MEMORIES of the empty shelves in supermarkets last year should remind us that seafarers play a vital part in everyday life. More than 90 per cent of the things that we need come to us by sea — not just food, but also cars, fridges, bedding, carpets, and raw materials. Without seafarers, our economies would come to a standstill.
Life for seafarers has always been lonely and dangerous, with long work contracts that take them away from home for up to nine months at a time. Many seafarers still work on ships without access to the internet, which this limits their ability to stay in touch with their families.
The pandemic has brought additional hardships. Last year, 300,000 seafarers (mainly from the Philippines and India) were working beyond their contracts, stuck on their ships as international airports and borders closed (News, 25 September 2020). Some of these men and women have not seen their families for more than a year.
Even the small pleasure of a few hours’ shore leave has been affected. Arriving at a port and spending a few hours away from the ship has become a risky adventure. Some shipping companies are preventing seafarers’ going ashore because of the fear of Covid; but many seafarers are too scared to venture ashore even when they are allowed, because no one wants to catch Covid and be ill at sea. Seafarers remain on their ships, and some have not walked on land since the pandemic began. Other seafarers find themselves stuck at home, unable to join their ships, and with no means of supporting their families.
THE staff and volunteers at the Mission to Seafarers are familiar with the challenges of working at sea. Our chaplains and volunteers have been supporting seafarers for more than 160 years, and now, with the pandemic, we are constantly adapting the ways in which we respond. We have continued to visit seafarers in ports, sometimes having conversations with them at the top of the ship gangway, instead of going into the mess rooms. We minister to seafarers through the barriers of masks, and we are now used to having muffled but meaningful conversations in this way.
We have become personal shoppers for the many seafarers who are unable to leave their ships. Our regional director in Panama went on a large shopping expedition recently, and managed to buy 27 pairs of shoes for seafarers who were unable to take shore leave.
Access to vaccines is very problematic for seafarers, but, around the world, we are working with local health authorities and transporting seafarers to vaccination centres, so that they can at least have a first dose of a vaccine. We have developed a new digital chaplaincy service, so that seafarers can speak from anywhere in the world to a chaplain. We continue to listen to the stories that seafarers tell us, and we try to give them hope. We pray with them and for them.
Three years ago, the Seafarers International Research Centre at the University of Cardiff started a research project about religion and global seafarers. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, it aimed to explore the changing expression of religion on ships, and to provide insight into the activities of religious workers in ports, and the religious needs and practices of seafarers.
The outcome of this research has encouraged us at this time of crisis by showing us that the simple things that we do, such as providing prayer booklets, Bibles, and phone cards, are giving life and hope to seafarers who feel that they have been forgotten. Today, 150,000 men and women remain stranded, working on ships when they should be at home.
SEAFARERS from a variety of faiths and none have revealed through this research that they trust us and value our visits, and that they feel safe in the seafarer centres that we have around the world. They have told us that when they see us, they remember that God is with them, even in the midst of this pandemic. We are their connection to the outside world, and their connection to hope.
The research has given us a deep humility, energising us to do more and to continue compassionate acts of service.
Seafarers are the invisible key workers who have an enormous effect on our lives. To be able to serve and support them at this critical time is not only life-giving for them, but also life-giving for us.
The Revd Ijeoma Ajibade is Europe Regional Director of the Mission to Seafarers.