This is an article from the June-July 1989 issue: Seamen’s Mission

Seamen’s Mission:

Gateway to the Unreached Peoples

Seamen’s Mission:

“There’s no question—Jesus has a better deal,” realized one Chinese seaman when given the chance to make a valid comparison between Buddha and Christ. He requested baptism at the local seafarers’ center, where the chaplain also gave him a New Testament and several Bible study booklets. By the time his ship returned to this same port three months later, eight of his Buddhist shipmates had joined him in searching the Scriptures, and two were ready to be baptized.

Seafarers Old and New

Those who minister to seafarers around the world find them a receptive group. However, most Christians are unaware of the mission field and the mission potential represented by seafarers (seamen and, to a greater extent now, “seawomen”). Our stereotypes are shaped by earlier periods of missions to seafarers in which nurturing stations provided a spiritual “home away from home” for European and North American crews.

Yet today the make-up of the world’s merchant ship crews has shifted dramatically. Now 80 percent of all seafarers come from Asia. “Most seafarers have never heard the gospel,” claims Dr. Roald Kverndal, leading spokesman for ministry needs and opportunities among seafarers. Kverndal serves as executive secretary of the International Council of Seamen’s Agencies (ICOSA) and as maritime ministry consultant to the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

He points out that the Church is often not motivated or structured to reach out to seafarers with the gospel, but adds that these maritime migrants—a deprived, lonely and vulnerable group—are hungry for the Good News.

What’s more, once seafarers have come to Christ, they can let their light shine both on board ship and in ports of call around the world. And they do, as the evidence shows. “Koreans are taking the lead” in missions to fellow seamen, says Kverndal, “but we also have contact with hundreds of ministering seafarers from the Philippines, Burma, and India.”

One non-Westerner in full-time ministry to seafarers is Chaplain Peter Ibrahim, a native of Sudan who lives in Hamburg, West Germany. Attracted to maritime ministry while in Europe, Ibrahim fulfilled his seminary internship among seamen in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and later returned to Europe. He now ministers in Hamburg with the Northelbian Center for World Mission and the German Seamen’s Mission.

Ibrahim has encountered all kinds of seafarers, including Arabic-speaking Muslims, Coptic believers from Egypt, and Korean Christians. The Koreans, he says, “are tremendous. There’s nothing half-baked with them. And when they go ashore, …they spread the Gospel wherever they go.”

Kverndal points out that seafarers were the first missionaries chosen by Jesus. After all, his disciples—as fishermen—were men who made their living on the water. “As doors to some countries are closing, seafarers could be our last missionaries,” he says. To Kverndal, seafarers also make the best missionaries. He points to their courage, compassion, honesty, and whole-heartedness. And, he adds, they are always on the move, making natural itinerant evangelists.

Kverndal should know his subject. Born in Britain of Norwegian parents, his childhood memories of Sundays go back to the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in London. Centuries of seafaring heritage on both sides of the family made a vocation at sea a natural choice.

“It was through the ministry of the Scandinavian Seamen’s Church in Rouen, France, that the lack of commitment into which I had drifted was challenged, and I was reclaimed by the Gospel,” writes Kverndal in the preface of his book, Seamen’s Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth. The result of 15 years of worldwide research, this volume is considered the classic in its field. (See book review on page 7.)

Kverndal has served in roles ranging from cabin boy to shipbroker to chaplain, and he has also earned a degree in a branch of marine law. Remembering his call to mission to seafarers, Kverndal says, “After my renewal of faith…, I received, to my surprise, ‘new orders from the bridge.’”

Revolution in Maritime Industry

Since World War II the face of the maritime industry has changed significantly—both technologically and culturally. Shipowners are now confronted with cut-throat international competition and huge outlays of capital investments. The only major operational expense they have been able to trim is crews’ wages and benefits. By transferring tonnage to so-called “flags of convenience” (also called “runaway” or “pirate” flags), owners today hire crews from developing countries at a fraction of former costs.

And when you start counting, you may be surprised at the number of seafarers. Tally merchant seafarers and others engaged in industrialized and commercial fishing worldwide, and they total over ten million. Their immediate dependents multiply the figure several times. And whereas a generation ago merchant ship crews were largely European and North American in nationality, now Asians dominate the common ranks. (It is still true, however, that many officers are Westerners.)

The largest ethnic contingent among today’s seafarers is made up of Filipinos. Next come Koreans, Chinese (from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the People’s Republic of China), then Indonesians, Indians, Pakistanis, and Burmese. Many of these crews, predictably enough, come from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Marxist, or animistic backgrounds.

The Needs of Seafarers

Sociologists call ships a floating “total institution,” comparable to a prison or boarding school. Samuel Johnson once pointed out that a sailor is the same as a prisoner, with the added danger of drowning. The saying that “sailors go round the world without going into it” hints at the exploitation seafarers historically have experienced at the hands of “crimps” when in port.

