Jacksonville ministry takes Christmas message to seafarers

by Joni B. Hannigan/Florida Baptist Witness, posted Friday, December 22, 2006 (13 years ago)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)--The fast-moving cargo ship was in port for less than half a day with a steady stream of vehicles being driven onshore from its five decks. Even so, in the midst of off-loading 1,232 SUVs and cars, two-dozen seafarers and their captain took time Dec. 8 to spend a few minutes with volunteers who shared with them the true meaning of Christmas.

In an otherwise sterile environment aboard the year-old car-carrier, a small Christmas tree stood, almost dwarfed by brightly wrapped packages. Officers and workers clad in orange jumpsuits gathered near the ship's captain, who had assembled the multi-national crew.

"It gives them something underneath the tree," Mission Service Corps volunteer Calvin Reid said of the Christmas tradition of distributing containers filled with hygiene products, Bible, stamps and other items. "It's not so much what's in there, but that someone cared enough about them to send them a gift."

Reid and his wife, Donna, are MSC volunteers with the North American Mission Board and members of First Baptist Church in Callahan, Fla. Joining Florida Baptist Financial Services President Eddie McClelland and two members of the services board, the Reids led a small group aboard the ship.

McClelland engaged one of the men waiting by an elevator to take a few people up to the top deck, peppering him with questions.

"Where are you from? Are you married? What's your wife's name," he smiled. "Do you know Jesus?"

McClelland told the man he would pray for the family he left behind in the Philippines.

Up top, a ship's cook passed around steaming cups of espresso. Reid spoke briefly with the ship's captain and gathered the men in a circle to give a brief devotional amplifying the meaning of Christ's birth, death, burial and resurrection.

McClelland, T. Allison Scott, the Florida Baptist Financial Services board vice-chairman, and Tom Morris, the chairman, threw their arms across the men's shoulders to pray.

Earlier, at the International Seafarer's Center at the Blount Island Terminal at Jaxport, the men presented Bob Loy, Port Ministries director for the Jacksonville Baptist Association, a $2,000 check for the purchase of Bibles. The check was presented on behalf of the Florida Baptist Foundation.

"I want to make sure that every seaman visiting our port during the holidays will have the opportunity to hear the Gospel and receive a Bible if they don't have one," McClelland told the Florida Baptist Witness. He urged the support of the Port Ministry through a personal endowment an individual may set up through the Foundation (www.floridabaptist.org).

The Port Ministry in Jacksonville staffs two full-service International Seafarer Welcome Centers that are open year-round at the Blount Island Terminal and the Talleyrand Terminal. They also maintain the chapel at Jacksonville International Airport.

Each of the centers includes a homey family room area with a television, several phones and comfortable couches. There is a small chapel room where individuals may go to pray or conduct a small group Bible study, as well as a store which stocks phone cards, hygiene items, souvenirs, over-the-counter medication, vitamins and stamped post cards.

The entire operation is a ministry of the Jacksonville Baptist Association and receives support from the association, churches and individuals. The chaplains staffing each site work in cooperation with the Florida Baptist Convention and the North American Mission Board.

Many of the volunteers are Campers On Mission and provide their own recreational vehicles to stay for two weeks or longer at designated campsites at the terminal or at the Florida Baptist Children's Home in Jacksonville, according to Reid, a retired Jacksonville firefighter and the Blount Island Terminal center director.

"We couldn't do it without them," he said of the volunteers.

Typically, about 24 volunteer chaplains rotate between the centers, staffing each facility and ferrying seafarers from the boats to the centers and to local discount retailers and back. At Christmas time, Reid said about 1,300 gift-wrapped boxes donated by area churches are handed out to the men and women traveling through the port.

Loy said at least 2,500 ships travel through the port annually. Each ship carries an average crew of up to 24 workers from 100 countries throughout the world. Most, if not all, speak English as a requirement of their work, but many pick up donated CDs and DVDs of inspirational music and the Gospel message in their native languages.

Chaplains are often asked to board a ship to conduct a worship or prayer service and to bring reading materials. Seafarers are sometimes in need of legal or emergency assistance.

All too often, Loy said he will receive a call from the port in New York warning him of a ship arriving with a crew that has not been paid for six months or more. Because of contracts and maritime law, Loy said there's not much that can be done except to make sure the individuals have enough to eat and personal products that will last them until the ship returns the men to their home country.

In some cases, the volunteers go above-and-beyond the call of duty.

Charles Brown and his wife, Marie, are volunteer Campers on Mission from Candler, N.C. Both retired from the grocery business and have spent most of the past four years driving their 38-foot motor home between their North Carolina home and port ministries in Jacksonville, Tampa and Cape Canaveral.

"The Lord blesses me with good health so that I can do it," Charles Brown said of keeping up with late night requests for telephone use and midnight runs to a retailer. "We're here until the Lord calls us to do something else."

Back at the center after spending more than an hour getting to know the ship's workers and taking an up-close-and-personal look at the ship's navigation system, Scott, who had taken the ship's wheel in his hands momentarily, recalled "the warm reception" by the crew.

A member of First Baptist Church in Live Oak, Scott said he will remember the 24-year-old pilot -- and how he and the others were receptive to the volunteers' "expression of love."

Morris said he was impressed with the workers' openness to prayer.

"They were so excited to see somebody," Morris said, recalling one seafarer he stood next to in a prayer circle. "I saw him wiping his eye a little bit when 'family' was mentioned. This seemed to validate how important this is."

A member of Bayshore Baptist Church in Tampa, Morris said reaching out to the seafarers makes sense.

"Here we have the world in our back door and all we have to do is go there," Morris said, speaking of the impact of the port ministry throughout the world. "They go home and take the message back with them."

This story first appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com

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