What Makes a Successful Seafarers’ Center?

Nov 25, 2009

by the Rev. David M. Rider, President & Executive Director

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of representing the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) at a conference in Hong Kong co-sponsored by the International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

Using a variety of criteria, ICMA and ITF identified eleven highly successful seafarer hospitality centers and recruited their leaders to address one deceptively simple question: What makes a successful seafarers’ hospitality center?

Even though I was the only attendee from the US, I found immediate common ground with my peers from the ports of Fremantle, Australia; Barcelona; Liverpool; Singapore; Odessa; Venice; Hamburg; Halifax; Richards Bay, South Africa; and Paranagua, Brazil. Guided in discussion by our ICMA and ITF hosts, we quickly identified issues and common themes:

  • What do seafarers need when they arrive in port, and what attracts them to hospitality centers?
  • How do we balance charitable and entrepreneurial models of serving seafarers, especially in cultures with widely disparate philanthropic traditions?
  • Can centers be equally good at ship visiting, van transportation, and hospitality facilities?
  • What are the constraints of infrastructure and port location, especially in a world of heightened security and scarce financial support?
  • Beyond seafarers, who are the stakeholders among church communities, maritime industry leaders, and port authority administrators?
  • How do we avoid patronizing seafarers with our own assumptions about their ethnicity, rather than engaging them as guests with their unique life stories, joys, and challenges?
  • How do we best recruit and utilize volunteers to complement chaplains and other staff?

Like many professional meetings, discussion was intense, laughter frequent, and teamwork strong. Although we held much in common, we also noted distinctions: Odessa has no tradition of philanthropy and must raise all revenues via retail sales; Hamburg enjoys financial support by offering coffee and tea to frequent tour buses visiting the port; our own Port Newark facility is the only center at the conference that actively welcomes port truckers, too.

I found double value in the meeting, as SCI manages two very different seafarer hospitality centers in Port Newark and (as of July 1) Oakland, CA. Although the conference was too brief to identify all best practices, I came away with a renewed belief that our Port Newark and Oakland centers serve seafarers faithfully.

Although our Port Newark facility is much larger than Oakland, both centers combine frequent ship visiting by chaplains, van transportation of seafarers, and the welcome respite of a seafarers’ facility. Oakland has a strong volunteer tradition; both of our centers work ecumenically; visit nearly every ship in port; and offer a facility with recreation, fellowship, Internet access and phone service to call loved ones back home. Both of our centers regularly offer van service to get mariners out of secure terminals for visits to shopping malls or similar services that their all-too-brief shore leave allows. Every seafarer is warmly welcomed as a special guest. Each is invited to share personal stories or, if desired, to enjoy quiet solitude.

Our Port Newark International Seafarers’ Center is undergoing a complete overhaul to create a 21st-Century combination of chapel, wellness center, recreation space, Internet lounge, food service, meeting space and chaplains’ work quarters. We hope to reopen (living currently in small temporary space) in Spring 2010. View construction photos by clicking here.

Even as SCI pursues important initiatives in seafarer advocacy and maritime education, our core mission involves befriending the seafaring stranger, engaging in conversation, facilitating recreation and enabling communication with loved ones around the world. We make “house calls” on ship to share lunch and reduce the isolation of ship-board life, inviting crew members to visit our Centers, a safe and welcoming home in the port. We seek to serve the spiritual and humanitarian needs of seafarers one at a time.

Together with my international port ministry colleagues, we share a unique opportunity to welcome the stranger and offer outstretched hands of love to seafarers entering our bustling ports. If you would like more information on ways to volunteer or otherwise support this work, send me a note at edoffice@seamenschurch.org