Originally created 08/29/98

Maritime ministry provides hospitality



NEW YORK -- There's Noah and the ark. Jonah and the whale.

There's the psalm about men who go down to the sea in ships and "do business in great waters," never mind the roaring gales and heaving seas that, the Bible says, melt the sailors' souls.

There are references to the Red Sea. The Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee. Christ calming the stormy waters. Yahweh and the leviathan. In the Bible, "There are hundreds of references to the sea: walking on water, parting the water, whales in water, the vastness of the sea," notes the Rev. Kirk Ruehl, 37, a chaplain at the Seamen's Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.

"There is," he says, "something fundamentally spiritual about the sea ..."

Given the multiple symbiotic bonds between the sea and Scripture, it seems both logical and apropos that there be a Seamen's Church Institute, one of the world's oldest workplace chaplaincies. Formerly known as the Young Men's Auxiliary Missionary and Education Society, the SCI was founded in 1834 to minister to hard-living seafarers suffering from exploitation, poor morale and poor morals in the temptation-laden Port of New York.

Based at New York's South Street Seaport, with a three-story International Seafarers' Center at the Port of Newark, SCI is devoted to the well-being, spiritual and otherwise, of men and the handful of women who "do business in great waters," sometimes on sleek, pristine-looking freighters and sometimes on aging rust-crusted bolt-buckets where crews are poorly fed and poorly paid, if they get paid at all.

In New York area ports, crews unload everything from orange pulp to chemicals to gravel to crates of computer parts to trendy new Volkswagens, driven on and off vessels one car at a time. So many bananas are unloaded at the Port of Newark that bananas have their own dock. The SCI concerns itself with the human side of shipping. It doesn't consider itself a charity but an advocate for vulnerable seafarers, whose shipboard existence, says Ruehl, remains "a difficult life. A lonely life."

"And dangerous," the Rev. Jean Smith said the other day, eyeing a crane that was swinging pallets of boxed bananas off a Bahamian ship and onto a concrete dock. There in her low-heeled patent leather pumps, blond hair pinned up against the wind and drizzle, Smith, an Episcopal priest and SCI associate executive director, chatted with a burly longshoreman as a forklift roared in concert with the clanging crane.

About a year ago, a Filipino crewman was killed instantly at the Port of Newark when a cable snapped, crushing him under the tonnage of a similar pallet. He left a pregnant wife and two children. His fellow crewmen saw the accident. "I stood there and held the hands of men who were crying," Ruehl recalls.

Typically, merchant crews sign on for 10 months to a year aboard a ship, with officers given six-month contracts and captains four months. For chaplains, the crews aboard the massive ships exemplify a kind of captive congregation, though one that's on the move. Despite the SCI symbol -- a yachtman's anchor superimposed over a Christian cross -- and its staff of clergy, "We don't proselytize," Ruehl says. "Basically, it's a ministry of humanity."

"Hospitality" is one of the stated aims of the SCI's Seafarers Services Division, in keeping with the biblical mandate in Hebrews 13:2 ("Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers . . ."). Chaplains visit ships (3,085 in 1997 in New York and New Jersey) and staff a three-story International Seafarers' Center at the Port of Newark. By SCI's own count, 16,058 seafarers used the center last year.

After morning chapel, the chaplains divvy up the workload, then fan out to docks in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey.

Up the steep and swaying gangway, into the labyrinthine innards of the ship, they glance away from the occasional sexy pin-up as they find their way to day rooms and lunchrooms. They sit and talk to whomever is around, dropping off National Geographics and similar magazines (6,663 in 1997), AIDS brochures (5,295 last year) and offering free transportation to the Seafarers' Center while describing the amenities: ball fields, fitness center, cafebar, fax and FedEx, currency exchange, table tennis.

They leave Christian tracts on ships with Christian crews, but their work is largely secular. On visits to eight ships over several days, not one seafarer approached with needs that were even remotely religious.

Crew questions are often general: "Where is the nearest Kmart?" and "Where is the Sears?" and "We want to buy electronics" and "How much to call the Philippines?"

The SCI has been affiliated with the Episcopal Church since its earliest days, but it's always been an ecumenical effort, with Baptists, Presbyterians and a Catholic among the current visiting chaplain team of nine, including interns. (The Catholic chaplain, Robert Higgins, is an intern. Catholics run a separate ministry, Stella Maris, just down the road from the Seafarers' Center.)

Chaplains wear crosses and clerical collars, and the maps they distribute are printed, top and bottom, with biblical citations. Cross & Anchor Calling Cards are stamped with the SCI symbol.

Ruehl went aboard the dry-docked Kent Scout in the Brooklyn Navy Yard one recent Friday and found a Sri Lankan crew watching a soap opera. Ruehl sold phone cards, passed out maps, 11-year-old copies of National Geographic and AIDS brochures. ("This is a good thing to know about. Be careful," he said in conversational tones.) He also asked the men, "Are you from a religious tradition?"

"We are Buddhists," said Sanjaya Herath, 22, a crewman in a black Reebok T-shirt who speaks in careful, perfect English. Ruehl asked if the men would be interested in meeting with a monk, and all nodded yes.

Ruehl later said, "For me to put out a Christian tract did not seem ethical. I was more interested in finding them a place where they could worship."

A few days later, Smith reported that "We were successful in getting a monk to go on that vessel. They were enormously grateful, and they had a spiritually nourishing time together.

"We can all celebrate that."

On occasion, she's also called in rabbis, and one rabbi and a cantor recently expressed interest in working with SCI chaplains. "I just wrote them and said we'd be delighted to have them," Smith says.

"We don't feel a particular vocation to convert the seafarers to Christianity," Smith says. It's more important, she adds, to build relationships, though that's a bit of a challenge in the course of a 20-minute visit. But it may make a seafarer feel comfortable enough to consult another chaplain in some other port, either about shipboard problems, like poor food, or matters of a religious nature.

Sometimes the conversations can be prickly. Smith has been asked for pornographic videos. Twice she's been asked, jokingly, about finding women for lonely seafarers.

Ships are so mechanized these days that many are run with crews of fewer than 20, and chaplains bearing gifts of fortune cookies and magazines provide new faces and welcome breaks in routine.

"They feel good about the visits," says D.N. Goswami, captain of the Nord Baltic, an oil tanker. "At sea it's working, working, working and looking at water all the time."

What's the appeal for the preachers?

"I like getting out of the office to where life is, where the people are," says Ruehl.

Seafaring is different from other industries. There is, for example, the stress of 24-hour contact in close quarters with multiple nationalities and of the long absences from home. Doug Stevenson, a lawyer who directs the SCI Center for Seafarers' Rights, knows of one seafarer who sailed for 2 1/2 years.

"And when you're working on a ship, you're working in a captive environment that is not unlike a jail," Stevenson says.

Except that, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century author, in a real jail you're not in danger of drowning or seasickness, and you may have more room, better food and even better company.

One of Smith's most frustrating experiences involved a ship's steward who had called ahead, requesting a visit. The refrigerator had been broken for some time, food was spoiling, and he was concerned about sickness among the crew. He kept asking for repairs, but the response was always "Next port, next port."

When Smith tried to intervene, "There was a very difficult exchange with the captain," she recalls. "It was, `This is my ship. If they get sick, it's my responsibility; why should the chaplains be concerned?"'