Apostleship of the Sea

Soon-Ho Kim
July 2, 2010
Mass On Board

“We need spiritual support,” the chief engineer of M/V Grand Blue, a general cargo ship, said after the Mass on board. “We thank Stella Maris for visiting us and supporting us like this,” the captain of the ship added.

When we — a Filipino priest and a Columban lay missionary — arrived at the ship at 5 p.m., the crew of the M/V Grand Blue had been waiting for us in their mess room or dining room. The mess room was filled with sixteen crew members and officers present for Mass. The dining table was covered with a white cloth and decorated with a big candle that had a small cross on it. The candle was set up on the bottom of a rice bowl which was upside down. It was simple but impressive. They prepared for the Mass with what they had on the ship and from the need in their hearts. I could feel how eagerly the crew was waiting for the Mass that day.

Columban lay missionary Soon-Ho Kim (left)

Columban lay missionary Soon-Ho Kim (left)

Each time I have experienced Mass on sailing vessels it has been different. Most of the time the Masses have been held in the mess room of the vessel, where we were surrounded by a rice cooker, refrigerator, television and trash cans. Next to the mess room is the galley, or kitchen. During the Mass I usually hear the noise of an engine which runs continuously, 24 hours a day, even when the vessel is in port. Most commercial cargo ships have very little space for the seafarers themselves. Sometimes Mass is celebrated on the bridge of the ship if there is no other location that will accommodate everyone who wants to attend.

Through the years, I have seldom received calls from shipping agencies when seafarers have had an accident or sudden death on a vessel while sailing. Last year we were called for a seafarer who died in a tragic accident. We met and visited with some of the crew on that vessel. When they explained what happened to their colleague, they were very sad. However, I could see the expressions on their faces change after the Mass for them and for their colleague who had died. They seemed to be relieved. Some of them started to talk. Even after straightening up after the accident, they could not sleep, and they had wanted to leave the vessel. But the Mass brought them the feeling that again they were protected by God, so they could continue their work and sleep properly.

Apostleship of the Sea (among seafarers, known as Stella Maris) has been supporting seafarers for more than 30 years in the port of Yokohama in Japan. Yokohama is the biggest port in terms of total tonnage of cargo in Japan. In one day more than 50 commercial vessels come and go through the port.

Annually more than 200,000 seafarers come to the port of Yokohama. Altogether 1.5 million seamen work there daily. In spite of the fact that they are playing a major role in the world’s economy, the seafarers appear to have been rejected by ordinary society.

Apostleship of the Sea Yokohama has been focusing on visiting ships in port including commercial vessels, general cargo ships, container ships, car carriers and others. We do not consider nationality, religion or race of the people we serve. The people we serve hail from the Philippines, China, Burma, India, Korea, some European countries, the Ukraine, Poland and Russia.

Mass in the mess room on board the ship

Mass in the mess room on board the ship

I did not know about this ministry before being trained by a former full time chaplain eleven years ago. I have learned that it is quite difficult for seafarers to have a chance to attend Mass. I have seen their hard work, faithfulness, commitment, openness to strangers and affection for their families in addition to their love of God through my work with AOS.

Since I began my involvement with AOS, the condition of seafarers has changed. Some aspects have improved. Unfortunately, some are getting worse. The time that the ships stay in port has been diminishing. Faster loading and discharging of cargo has become standard operating procedure which leads to very hectic schedules for those working on the ships during their time in port. I see very few ships staying even one night in port due to the fact that the more time the ship takes in port, the more the shipping company’s expenses and costs increase. Even if the vessel stays in port on a weekend with no cargo operation, the crew has daily routine duties on board, even on Sunday. No one has enough time to go ashore. Moreover, the security in port has been getting stricter which makes it difficult not only for seafarer’s shore leave but also for our visitation to ships.

Whenever I ask seafarers what the most difficult thing is with their lives, the answer is almost always the same—being away from their families. The length of an employment contract is between nine and twelve months. Recently, officers from some countries have made four and six month contracts. These shorter contracts are very few in number.

During their contract period, the seafarers are not able to contact their families very often. Even in port areas, the telephone system is different, and they cannot use their mobile phones. There are some businessmen who sell phone cards, but seafarers must still find telephone booths where they can use an international telephone card. Even when they do manage to find a public telephone near the pier area, there is usually not enough time for everyone to use it.

The Apostleship of the Sea Yokohama has changed dramatically since 2008. After the departure of the full time priest for AOS Yokahama, the diocese decided not to appoint another. Moreover, the budget for the ministry was cut. In April 2008, the Flying Angel seamen’s center was closed. The center was owned by the Anglican Church, and AOS worked out of the center.

Since April 2008, AOS Yokohama has operated without a center or even an office. Fortunately, we do have a van. Without such a vehicle we could not approach the port area and visit ships. With the van we give seafarers free transportation service to ther seamen’s clubs, shopping malls, churches, the train station and other destinations. Currently, AOS Yokohama has two people who regularly visit the ships—an American volunteer who is an “old Japan hand” and me. Several other volunteer members visit on an irregular basis. Whenever we are asked for a Mass on board, we have to find a priest. Sometimes we cannot make an arrangement for the seafarer’s request due to schedules of the priests.

Mostly, I visit ships by myself on Saturday and Sunday. My priority is visiting ships that are staying during weekends and/or at remote port areas. Seafarers’ access to commercial areas is inconvenient. It costs them a lot of money to leave the ship since using taxis is expensive. Language problems make them hesitant to go ashore.

In fact, language is one of the barriers to recruiting volunteers for this AOS work. Furthermore, amongst the general public there is a lack of knowledge about and little interest in the shipping field. Therefore, AOS struggles with an image problem as well. It is not easy for us to get the port authority, the customs office and the shipping agencies to understand our activities.

Despite struggles and difficulties, I have had many meaningful moments through this ministry. Most of the time when I visit ships, I receive a warm welcome. The seafarers on board show their hospitality and express their gratitude for our visitation. However, I think that the seafarers themselves are the ones who deserve our gratitude.

Even through adversity, God has shown us the way to continue this ministry. I sense God listens to the prayers of the crew on board so that we may continue visiting them.

Columban lay missionary Soon-Ho Kim works in Japan.
This article first appeared in Columban Mission.