Delivered by Helene Milena on Sea Sunday 2020
For several years Anglicans of SL have joined churches around the world in celebrating Sea Sunday. As we live on an island (albeit a virtual one) and have a mermaid as our church warden, it’s a celebration we cannot possibly miss. It’s a day to remember all who work on the sea and the dangers and challenges they face. We remember how much we depend on these people whom we seldom have cause to meet. This year we may well be celebrating with very few other churches. The lockdown in so many countries means that church services have been affected. Most churches are therefore putting off their Sea Sunday service until later in the year. For us, of course, lockdown has no effect and so we carry on as usual.
On 27th March this year, Pope Francis addressed an empty square from St Peter’s Basilica when he invited the faithful around the world to pray with him. He delivered an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing while praying for an end of the coronavirus. He spoke about what we can learn from the reading we have just had from Mark’s Gospel. He began his reflection in this way:
“ ‘When evening had come’ (Mk 4:35). The Gospel passage we have just heard begins like this. For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying ‘We are perishing’ (v. 38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”
Obviously, that address was some months ago and many countries are trying to resume some semblance of normal lives. However, all is not normal. Some countries are still facing increasing infection rates as COVID-19 continues its progress around the world. Even in those countries where progress is being made in reducing infection rates, there is constant vigilance in case there are spikes in the number of cases. People who have never worn a face mask now wear one as a matter of course. Nations who do not normally queue, unlike the British who seem to be known for it, now queue outside shops leaving the required distance between themselves and others.
Seafarers could seem to be blissfully isolated from all that is happening in the world on land, but sadly that is not the case. Perhaps the early effect of the virus brought seafarers to our attention more than normal. I imagine many of us followed the fate of the Diamond Princess cruise ship which reported an outbreak of COVID-19 and docked in Yokohama, Japan on 5th February. During the quarantine period there, cases increased, affecting 567 passengers and 145 crew, with 9 people dying. The crew had to carry on serving the passengers as best they could in these strange circumstances, all the time at risk of contracting the disease themselves. This cruise ship and others were effectively incubators for the disease with the crews tasked with finding ways to contain the infection. Many ships found it difficult to gain permission to dock and allow passengers to disembark. Supplies were running out often before a port would relent.
As in normal times, cargo ships continue to operate, moving 90% of the world’s goods to their destinations, including medicines and other medical supplies. Crew members normally spend 6-10 months on a contract, after which they fly home before starting the next. Because of lockdowns and cancelled flights, many seafarers have found themselves in hotels and hostels in a foreign country dependent on charities to supply their basic needs. Others have had their contracts extended, finding themselves working extra months when they need a break from the fatigue and long to see their families again. Shore leave can be nearly impossible, leaving seafarers suffering isolation and stress. Sadly, some have suffered so badly that they have committed suicide.
Inevitably, some seafarers become ill or are injured and need to be treated urgently in hospitals on shore. These transfers have often been delayed until the individual is very seriously ill. For those who have made it home, they face quarantine for a period of time. Once back with their families, seafarers can be viewed with suspicion by their communities as potential carriers of COVID-19.
Many seafarers work for unscrupulous employers. Some of these are avoiding their responsibilities to their workers, not respecting their rights to be paid on time or provided with safe working conditions. As their families depend on the income for the basic necessities such as school fees, utilities and medical care, few seafarers dare to challenge the conditions they work under. Meanwhile, the threat of piracy has increased this year by 24%. Worries about disease don’t seem to have prevented armed robbers from plying their trade at sea.
In normal times, chaplains can go on board to offer support to crew members, or provide facilities on shore for them. Like many forms of work, chaplaincy has gone online. Chaplains keep in touch using social media and continue to offer a listening ear. They do all they can to support seafarers and their families materially and spiritually. They also continue to challenge bad employment practices on behalf of seafarers.
Catholics around the world are invited to support those who make their living from the sea by their prayers, particularly in the month of August. We can join with our brothers and sisters in the Catholic church by adding our prayers for the huge number of people who sacrifice safety and comfort to supply our needs.
It’s a difficult time for many of us, even if we are not faced with the challenges at sea. Many are distressed and anxious, lonely and afraid. Towards the end of his address, Pope Francis said the following: ‘Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.’