Backstory: Shipshape faith

At 9:45 a.m. on a mild January day, chaplain Nash Garabedian stands at the end of an asphalt pier, looks down the harbor, and watches as members of his congregation – whom he doesn't even know yet – hasten into port alongside a tugboat. "She's clipping right along," says the Rev. Garabedian as the 466-foot Margit Gorthon, a cargo ship 1-1/2 times the length of a football field, glides toward the marine terminal.

As usual, the crew has no time to spare. A fleet of flatbed trucks and hydraulic lifts will have less than 36 hours to offload 7,800 tons of newsprint on giant spools before sending the ship back to Newfoundland for more. That means Garabedian, too, will have just a few hours to meet the multinational crew and minister to whatever needs they've brooded over during several lonely, laborious months at sea.

Garabedian is, in effect, a floating minister. He is a chaplain who offers spiritual counseling and other support to the thousands of crew members who arrive in port here each year with their diverse cultural backgrounds and even more diverse social problems.

As the mission director for Portland and nearby Portsmouth, N.H., for Seafarer's Friend, he is carrying on a 180-year tradition begun by evangelical New England Congregationalists in ministering to one of the world's most ephemeral flocks. Chaplains from Seafarer's Friend seldom preach or administer sacraments on the ships. That's in part because they are Protestants dealing largely with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox crews. Instead, they help ship workers with personal issues and on-the-job complaints, though they will offer more overt religious counseling when asked.

The task isn't easy. In today's age of global commerce, the crew members' time in port – and thus Garabedian's window of consoling – is shorter than ever, and done under new security restrictions in the aftermath of 9/11.

"We're dealing with a dynamic in which 25 or so individuals are on a ship together for four to five months," says Loring Carpenter, executive director of Seafarer's Friend, an interdenominational ministry. "Often the presenting complaint that we hear from a seafarer is only the tip of the iceberg, and really there are deeper relational things occurring that happen when you live in a community. And we have to assess that all in about 15 minutes."

***

Within four hours of the Margit Gorthon's landfall, Garabedian already has a satchel-full of things to deal with. In a smoky mess hall, where sailors eat separately from officers, two Filipinos on this mostly Ukrainian crew of 22 spot his clerical collar and immediately unload their troubles. Christopher Vicente, a dishwasher and prep cook, holds up a plastic bottle. The discolored water inside looks brownish against his white T-shirt.

"That's what you're drinking?" Garabedian asks. "You know you need to boil that, right?"

Mr. Vicente nods. "We boiled it for more than two hours."

Then electrician Carlos Marcelino speaks up. He looks tired and panicked. Capt. Lech Dryzal has criticized his work and plans to transfer him to a sister ship. That could mean a drop in his $2,000-per-month salary. With a wife and five children at home counting on his wages, he wonders whether a transfer is even allowable. "He says he can transfer me. Is that right?" Mr. Marcelino asks Garabedian, as if he were a labor lawyer. "I have contract with Margit Gorthon!"

"I understand you are angry," Garabedian responds more than once. "But take a deep breath. You don't want to get blackballed because you didn't cooperate. If that happens, you won't be able to work again."

Garabedian is a genial man with a whisk-broom mustache that has salt-and-pepper hair longer than on his scalp. To him, such pleas have become routine. Portland Harbor receives about 750 cargo deliveries a year, which means he has as many as 15,000 seafarers to serve. He and his two-person team get to about 45 percent of the ships that come into port.

With each visit, he draws on his work background. He drove trucks and other heavy equipment for his father's paving business before spending five years as a parish minister in New Gloucester, Maine. He knows how much churches give: Parishioners in some 150 congregations across New England send money, supplies, and hand-knit scarves to the sailors every winter. Now he wants to make sure the gifts are put to good use – and the crews' needs met.

"They give up being at home for the births of their children, for the first steps their children take, for the first words they speak," Garabedian says. "They're doing this so their families can have a better life."

New England-based Seafarer's Friend has 10 chaplains and volunteers it sends out to the ships that come into Portland, Portsmouth, and Boston. These workers can't solve all the problems they encounter. But they do get things done and make the sailors feel like someone "cares" about them, says Douglas Stevenson, a lawyer for the Seamen's Church Institute of New York & New Jersey, a legal aid group. He notes how the chaplains in Boston worked out an arrangement with terminal operators shortly after 9/11 to allow seafarers to go ashore despite heightened private security measures.

Garabedian promises Marcelino he'll investigate what's permissible under his contract. He then weighs his options: consult a maritime union, talk to a legal expert, arrange a meeting with the captain. Whatever the course, the chaplain will have to be careful not to alienate the Cyprus-based shipping company, Lemissoler. "We're their guests," he says. "We walk a very fine line because we have to work with everyone."

Moments later, Garabedian dons his cross-emblazoned hard hat and descends a shaky gangway for a less intense type of outreach: taking six crew members to Maine's largest mall. Seafarers, who often haven't set foot on land for months, jump at the opportunity to shop. It's a welcome break from a life where "every day is Monday," because at sea there are no days off, and where crew members sleep in tight quarters.

***

Vicente hasn't left the ship since he boarded in October. He couldn't justify the cab fares in Philadelphia; Cape Canaveral, Fla.; or Corner Brook, Newfoundland – the ship's other ports of call. He earns $400 per month, or $1.50 per hour, of which he sends $200 to his family in the Philippines. On this day, however, he splurges (for him) at the mall: a $10 bottle of cologne at Victoria's Secret, and a $10 phone card for biweekly calls to his parents and girlfriend.

On the ride back to the ship, the van gets quiet, as Garabedian says it usually does when the reality of returning to sea hits home. But Vicente isn't dismayed, in part because of the faith that makes him feel close to the chaplain he just met. "I pray every morning and every night before bed," he says. "I pray for good weather and calm seas. But I always give thanks."

Back at the terminal, Garabedian climbs the gangway with 22 donated "ditty bags" containing items such as toothpaste, knit hats, and gloves. He hands out the bags over dinner. Baby-faced Ukrainian sailors in muscle shirts dump the contents beside their plates and smile.

Yet, on the more serious issues, Garabedian works no miracles. After reading Marcelino's contract, he tells him the transfer seems legitimate. He also declines to notify the US Coast Guard about the brown drinking water. "Water problems are very common on ships," he says.

As the chaplain heads for the exit, Marcelino stops him in the hallway and makes one last appeal. Moments later, Captain Dryzal turns the corner, and they both clam up. With that, Garabedian bids his congregants good night – leaving them to work out their differences at sea.

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