A Friend in Town

For crew memebers who spend months aboard freighters, the Seafarers' Center is a warm presence in a cold port.

Spirit of Sharing

December 16, 2004|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

On most days, he's part of a crew that makes its way along a vast swath of currents in a cargo-filled steel leviathan, and like most seafarers, he helps pacify the world's quenchless appetite for stuff. But on Monday, Philip Salvador found himself on dry land, Baltimore's Fort McHenry Yard, which meant it was once again time to go from missing his wife to searching for what she asked him to bring home.

There was no way he could make the request a Christmas present, for Salvador was not due to return to the Philippines until June. Still, Kathleen was specific, and on Monday, her husband's search appeared to have struck good fortune.

His ship, the Norwegian-based Star Dieppe, had docked next to the Baltimore International Seafarers' Center, an ecumenical Christian ministry dedicated to providing assistance and support to seafarers who visit the port of Baltimore.

Salvador and crewmate Lawrence Cristomo visited the center as its assistant director, the Rev. Mary Davisson, was about to head to Dundalk Marine Terminal in a 15-passenger van to pick up seafarers from Taiwan and take them to a shopping center.

She obliged their request to come along, and moments later Salvador let the good reverend in on his quest.

"Do you know," he asked, "where I can get Victoria's Secret?"

Davisson said she once viewed shopping as a frivolous chore. Her attitude changed after joining the center and giving rides to seafarers - many of whom hail from impoverished backgrounds. After spending months on ships, they come to shore with salary in hand and someone else in mind, hoping to find a keepsake to make the long wait before they go home less stressful.

Yet theirs is a world virtually unknown beyond their borders. "Unless you live in abject poverty, you're participating in the global economy," Davisson said. But shopping, she said, "is a very different thing for these guys."

The buying public is fortunate that heavy hearts do not weigh down vessels, because then their cargo might never leave the point of origin, the gap between manufacture and purchase would go unlinked and your holiday shopping experience might conjure up images of the chariot race scene from Ben Hur.

Those who help keep your favorite stores stocked are the world's invisible couriers, men and women who spend as many as nine months at sea traveling from port to port delivering everything from appliances to lumber to autos to computers to perishables.

They perform their tasks while battling periods of loneliness and separation anxiety, often sailing without access to a phone or the Internet or a post office.

"It gets very lonesome on the ship, especially this time of year when you're away from family," said Roden Apostol, chief officer of the Star Dieppe, who is married and has three children. "It's very important hearing the voices of your family. When you're away this much, it's a good consolation."

Often when they reach shore and are eager to shop, immigration issues or work make it impossible to leave the ship. Some go months without restocking on toiletries; many who hail from countries with year-round warm weather must bear months in colder climes without warm clothing.

The Baltimore International Seafarers' Center has addressed those and other concerns since 1992, when Brother Ed Munro, its director, pursued a calling to ministry and left his job as a Fairfax County, Va., firefighter after 25 years.

It was while serving as a deacon at the Church of the Redemption in Locust Point that he began thinking about a ministry devoted to seafarers, having met crew members while on a family cruise to the Caribbean.

"I decided to start out on my own and it's worked out well," he added. "I started out just visiting ships in my car. Then the Maryland Port Administration gave us an office, and I got a grant from the International Transport Workers' Federation."

The group receives funding from the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, shipping companies and private donors. And seven years ago, the center began working with the Lutheran Women of the Delaware-Maryland Synod to offer gifts. Other groups - including several Episcopal, Baptist and Catholic churches - joined in, and together they now give 800 to 1,000 presents each year.

"We start the day after Thanksgiving, and if we have enough we give through Epiphany [beginning Jan. 6]," Munro said. "We try to give gifts to one ship each day."

Maryland Port Administration spokesman J.B. Hanson said that the port of Baltimore is the busiest port in the United States in the import and export of automobiles among other categories of cargo.

Although the ships that dock at Baltimore's ports may come from more than 100 countries, Munro said, 75 percent of the crew are from the Philippines.

Many seafarers who come here depend on the Seafarers' Center, whose office lobby has a canteen that offers such items as soap and stuffed animals. The center also has a game room, a chapel and a computer center.

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