Friday, June 6, 2014
The city known as the “Gateway to the World” may have identified its gatekeepers.
Active since 1821, the Charleston Port and Seafarers’ Society, commonly known as the “Seafarers’ Ministry,” is widely unfamiliar to most South Carolinians.
“We’re the best kept secret,” said Father Len Williams, a retired 20-year Episcopalian priest who now serves as the ministry’s chaplain.
It started as a church on 50 Church St. After being destroyed by the Great Charleston Earthquake of 1886, the ministry moved to the corner of East Bay and Market Streets where they constructed a church to be “freely used of the seamen frequenting the port of Charleston.”
They no longer reside in the church building, but the ministry itself is alive and well.
The society suggests there are about 65,000 seafarers entering Charleston’s three ports annually. These men and women come from nations across the globe, most having been away from family and friends for eight to 12 months.
The ministry saw an opportunity to serve.
“They have physical and spiritual needs ... we’re providing services to these men and women,” Williams said.
These services were compiled into a “bring the ministry to them” strategy due to many seafarers’ lack of visas or shore passes that prevent them from leaving the docked ships. The devoted volunteers board ships to provide prayer support, free Christian literature and Bibles.
Three Charleston ports contain Seafarers’ Centers, including North Charleston, Columbus Street and Wando. Each contains free telephone, computer and internet access for seafarers to call home and Skype loved ones. One seafarer saw his newborn for the first time via video chat at the Wando center.
Williams recalls another instance where a crew from India was docked nine months at the Wando terminal due to repairs needed for the ship. Due to technical and legal reasons, the crew was unable to leave the ship.
The ministry partnered with the Hindu Temple in Charleston, South Carolina to host services aboard the ship and bring supplies to the crew for the duration of their stay.
For Williams, moments such as these can’t be bought.
“You can’t put a price on this,” Williams said.
Along with providing on-site services, the ministry provides free transportation for seafarers to go shopping. If they are unable to leave the ship, volunteers will shop for them.
Phone cards and electronics are the most popular amongst seafarers such as Ordinary Seamen Nyi Nyi Aye and Saul Kyi Lwin, who were anxious to purchase a T-mobile phone card to call relatives on Tuesday.
For volunteer Don Brennan, the confirmation is in the seafarers’ expression.
“When he’s got a smile on his face, you know you’ve done something good,” Brennan said.
Gerard E. Baldwin, the adminstrative director for the ministry, believes more would volunteer for the Seafarers’ Ministry if they understood the impact made by seafarers.
“One in 11 people are impacted by port activity of South Carolina ports,” said Baldwin, referring to the South Carolina Ports Authority website.
According to the site, hundreds of ships enter South Carolina ports each year, with the Wando Tech Terminal deemed as the most efficient in the state. Cargo varies from construction materials to automobile parts. Packaged seafood is even likely to be thrown in the mix. This activity facilitates more than 260,000 statewide jobs and provides an overall economic impact of $45 billion a year.
Williams advises that people remember the seafarers responsible for transporting these tons of cargo.
“We take it for granted, forgetting who makes this possible. It’s these guys,” Williams said.
The Charleston Port and Seafarers’ Society looks to continue service with the new opening of a North Charleston Terminal Seafarers’ Center. They also host a variety of charity events each year, including the annual “Christmas at Sea” Program in which churches from Mount Pleasant to Summerville purchase gift packages for seafarers.
Williams recollected on the countless number of phone calls and letters he’s received from seafarers afar expressing their gratitude for the ministry.
“That’s what Christians are called to do, to make a difference,” Williams said.
Those wishing to volunteer for the Charleston Port and Seafarers’ Society, contact 843-224-9631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donations can be made for the ministry via the web at www.charlestonseafarers.org.