Such characters—including brothel-keepers and “pettyfogging sea-lawyers”— were common in the 19th-century port cities of England. Kverndal observes that the method of the crimp “consisted in attaching himself to his victim from the earliest possible moment, and thereupon exploiting every peculariarity of the seaman’s situation and character to serve his mercenary end.”

Seafarers are still prey to such opportunists, and working conditions have not always changed for the better. In fact, automation makes ship crews smaller, with greater work loads, and seafarers face even greater isolation than in the past. No industry has a higher rate of suicide, according to Kverndal.

Crews from countries in the Two-Thirds world are especially vulnerable to systematic exploitation, say both Kverndal and Dr. Paul Chapman of the Seamen’s Church Institute in New York. Separated from their families, friends, and homelands, these seafarers are “deprived by their vocation of primary relationships,” according to Kverndal. The flip side of this vulnerability, however, is the receptivity of seafarers to change and to the compassion of caring Christians who reach out to them.

Other Advocates

One facet of the Seamen’s Church Institute is the Center for Seafarer’s Rights. The Center serves as an advocate for seamen in such routine problems as poor wages, contract problems, and termination due to illness or the ship’s bankruptcy.

Chapman points out that “there are no policemen on board once a ship goes to sea. Enforcement of the law is up to the captain, and this is often arbitrary.” The Institute also offers training for seafarers to help them pass officers exams and obtain higher-paying positions.

Father James Dillenburg of Green Bay, Wisconsin, president of ICOSA, says of Christian workers among seafarers, “We’re the only people who are there for the seamen. We’re not there to sell to them or to take care of the ship’s business. Our primary goal is to share the Good News with them.”

Dillenburg points out that ICOSA works hand-in-hand with the American Bible Society (ABS) to make Bibles and gospel tracts available to seamen. “A representative of the ABS is always present at our meetings,” he says.

Network Around the World

ICOSA’s ministry is a joint effort of chaplains and laypeople from several denominations—Southern Baptist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and many others. Its membership comes from port outreaches in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean.

The larger, global counterpart to ICOSA is the International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA), based in London, which brings together such agencies as the Nordic Seamen’s Missions, the German Seamen’s Mission, The Missions to Seamen (Anglican), and many others.

The annual meeting of ICMA four years ago took place in Baguio City in the Philippines. Members took the opportunity to interact with people on all sides of the issues facing Filipino seafarers—representatives of unions, employment agencies, seamen’s families, and the Filipino national government. “It made a real difference for the Filipino seafarers,” Dillenburg attests.

Admittedly, many of these outreach efforts are comprised of Caucasians seeking to minister to today’s Asian merchant marine force. This is understandable, given the Western origin of the seafarers’ mission movement.

But now non-Westerners, too—especially Asians—are taking the initiative. The first indigenous, non-Western seafarers’ mission to be formed was Korean Harbor Evangelism, founded in 1974. Other agencies have developed in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Japan. Material on seafarers’ mission has been incorporated into the regular curriculum of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in northern Sumatra, and strides for regional cooperation were taken last February as Asian members of ICMA met in Sumatra for four days of consultation.

Diversity Among Workers

Kverndal says that within ICOSA and ICMA there is a spirit of cooperation and camraderie in Christ which spans a wide diversity in both theology and methodology. “We must avoid fracturing the face of Christ on the waterfront!,” he exclaims. “That means that no single individual or group can claim a monopoly on all the answers.”

Kverndal sees the social components of seafarers’ ministry as indispensable, while at the same time believing that a clear, biblical stance regards evangelization as a higher priority. He points to the Tacoma Seamen’s Center, directed by Chaplain Ray Eckhoff, as one of the most successful in implementing this balanced model of ministry.

Model in the Pacific Northwest

Eckhoff isn’t content with so-called “presence” evangelism. Committed to following up the spiritually hungry and discipling those who come to faith in Christ, his center shares computerized ship reports with other seafarer’s centers worldwide and also uses facsimile messages to pass on the names of seafarers needing follow-up.

Eckhoff and his colleagues also provide evangelistic Bible correspondence courses in many languages, audio music or teaching tapes, and videotapes of Christian drama. This “Ministering Seafarers’ Program” was first developed by Lutherans, but is now endorsed by many denominations and agencies around the world.

“We give follow-up literature to at least one person on the ship. He becomes a ‘ministering seafarer,‘” explains Eckhoff, adding that this seafarer can then distribute literature to others on the vessel. This program is one of the most promising signs that the goal to see, by the year 2000, “a New Testament church with a viable witness on board every ship crossing the oceans”—as Dr. Donald McGavran puts it—may be more realistic than some observers might think.

Simple but Valuable Services

Seafarers’ centers offer services to ship’s crews as simple as providing transportation for them to go shopping or to visit tourist attractions. Volunteers also help seamen to phone home, or write letters if they can’t write.

