It is ironic that as I write this article, I am sailing past a long line of cargo ships anchored in the southern waters of British Columbia between Vancouver Island and Vancouver harbour, and from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Burrard Inlet. Some of the ships have been sitting at anchor for weeks on end, waiting for space to open up at Vancouver’s docks that would allow them to discharge their cargo, the stuff of our dreams.
We have recently finished our first Mission to Seafarers Canada in-person conference in three and a half years, during which we shared information on how much our world – and the world of the seafarers we serve – has changed. We noted that because of COVID-19, the term “supply chain” and its effect on humanity officially brought seafarers to the attention of many in the world. However, seafarers have somehow dropped out of our consciousness while the supply chain remains front and centre. We call that “sea blindness.”
Now it’s Christmas time. For us at the Canadian Missions to Seafarers, our concern is less with the supply chain and more with the seafarers and what we can do to help them at this extremely stressful time of the year. Some are entering a third year with limited, if any, shore leave and contract extensions that have kept them away from their families for many extra months. Others face the horrors of a war at home and not knowing where their families are. We are faced with bringing some semblance of Christmas into the hearts and lives of these brave men and women, no matter what their faith or culture.
Seafarers count on us to bring Christmas spirit on board each year, and it’s never been more important than it is now. We deliver hundreds of “Ditty Bags” to the arriving ships; they are filled with a variety of treats, but none are more welcome than the hand-knitted goods such as hats, scarves, mittens and bunk-sized quilts and afghans that find their way into every bag.
It’s not the items themselves that the seafarers appreciate the most but the act behind them. As one seafarer explained to me, it is the fact that a complete stranger took up knitting needles (or a sewing machine or crochet hook) and made a gift for another complete stranger. There is time and love in each item, an expression of hope that is profound. Think of it this way: the craftsperson doesn’t have an image in mind of what the seafarer looks like; they just make the item to be received. And likewise for the seafarer: they don’t have any idea who the craftsperson is, or what she or he looks like, but they are thrilled to be the recipient of the gift.
The source of all this is generosity, given and received, without any expectation on either side. These particular craftspeople spend 12 months of the year knitting, creating and setting aside each item, and when they run out of room around the end of October, I get a call asking when they can make their delivery. Hundreds of items – all handmade, all cherished. And after they deliver these items, these wonderful craftspeople start all over again. Sounds like what Jesus needs all of us to be doing.
On our packing day, a group of volunteers gathers to pack up the 800 or so bags filled with all kinds of toiletries, sweets, notepads, pens, card games and at least one handmade item. That goes on the top of the bag and is the first thing the seafarers see when they open them. When they wrap their scarves around their necks, or pull the toque over their ears, the smile that splits their faces is priceless, let me tell you. A thumbs-up lets us know that the gift is a hit – and will continue to be on every cold day.
To the dozens of knitters and craftspeople across Canada that the Mission is blessed to have supporting our ministry, please accept the collective thanks of both us at the Mission and the seafarers whom you bless with your gifts, your time and your unconditional love.