Seamen (from left) Vishram C. Tandel, Anil Kumar Tandel and… (Amy Davis / The Baltimore…)
Toothpaste and spiritual comfort share space in the double-wide storefront in Dundalk.
Magazines and snacks fill crannies and shelves, racks hold donated sweatshirts and winter jackets and somehow, wedged toward the back, is a quiet corner to make a phone call or connect via Skype with family members half a world away.
When you are at sea for months at a time, delivering cargo to ports around the globe, the tiny Stella Maris International Seafarers Center can seem like a palace stuffed with the good things of life.
Opened seven years ago by the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, the center is about to double in size to give merchant seamen a lounge to stretch out and watch a movie, a back patio to barbecue dinner and a chapel for quiet reflection and prayer. The expanded center will be dedicated on Oct. 15, with Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien presiding.
But even the bigger space doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room.
"We have a small footprint," says Monsignor John FitzGerald, who oversees the Apostleship of the Sea ministry that operates the center. "We don't want a country club. Our ministry is to be mobile, to take care of their needs on the ship or get them in a van and bring them here or to the services they need."
Each year, the center hosts more than 12,000 mariners, most of them young men from emerging nations. The efficient unloading of ships at modern ports like Baltimore leaves precious few hours to take care of personal business. Port security requirements and a lack of mobility further compress time.
But with one phone call, a van driven by a volunteer from the center will arrive, ready to take the sailors to a doctor, an eyeglass repair shop or an electronics store.
On a recent morning, three young men from Delhi, India, on a short shore leave from their ship, MSC Claudia, have a one-stop-shopping request. "Walmart, please," says Vishram Tandel.
Working like an air-traffic controller, volunteer Andy Middleton ushers the mariners into the center while talking on the phone to a volunteer van driver bringing a second group of sailors with a similar request. While inside, the seamen scoop up free toiletries and snacks and peruse gently used clothing donated by parishioners and social service groups.
"Our guys don't need coats or ties. They need T-shirts, ball caps, Levi's and Dockers," says FitzGerald, the port of Baltimore chaplain. "What can't be used here we give to Our Daily Bread. Nothing goes to waste."
In a small cubicle, Ravinder Solanki connects with his family on Skype. Peals of laughter punctuate the conversation as his wife, three children and dog gather around a laptop in Delhi while he hunches over a laptop in Dundalk. After saying goodbye, Solanki leans back in his chair and grins, but his brown eyes are moist and he takes a deep breath before saying thank you.
It may be weeks before he can speak with them again, he says.
Life at sea is hard, says FitzGerald. Mariners sign contracts of eight to 10 months' duration, forcing them to miss the birth of children or the death of loved ones. The suicide rate is high and the work — especially with piracy on the rise — can be dangerous.
The seafarer center is more than just a convenience store, phone booth and taxi service.
To help seamen lacking clearance to leave the port or those who are restricted because of on-ship duties, volunteers come aboard with magazines (white bags for secular publications, blue bags for religious ones), loaner laptops and hotspot devices.
"We don't charge for anything," says Middleton.
FitzGerald works with pro bono lawyers to free delayed paychecks or smooth over contract disputes. Middleton drives seamen of other faiths to houses of worship, once locating a Latter-Day Saints meetinghouse for a troubled Mormon seaman and waiting until he was ready to return to his ship.
The archbishop offers praise for FitzGerald and his volunteers and says the center "fills a great spiritual void in the lives of the many women and men who pass through the Port of Baltimore."
In a 1997 letter, Pope John Paul II updated the duties and responsibilities of clergy in ministering to the maritime community and urged bishops in seaports "to show zealous concern for and to offer pastoral assistance to all maritime personnel who reside, even for a short time, within his jurisdiction."
Cardinal William H. Keeler asked FitzGerald, a retired Navy and Marine Corps chaplain, to start a Baltimore chapter of the Apostleship of the Sea in 2003.
"We started from scratch. We didn't have a building. We didn't have a staff. We didn't have a single volunteer," FitzGerald says.
Now, they have all of that and more. The chapel, stark white with warm, dark furniture, gives FitzGerald a place to hear confession and say Mass in six languages. And just this week, a motel near BWI Airport called to donate a van that had been used as a shuttle.
"These guys go from port to port and they don't know anybody. Pope John Paul II called them the invisible strangers among us," says FitzGerald. "We make sure that in Baltimore they don't have to feel like strangers."