2020 provided new perspectives on the work that we do at the Mission to Seafarers, none of which we could have predicted or even expected. One of the things we did not anticipate was how much shopping about 9,000 seafarers could generate.
Most countries did not allow seafarers to come ashore while in port, and Canada was no different. When the St. Lawrence Seaway opened up at the end of March, and we were only allowed to visit ships at the foot of the gangway, we offered to do some shopping for them.
In the beginning, the seafarers were almost reluctant to ask us to shop for them – maybe they were embarrassed. Between our encouragement and their increasing frustration at not being allowed off their ships, the lists got longer and longer…. and more imaginative.
Between April and October, we averaged about $10,000 a month (U.S.!) shopping for everything from soup to nuts, from boxes of Ramen noodles to bags of pistachios. In November, with the possibility for a few of them to return home, the shopping lists ramped up, as did the dollar volume.
But for every minute we had to spend in a lineup or running around a store looking for any number of items, the gratitude we received made it all worth it. Their joy sadly reminded us that we got to go home every night, surrounded by our own walls and families, while these brave and dedicated people, who make sure we get 90 per cent of everything we need or want or use, were surrounded every night by oceans and steel, thousands of miles away from their families and friends.
And then it was Christmas. It is our tradition to deliver a Christmas Ditty Bag to every seafarer entering our ports (in Oshawa, Toronto, Hamilton and Port Colborne) between Dec. 6 and 24. This year the number of gift bags we delivered approached 700. With the generous support of the ITF (International Transportworkers Federation), Falvey Cargo Insurance and a “Secret Santa,” among many others, and with incredible handmade donations of hats, scarves and mittens as well as hundreds of bunk-sized quilts made by legions of dedicated hands, we were able to offer a bit of Christmas to every single seafarer, whether they were Christians or not. In fact, the non-Christian seafarers go absolutely wild when they receive their Christmas Ditty Bags, as they worry that we will forget them – something that is not possible.
One moment was particularly moving, and it wasn’t our gift. One young woman cadet (very rare!) has a boyfriend, also a seafarer on another ship, who found out where she would be in the week before Christmas and sent her a gift of a new cell phone. Well, he sent the gift to us so we added a SIM card and top-ups, wrapped it up and delivered it on Dec. 22. She had no idea what we were doing and needed just a tiny bit of prompting to realize it was from her boyfriend, not the Mission. Watching her reaction was the biggest gift of all! Delivering these packages is an incredibly moving and humbling part of our jobs, something none of us would miss. This particular delivery was the best ever!
2020 may be over, but the protocols aren’t. We expect that we will continue to operate much as we have in the coming months, but because of the vaccines there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And a long, dark tunnel – for seafarers especially – it has been. Please don’t forget them. Continue to keep them in your prayers. And please don’t forget the Mission to Seafarers. The amazing volunteers and staff at our Mission centres around the world are, outside of their families, the only people who remind seafarers that they are essential to the world.