Myrna Kramer, one such volunteer at the International Seafarers’ Center in Long Beach, California, observes, “Many people have been led to the Lord.” Fifty-seven nationalities frequent the Southern California ports of Long Beach and San Pedro. They include Burmese, Japanese, Brazilians, Greeks, Dutch, and many others. “They come from just about everywhere,” says Myrna.

Starting Close to Home

Coastal ports aren’t the only places you’ll find these kinds of ministry opportunities. Many North American cities on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River are host to scores of Asian seafarers every day. The Duluth-Superior port on Lake Superior ranks as the fifteenth-busiest port in the United States. If you live in or near Gary, Green Bay, Montreal, or many other cities in this region, you could be in touch with seafarers who have never heard the gospel.

The best place to begin, chaplains say, is with friendship. “Invite seafarers into your homes and church services. Take them shopping, sightseeing, and to sports events. Give them good reading material,” suggests Kverndal. He adds that mission to seafarers must be patiently conducted with the attitude of being an ambassador of Christ, without coersion or arrogance.

Missiologist Daniel Bloomquist observes, ”Our seaports are ‘gateways’ through which fellow-humans from all over the world come to us by centripetal movement, after which they are ”spun back” to all parts of the world again by centrifugal movement. What a unique, God-given opportunity to give them the Gospel—just where these two movements intersect!”

Seafarers’ mission is indeed a strategic gateway to the nations, including many of the world’s 12,000 unreached peoples. Could God be calling you or someone you know to such a ministry?

For further information, write or call:

Ray Eckhoff, International Coordinating Committee for Maritime Follow-up Ministry, 1225 E. Alexander Ave., Tacoma, WA 98421, (206) 272-0716.
Roald Kverndal, Executive Secretary, International Council of Seamen’s Agencies, 2513 162nd Avenue N.E., Bellevue, WA 98008, (206) 885-9201.
Bernard Krug, General Secretary, International Christian Maritime Association, 81 Orwell Road, Felixstowe, IP11-7PY, England.

A Rich Tradition of Social and Spiritual Ministry

Seamen's Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth, by Roald Kverndal, William Carey Library, Pasadena, Calif., 610 pp., plus 292 pp. of notes, appendices, indices, bibliographies, etc. $29.95 retail, $25.50 discount. Reviewed by John Holzmann, staff member with Caleb Resources.

"Any attempt to evangelize... seamen [in the early 19th century had] to contend with two particular forms of public prejudice. Many, not least in evangelical ranks, saw seamen as totally irredeemable; having been beyond the pale of church and society for centuries, they were now, as a class, considered to be utterly impervious to spiritual or moral impressions. Others... held that a converted sailor would, by definition, make an inferior sailor; anything more than lip-service to religion would simply soften the 'hardy tar.'"--- Seamen's Missions, p. 51.

Roald Kverndal's Seamen's Missions is the fascinating story of the development of Christian ministries to seamen. Focused primarily on British activities, but highlighting the early development of missions to seafarers in North America as well, Seamen's Missions takes readers from the time of the early Church on through the heady seamen's mission start-up years of the mid-19th century. Along the way, we're also treated to a view of the social, spiritual and historical roots of significant movements in the Christian church (the international Bible societies and tract distribution, for instance) and of changes in society at large.

For a book that began as a doctoral dissertation, Seamen's Missions is surprisingly easy to read ("only" a 12th grade reading difficulty) and profusely illustrated (close to 200 photographs, woodcuts, and other illustrations). Still, people who are unversed in (especially British) naval terminology will have a difficult time with many passages. This reader, anyway, would have appreciated a "ready reference" card that explained what, for instance, a "74" is, or the difference (or similarity) between a "Jack" and a "Tar." With a simple two- or three-page glossary, the book could have been made more accessible to a far broader audience.

The Naval Journal overstates the case when it comments that Seamen's Missions holds "surprises on every page." But there are still enough surprises and points of interest in the book to hold the attention of 'most any serious student of Christian history.

As far as this reader is concerned, one of the more inspiring sub-themes Kverndal develops is the interplay of social and spiritual ministry among our evangelical forebears. As he puts it, "[T]he dawn of organized seamen's missions was heralded by ministry to the seafarer's social needs to be followed... by a ministry to his spiritual needs--- not vice versa" (pp. 50-51).In describing the social conscience and resultant ministries of evangelicals 150 years ago, Kverndal gave me insights into my evangelical heritage, insights my teachers--- both secular and spiritual--- either never knew or were pleased to overlook.

Highly recommended not only for students of naval history (for them it is required reading), but also for those concerned with social and moral reform today. Gives hope that God's cause--- righteousness and justice--- can win over immorality and injustice.

Order your copy of Seamen's Missions by using the order page in this issue of Mission Frontiers. MF readers should also note that Kverndal is preparing an abbreviated, updated version of Seamen's Missions for future publication.


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