Welcoming Strangers from the Sea

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Rosemary Chang is fluent in the salty vernacular of those who travel the high seas. They’re not sailors, she instructs, they’re seafarers. And it’s not captain of the ship — it’s master of the ship. They’re oilers, fitters, ship engineers, shipmates. 

Rosemary Chang is a beacon of welcome at the Apostleship of the Sea, a ministry of hospitality for weary, homesick seafarers arriving in Baltimore’s ports.

She has come to know them all in the nine months that she has volunteered through IVC at Baltimore’s Apostleship of the Sea. It is a Catholic ministry of welcome unique to the port cities of the world, where seafarers dock sometimes for weeks, but more often for just a few hours or a night. 

Far from home, and at sea for long months, the men and women who work on the mammoth ships that dock in Baltimore’s harbors receive a genuine welcome, a safe haven at port, help with communicating with loved ones back home and spiritual renewal from the likes of Chang and the ministry’s volunteers and chaplain, Msgr. John FitzGerald, a retired captain of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps.

“I’m in awe of the ships and the time they have to spend at sea,” Chang says. “They do look forward to us visiting, and they look so happy when they see us — that in and of itself is rewarding.”

The seafarers hale from around the world — the Philippines, Ukraine, India, Bulgaria, China — but Chang is undaunted by language barriers. Born in Aruba to Chinese parents, she speaks English, Chinese, Dutch, and Spanish. In fact, part of the reason she was drawn to the ministry was because of the many types of people she expected to encounter. And because many of the seafarers are Asian, she felt a particular calling to serve them. 

“You see their faces and some of them are thinking of their families,” she says of the homesick seafarers. “It’s hard on them, but yet they do the work to support their families.”

Indeed, merchant seafaring takes a steep emotional toll, says Msgr. FitzGerald. 

“They suffer loneliness and depression. They’re isolated from their culture, their language, their family. They don’t have access to Catholic parish life. They miss funerals, births, weddings, anniversaries, and they’re thrown into a ship with kids from other cultures, languages and religions,” he says. “It very much takes a special kind of person to handle all that.”

Apostleship of the Sea seeks to mitigate some of the challenges of life at sea, FitzGerald says, adding that he relies wholly on volunteers. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. If [a volunteer] can identify with that ministry, this is the ministry for them.”

It is a ministry in which Chang thrives, not so much because of the hospitality she extends but because of the joy she receives from those she meets. It is instant gratification, she says. 

“Every day is Christmas when I go there,” she exclaims. “What attracts me is when I meet them and feel their excitement. Their excitement fills me. They help me live my life happier.”

Each day she volunteers, she checks the dispatch report to see how many and where they ships are docked. Then she along with other volunteers (IVC supplies four to the agency), head to the ports. Chang climbs the 50-60 steps up the steep, steel ladders onto the boats, clutching three plastic shopping bags. One is filled with bibles, prayer books and rosaries. Another holds non-religious books and reading material. A third contains all manner of donated goods, from clothes to personal hygiene items. 

Often there are one or two members of the crew who speak English. They convey the various needs of the crew — one needs to send money home, another needs to make a call to a loved one, several others want to shop at Wal-Mart or Best Buy for good and gifts to bring back home.

Chang will ferry a group in the ministry’s van to run the errands and shopping trips. 

“I tell them, ‘We get our stuff from India and China, but you come all the way here to buy them!’” she laughs. 

It is Chang’s ease with the seafarers that strikes Msgr. FitzGerald. “She is a terrifically competent person with great communication and language skills. She understands the Catholic spirituality of seeing Christ in the stranger.”

Hospitality is one of the most-used words in Scriptures and one of its greatest themes, FitzGerald adds. 

But to Chang, hospitality is simply a conduit that brings joy into her own life. “The energy from their [seafarers’] happiness fills your life.”

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