh as well.


I came from hotel and catering, but, if I couldn’t work as a chaplain, I’d love to do social work. I’m a people person, and need to have people around me. I also love to serve and help.


I think I’ve learnt that getting angry doesn’t solve anything, and uses so much energy.


I’m happiest when I’m in the port, on a ship, talking and helping seafarers.


At present, I pray for better ecumenical relationships, as well as world peace.


If I were locked in a church with anyone to be my companion for a few hours, I would have to choose the Queen. She’s a lady who, I feel, has tremendous faith, dedication, loyalty, and service. I would love to talk with her about all of those things.


John Attenborough was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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