Welcome on Board Deacon!
Deacon Jim McLaughlin is seen here with some seafarers passing through the Welland Canal at Christmas 2014With this greeting from the captains of oceanic ships (salties), Deacon Ed West and I begin our ministry of service to the seafarers with a rich history in global trade. Nearly 100,000 ships and approximately 1.2 million seafarers of all races, nationalities and religions transport over 85% of merchandise worldwide. The procedure of getting permission to board often begins 18 hours earlier by tracking these ships on the internet as they leave the Port of Montreal connecting the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes and the 46 km Welland Canal. The most effective protocol is to call the seaway’s dispatcher who in turn calls the pilot on the ship, who then asks the captain if we can board before it enters either Lock 1 from Lake Ontario or Lock 7 from Lake Erie. Regrettably, we don’t always get permission as one out of every three ships denies boarding privileges. There are various reasons for not receiving permission as they’re just too busy with ship chores, or the captain just doesn’t see the value of a chaplain ministering to his crew, while some see us as an unwanted set of eyes on their ship. Despite this problem, I was very fortunate to get on a ship in late fall manned with seafarers from India. Their wages hadn’t been deposited regularly to support their families and I was asked; “could I help them?” As chaplains, we can’t challenge any issues while on board the ship, but we’re advocates for these men and have an obligation to advise the National Maritime Authority at their next port to investigate. Our Holy Father Pope Francis made this very clear when he called on all those who work for the wellbeing of seafarers’ and their families, “to be the voice of those workers who live far from their loved ones and face dangerous and difficult situations.” I’ve been on other ships with seafarers from Poland, Mainland China, the Philippines, Cyprus, Bahamas, Lithuania, Russia and the Netherlands with no problems of this nature. What a wonderful joy to be accepted by these men who have limited opportunities to go ashore and without visits to their ships, the local church wouldn’t exist for them. As chaplains, we are there to offer spiritual assistance with devotion booklets, rosaries and just listen to their personal issues. We are also able to help connect these men with their families. Most oceanic seafarers sign contracts of 6-9 months, so the long months of absence and loneliness from their families is obviously a problem. Therefore, communications with their homeland is one of the most important issues for seafarers and their welfare as access to the internet and phones at sea is still limited and expensive. I bring on board Wi-Fi and to see their faces light up while skyping with their beloved wives, children and those with sweethearts is like the price of a very good book as one opens the first page and knows they’re in for a very good read. “Deacon, could you come over here and meet my wife and children,” I was asked, as he engaged in laughter and tears. There was his wife with his two young children and she said to me, “Thank you Deacon, for bringing our family together and my husband wishing me a happy birthday.” There were a lot of tears floating around and no one escaped this joy, including me. On another occasion opening my email early, I received an invitation to join up with a ship I had been on 4 days earlier as it travelled to Duluth, Minnesota. It had now travelled back and was in the Welland Canal and had already left Lock 7. Now this is definitely not protocol to receive mail inviting me to join up with this ship; however, I quickly sent out a note that I was unable to meet up with them at Lock 7 on short notice, then asked if I could meet them at the next lock and dashed off. As it turned out, the captain had no idea I was waiting at the lock to board his ship and initially refused. I borrowed the dock crew’s radio and pleaded with the captain that someone from his ship had sent me an email to meet up with them. He relented and invited me to come on board. The question was still, who had sent this invitation? This soon became very clear as the ship’s cook greeted me as I entered their lounge and with great joy said, “I knew you would be here.” “How did you know that I asked?” “Because I prayed to Jesus that you would come!” He also revealed how the email arrived as he had called his wife in the Philippians with his sim card and asked her to send me an email. He was motivated to do this because several of the crew hadn’t used the Wi-Fi earlier because they had been engaged working on a mechanical problem. What is the true and ultimate measure of man? I would characterize this by the quality of our relationships with others. This joyful seafarer thought of his fellow seafarers and their need to engage with their families. Together we became instruments of God’s love for his children by seeing Christ’s face in our brothers and sisters. That is what we are all called to do in our lives!