The Spirit of the Port
Global Maritime Ministries leads daily practices to provide physical and spiritual wellness for mariners
Two seafarers who visited our center recently pointing to their current location.
Global Maritime Ministries supports the large Port community with spiritual wellness, a service that has been a beacon to mariners entering the River Parishes for over 50 years.
The Port of South Louisiana takes in the most domestic and international imports of any port in the country. Seafarers from all across the world dock at the Port to load and unload cargo, and often get out to stretch on dry land for the first time in up to nine months. Global Maritime Ministries sees this community needs a grounding force to help them endure the changing tides and spiritual instability of this type of work.
It was in 1962 that Reverend John Vanderook undertook the responsibility of working with international mariners at the Port of New Orleans. In the following years, what he then called the “New Orleans Baptist Seamen’s Service,” would deliver gospel sermons and helpful materials out of a mobile home to the aid of thousands of seafarers from all across the world. It wasn’t until 1999 after the mission had grown beyond Vandercook’s imagination and had been passed down to his son Reverend Philip Vandercook, that the ministry was renamed Global Maritime Ministries and began to take root with two ministry centers, one in New Orleans, the other in Reserve.
“In the 50 years that this has been running, our ministry has run across every situation you could imagine,” said Robert Roussel, a pastor at Reserve’s First Baptist Church. Roussel has been the Port Chaplain with Global Maritime Ministries at the port in Reserve for almost two years and has already begun to see the importance of this ministry in supporting the betterment of seafaring life. “On rare occassions, some people that we talk to are being taken advantage of—they’re not being paid, the work they’re doing is unsafe, or their living situations are inadequate.” Rousell does emphasize that the majority of the ship owners follow ethical guidelines as well as international standards for seafarer safety and living conditions.
“Our first priority is to make sure that we address the health and happiness of the seafarers at our Port. Then, we offer the gospel. We spread the word and have conversations about spiritual welfare and put forth the message that we’re here for them in whatever form they need us.”
This mission of humanitarian effort reaches every corner of the Earth. Every morning that Roussel gets to work there is at least one new ship docked at the Reserve Port — a ship full of workers to provide holistic ministry. The Port mainly deals with cargo. These ships are either coming up the river or leaving the river to set sail to the other side of the globe. In the two years that Roussel has been at Global Maritime Ministries, he’s seen just about every nationality and language represented at the Port, and inside the ministry, there are bookshelves full of Bibles in just about all of them.
“The average contract at sea is nine months, and a lot of people docking here are preparing for a 52 day, non-stop voyage to China, interacting with the same 22 people the entire way,” said Roussel, “That’s what makes our service such a beacon for them. We tell them that they’re welcome to come to our facility at the port whenever they want to use our WiFi and our phones to get in touch with their families.”
The isolation and monotonous aspects of the seafarers’ jobs can be relieved with the big hearts of the people working at Global Maritme Ministries. “Most of the time they just want to sit down, have a cup of coffee and talk. They want some new human interaction,” Roussel said. “Sometimes I even bring my kids here and you can see the seafarer’s faces light up because they haven’t seen children in a very long time and probably miss their own.”
Fun gaming activities are another powerful, energetic outlet for the seafarers. “We also have recreational amenities in here that they enjoy, like ping pong, pool, air hockey and foosball tables. Getting them on solid ground to put their heads back and relax here for a couple of hours in between shifts is a pretty big deal to them. But probably the biggest thing we offer is free transportation to places like Walmart or wherever they need to pick something up.”
There are two Port Chaplains on staff at the Port, Roussel and his co-minister Adam McCarty, and they spend a significant part of their days providing this transportation to the seafarers that need to get some shopping done. The rides to replace broken laptops or to refill the medical center’s oxygen tanks provide Roussel and McCarty with plenty of time to get to know each of these mariners personally and to share with them the meaning of Christianity. It’s in conversations like these that the Reserve chaplains and seafarers from all across the world build relationships that last, relationships that both parties remember the next time they come back to this part of the Mississippi.
“It’s nice when we see a ship return that we haven’t seen in a year,” Roussel said. “We get to the ship and we see people we spent just 12 hours with and they remember us by name. It feels really good, and it really proves the value of what we’re doing here.”