On 10 July, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, 43, Genesis 12:1-9, Luke 10: 25-37. The sermon and service were based on resources provided by the Mission to Seafarers.
The Bible tells many stories about people setting out on journeys. Abram was called to leave his home and his people and set out on a journey to a new land. The story is full of hope and promise but the length and outcome of the journey are uncertain. Mary and Joseph set out for Bethlehem. Last week we read about the 70 disciples being sent on a missionary adventure which involved leaving so much behind: “Take nothing for the journey, no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic.” (Luke 9:3) Jesus himself set out for Jerusalem. None of these journeys were easy but the promise behind all of them is of future hope and blessing.
The familiar story of the Good Samaritan speaks of some of the perils of journeying and of the life-changing impact of hospitality and love shown by strangers to those far from home. It is this gospel imperative to recognise every human being as a neighbour which drove the founder of the Mission to Seafarers, the Revd John Ashley. In his lifetime he visited 14,000 ships.
Today we give thanks for the work and inspiration of The Mission to Seafarers which is celebrating 160 years of ministry, and for all who have heard God’s call to build his kingdom amongst seafarers and who have stepped out in faith, not knowing quite where the journey might lead. They each realised that it was a journey that would bring many difficulties and challenges, but they were clear that it was one inspired by the God who would travel with them. Like so many of those earlier Bible journeys, the journey of the Mission to Seafarers from its beginnings in the Bristol Channel in England to its current work in over 200 ports in 50 countries has been one which has brought abundant life and blessing to generations of seafarers.
All biblical travellers, from Abraham through to Paul and beyond, knew very well the perils and hardships of land and sea. Today we may travel very differently and usually in greater comfort, but many of the challenges are similar to those of long ago. Journeys often take us far from family and friends and from all that is familiar – they can be lonely. They can take us through, or to, remote and inhospitable places. They are often complicated by language and communication difficulties. Journeys will often involve uncertainty, discomfort, delay and even danger.
The work of The Mission to Seafarers has been focused on one particular group of travellers who know all these things so well. There are around 1.5 million seafarers and many more if you include those involved in ﬁshing. All of us are absolutely dependent on their efforts, although so few of us these days seem aware of the fact that over 90% of those things that sustain our daily lives come by sea. Medicines, food, fuel, cars, machinery, furniture, computers, raw materials; all reach our shores by ship.
Seafarers contact the Mission for many reasons. In many cases shipping contracts are very long – sometimes 10 months or a year in duration. This means being separated from home and family for very signiﬁcant periods of time. This reality can bring many stresses – and often feelings of intense isolation or powerlessness, particularly when crew become aware of problems at home. It means spending most of your life at sea, with only brief time in ports, ports which will frequently be remote and sometimes hostile. In response, The Mission to Seafarers offers a warm welcome, a hospitable and safe Seafarers’ Centre facility (including the internet access which is so important). Medical issues can also be dealt with. Where appropriate, access is provided to a place of worship, to a service on board and to personal prayer wherever and whenever that is appropriate.
Life at sea is a hidden life and in the more unpleasant corners of the world crews still all too frequently are victims of abuse, neglect and exploitation. Seafarers can be the victims of piracy or face unjust imprisonment. And life at sea remains a dangerous one. Mission chaplains are always quick to respond to emergency and deal with seafarers who have been injured, taken ill or, tragically, deal with the aftermath of bereavement.
The Mission works with families as well as the seafarers themselves. The last few months have seen the development of three exciting new family projects for the Mission, in the Philippines, in Myanmar and in Ukraine. These are all countries where many seafarers are based. The projects are designed to help seafaring families, not least in time of acute difficulty, and with day to day problems such as counselling, advocacy, medical advice, IT support and ﬁnancial guidance.
Much of the early work of The Mission to Seafarers was conducted from dedicated small ships which would enable Chaplains to access crews while they were out at anchor. In some of our ports such work continues today. On one occasion, in the 1880s, the Revd Thomas Treanor made a pastoral call in the midst of a storm. The descriptions of this visit suggest that it was extremely hazardous. As the chaplain climbed a swinging rope, in the midst of a howling gale, a seafarer at the rail above was heard to say, “There must be something in religion!”
When Abram set out on his long and uncertain journey, he went with the promise that it would somehow result in the abundant blessing of many. The disciples, sent out like lambs amongst wolves, brought good news and healing; and no doubt changed many lives for the better. The Mission to Seafarers remains equally committed, amidst much that is difficult and challenging, to be by deed and word a blessing to seafarers and to share in the building of God’s kingdom.
Many of you will know the story of that renowned seafarer, Ernest Shackleton, and of his famous Endurance expedition. It is an extraordinary tale of a ship wrecked on the Antarctic Coast, of 28 crew marooned amidst the freezing ice and living under upturned lifeboats with little hope of rescue. It tells the story of Shackleton’s decision to set out on an open boat, with just six companions, and cross 800 miles of some of the stormiest waters in the world in an attempt to reach South Georgia. From the whaling stations there he would be able to summon help and return for the men left behind on Elephant Island. After much hardship the boat was driven ashore by a hurricane on the inhospitable southern shore of that island. No further travel using the boat was possible. Together with two others, Shackleton set out to cross the unknown, uncharted and almost impassable mountain ranges and glaciers of South Georgia. It took them a brutal 36 hours but they did reach help and every man was eventually rescued.
Afterwards Shackleton wrote that during that almost unendurable last 36 hours he and the others had an uncanny sense of the presence of a fourth person. “When I look back,” he wrote, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.” Many seafarers around the world attest to a sense of God in the midst of their voyages. The 160-year journey of the Mission to Seafarers has not been travelled alone. The God whom even wind and wave obey has been with each person involved.
The Mission asks God that, as they face a new decade of their journey, they may like Abraham and the disciples, bring hope and blessing to the seafarers they serve.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor