c. 2008 Religion News Service
NEW ORLEANS _ Catholic Deacon Pat Dempsey, a port chaplain, remembers the day he rode a launch out into the Mississippi River to visit a crew aboard an anchored vessel. In a backpack he carried his book of the Gospels, the music and the sacred vessels he would need to conduct a shipboard prayer service.
In another pack pressed against his chest he carried the goods the homeward-bound mariners had asked him to deliver: more than $300 in lingerie from Victoria’s Secret.
So goes the life of a port chaplain, said Dempsey and co-chaplain Reggie Seymour, both Catholic deacons: It’s generally a mix, they said, of doing simple favors and providing simple comforts to low-wage laborers who find themselves far from home for months on end.
Catholic, Southern Baptist and Norwegian faith communities all operate port chaplaincies for visiting crews along the Mississippi River.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans recently opened a new home for its Stella Maris port ministry, not far from the Global Maritime Ministries office that’s run by Southern Baptists and other evangelicals.
Refitted with a grant from the International Transport Workers Federation, a global federation of transportation unions, the Stella Maris headquarters is designed to provide a nonindustrial respite for mariners confined for weeks to bare steel sleeping compartments and the working-factory decor of tankers, freighters and other vessels.
The house is outfitted with a simple chapel, a comfortable game room with television, a kitchen where mariners may attempt some home cooking, a pool table, a bank of computers for sending e-mail home and a backyard with a basketball hoop.
Racks of toiletries, underwear, gloves and work gear are available, free for the taking.
Dempsey, a former Defense Department investigator, and Seymour, a former Customs official, are now both unpaid deacons and usually staff the new center in the evenings, when foreign mariners with visas are most able to get off the ship.
Crews overwhelmingly are Filipino, with some Indians, Pakistanis and Eastern Europeans, they said.
After weeks shipboard they crave a break, Dempsey said. Chaplains can provide phone cards to help them reach home, and occasionally will drive them for a shopping experience at what staffer Donna Giroir called The Big Three: Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Victoria’s Secret.
Occasionally, they said, the chaplains will visit the ships, especially when mariners without visas cannot get off. Sometimes they hear about pay disputes; sometimes they notice and can report safety violations, he said. Usually they lead a little prayer service.
“Sometimes they ask us to bless their sleeping quarters,” Dempsey said. “If you do that, you might have to bless the whole ship. One ship, they had me blessing the cold storage unit, the engines, everything. I don’t know, maybe they were a little shaky.”
In his experience working the port ministry, Dempsey said he has found the crews overwhelmingly grateful for their service.
“In all the time we’ve been doing this, sometimes shopping for crew members, we’ve never been stiffed, not once,” said Dempsey.
“They often want to make a contribution. And because they don’t have much, they’re not giving out of their excess, but out of their want. It can be very humbling.”
(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
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