Baltimore Seafarer's Center offers sailors welcome respite of life at sea

April 16, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Contributing Writer

In a large, quiet room, Ed Monroe stands in front of clocks telling the time in Manila, Moscow, Bombay and London, and holds at arm's length the thin paperback that got him started.

"I've gone aboard ships and had people hold this in their hand, and want to know where these groups are," he says defiantly, not a little upset. "And I've had to tell them they don't exist anymore."

The book, the 1989 edition of the International Christian Maritime Association Directory, lists the groups that assist and welcome foreign sailors at all of the world's great ports. But while the book lists several organizations for Baltimore, none is still active.

Baltimore's port has fallen victim to the same trends that have dogged other old East Coast ports -- intense competition, world recession, decline in international trade, and an increase in technology and automation that bolsters efficiency even while leaving many laborers out of work. Roughly 3,500 longshoreman were employed at the port in the mid '70s, compared to about 1,800 today.

While the port has rebounded in the past two years, sailors don't have the visibility around town they used to, and the port has come to seem less and less central an institution for most Baltimoreans.

Last year, Mr. Monroe, an Episcopalian deacon nearing his 22nd year as a firefighter, decided it was time to change things.

Fifty-six hours a week, Mr. Monroe saves homes from fires. Every Sunday, at Our Lady of the Redemption in Locust Point, he saves souls. And, in whatever time he's got left, he saves foreign sailors from loneliness and despair.

An unglamorous working-class hero, Mr. Monroe runs the Baltimore International Seafarer's Center, a literal and figurative port in the storm for foreign sailors. From work on ships such as Venus Diamond, Asian Breeze, Alabama Star, Ocean Ace, the sailors can find temporary respite at the center the three to five days a week it's open.

They want to shop

"Most of the time it's not very exotic," Mr. Monroe says of his work at the center. "They want to go to East Point Mall and buy shoes or jeans or something."

Most visiting sailors are from the Philippines or Eastern Europe, and may be at sea a whole year without returning to their home port. Most of the welcome centers in Baltimore had been tied to the churches of ethnic groups, which now bring few sailors to the port. As a result, most of these centers -- Norwegian Seamen's Church, Danish Seamen's Church -- have faded.

Sailors come into Mr. Monroe's center most frequently to make long-distance calls home. "The most important thing they can do in Baltimore is to come here and make contact with their family," he says.

But things can get more complicated.

Sometimes sailors have problems with their captains. Other times, ships begin to break apart at sea. Mr. Monroe remembers when a Russian sailor died with $1,300 in cash on him; the deacon worked to make sure the money got to his family.

The center itself is a humble sight -- three small rooms on the second floor of a squat, red-brick Terminal Office Building. A Ping-Pong table rests in the center of the largest room, and behind it soap, shaving cream and toothpaste sit on shelves along the wall. Baseball caps and T-shirts hang from pegs. The living room next door offers a television, VCR, books and magazines. Small wooden statuettes of sailors with pipes and

white beards stare out at visitors.

Center fills a gap

The center fills a gap because neither justice nor a sympathetic ear are easy to come by at sea, sailors say. "If you have a problem at sea, you need to work and work," says Samuel Malmis, 43, a radio officer originally from Pagadian City, Philippines, who has spent the last nine months at sea. "Sometimes we need some practical advice." The best thing about the center, says the husband and father of three, is its "bringing our family nearer to us."

Mr. Monroe got the idea for the seamen's center after taking a Caribbean cruise with his wife and parents in 1991.

"I talked to some of the crew about their jobs," he recalls, ". . . about how hard the work was and how long they were away from home." The sailors told Mr. Monroe they relied on seamen's centers at ports -- usually supported by municipalities or collections of churches -- to make them feel at home and to help them contact their families.

'They were all gone'

When Mr. Monroe returned to Baltimore, he looked into the local seamen's centers. "And the more I investigated the more I found there wasn't anything going on anymore. And when I started calling them I found out they were all gone.

"I either had to forget about it or start something, and I decided to start something."

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