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Seafarer Ministries See Spiritual Needs in Rough Economic Waters

Merchant marines are still struggling, body and soul, after COVID-19 and supply chain disruptions.
Seafarer Ministries See Spiritual Needs in Rough Economic Waters
Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Gary Roosma can attest to the challenges of organizing a worship service onboard a cargo ship.

It’s a complicated process, reaching out to the rotating cast of captains aboard the ships in the Port of Vancouver, for a congregation of sailors who may or may not even want to gather.

But experience has taught him it’s a worthwhile effort.

He remembers one officer who accosted him with a question.

“Where were you yesterday?” the man said. “We needed you yesterday.”

When Roosma asked why, the sailor explained there was a horrible storm at sea and the captain had sent him to do something on the deck as the waves crashed around them. As he held onto a rail, a massive wave hit the ship and carried the man overboard, out to the open sea.

“I knew I was dead,” the seafarer told Roosma. “All I could think of was ‘Lord, please watch over my family.’ And then I prayed, ‘It would be really nice if you would save me too.’”

At the instant he prayed, the man recalled, a rope brushed across his chest, and he grasped it and held on with every ounce of his strength. He dislocated his arm, but his life was spared.

“We need a service onboard this ship,” the man said, and Roosma, a chaplain at the Port of Vancouver with the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) Ministry to Seafarers agreed to lead them in prayer and worship that day.

Roosma was reminded, yet again, of the point of this unusual ministry. As the psalmist said in Psalm 107, “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep” (vv. 23–24, KJV). Seafarer ministry chaplains are called to point that out to the men and women working on cargo ships.

Seafarers’ ministries are not new. They’ve been around since the 19th century, and there are now hundreds like the one in Vancouver in ports around the world. Those involved in these ministries say the need has felt especially urgent in recent days, as the shipping industry goes through rough waters, taking a toll on merchant marines.

The shipping industry has always been turbulent, but the challenges in recent years have been especially difficult. COVID-19 restrictions required many seafarers to work longer hours and receive less shore time. Supply chain issues have impacted the world economy, leading to cost spikes and subsequent drops that impact sailors’ livelihoods. Amid all that uncertainty, they’ve also had to cope with the ripple effects of the Russian-Ukraine war.

A 2022 Review of Maritime Transport put out by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development was aptly named Navigating Stormy Waters.

“In an increasingly unpredictable operating environment,” the report said, “future shipping costs will likely be higher and more volatile than in the past.”

Where most people see “shipping delays” and “economic uncertainty,” maritime ministry chaplains see the people impacted—men and women from around the world trying to provide for their families in a dangerous profession that changes constantly. Each huge vessel transporting cargo around the globe and sustaining the world economy is also temporary home to about 21 souls.

“There are so many hidden workers in economies around the world,” said Jason Zuidema, who lives in Montreal, Quebec, and is currently general secretary for the International Christian Maritime Association and executive director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association. “They are the kind of people we should say thank you to.”

More than 80 percent of the world’s international goods are shipped by sea. But few people grasped the importance of ships to international trade until they saw how delays at ports suddenly wreaked havoc.

“Shipping is a great bellwether,” Zuidema said. “You can basically see what’s happening economically by seeing what’s happening with ships.”

That means the economic challenges that ripple out from the shipping industry directly hit merchant marines. COVID-19, in particular, was very hard on seafarers.

“Seafarers are a hearty group who enjoy each other’s company while on board, but social isolation has impacts on people’s mental well-being and social well-being,” Zuidema said. “These political or economic or health issues have very direct impacts on their lives and livelihoods.”

Even in normal times, though, this job is very spiritually demanding. Because seafarers are away from home for months at a time, it’s hard to be spiritually fed. Internet access is unpredictable at best at sea, so the people working on cargo ships aren’t able to depend on church online or join in worship through Zoom.

For the ministers to seafarers, there are challenges too. Like hospital and airport chaplains, they often cannot establish sustained relationships with the people they minister to. They meet people and try to minister to them in that particular moment, and then they’re gone.

“So many of the most special ministry moments in my life were done for people I don’t even know their names and I never met them again,” Zuidema said. “It can wear people out, and keeping pace with all that is a joy but also a prayer request.”

Sometimes the contact the ministers have with seafarers’ lives seems so insignificant that they really have to have faith that what they do matters. Zuidema remembers, for example, once helping a sailor from India set up an email account. In the moment, it felt more like tech support than the reason he’d gone into ministry. But he met that man again, years later, and the man expressed a deep, deep gratitude.

“It was something that was just … so small to me,” Zuidema said. “For him, this was a reminder … of that one time when he went ashore in Montreal, Canada, and got a tool that served him for the rest of his life.”

Ministering to seafarers can be very practical. Many ministries have helped with access to COVID-19 vaccines and connected sailors with internet or the personal necessities they need after a long time at sea. Offering seafarers that kind of help, though, regularly opens a door to discuss deeper needs.

“We try every time we interact with the sailors to minister to them spiritually,” said Ray Hanna, port chaplain at Lighthouse Harbour Ministries in North Vancouver.

Once that door is open, Hanna said, the chaplains reach an incredible range of people with varied spiritual needs. Hanna estimates that about half of the seafarers that he interacts with are Filipino. Many of them carry a Bible to sea but say they don’t read it very much.

“Instead of having the Word of God nominally in your head or in your dresser drawer,” he encourages them, “it’s time to open it up and read it.”

Other sailors don’t have Bibles and don’t know anything about the gospel.

“I’ve talked to many Chinese seafarers that tell me they’ve never heard the name of Jesus,” Hanna said. “The only name that saves and they’ve never even heard his name. I get goosebumps when I have the opportunity to tell them about the Savior.”

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