The Rev. Judith Alltree is fond of using the phrase “the ministry of small gestures” to describe her work. Alltree is the executive director and chaplain of the Mission to Seafarers’ Southern Ontario chapter, a non-denominational and multi-faith organization that cares for seafarers who arrive in the ports of Hamilton, Oshawa and Toronto.
The phrase “ministry of small gestures” comes by way of investigative journalist Rose George, who defines the mission to seafarers as such in Ninety Percent of Everything, her book on the world of freight shipping.
“That really sums up, in one sentence, what we do,” says Alltree over the course of an interview at the Mission’s Hamilton headquarters. “We listen. I go onboard now with little bags of chocolates for the crew. It’s a little gesture, a small gesture, but it just says to the crew, ‘We’re happy to see you, we’re glad you’re safe. What do you need, how can we help you?’ ”
These small gestures-a bag of chocolates, a kind word, the lending of an ear-can go a long way in accumulating the trust of a ship’s captain and crew. And in an industry that critics say is notorious for its lack of oversight, trust is a commodity in short supply.
Society’s collective amnesia with regard to the method by which the vast majority of everyday items reach our shores contributes to this lack of oversight, says Alltree. Ninety per cent of everything people use comes by way of ship, she says, but little or no thought is spared for the men and women aboard. The crew is rendered “invisible,” and thus becomes much more vulnerable to a myriad of workplace abuses, some of which can lead to loss of life.
“We talk a lot about fairly traded coffee, cocoa, sugar. And that’s really important, and we can never lose sight of that,” says Alltree. “But what we also have to remember is that it gets here on a ship. Nobody thinks about the human element to that-it is fairly traded, [but] as soon as it gets on that ship, fairness goes out the window.”
Alltree points to the example of the German cargo ship Fritz, which limped into the port of Oshawa in July 2014, badly in need of repairs. The ship had been abandoned by its owners. The crew, having gone without pay for a little over three months, had been rationing food and water for weeks, and were now nearly out of both. “The owner of the ship who is responsible for this doesn’t get arrested,” says Alltree. “He could be in the Caymans, he could be in Nice, who knows? It’s the crew onboard the ship that suffers.”
The 19 Romanian crewmen were reticent when Alltree first came aboard-the attitude, she recalls, was “whatever you’re selling, lady, we’re not buying.” Building trust takes a while, she says. “Onboard ships, there’s a general suspicion that everybody wants something from you.” Undeterred, Alltree tracked down a husband-and-wife pastoral team who ministered to a local Romanian church. The three then descended on the Fritz, laden with containers stocked full of Romanian comfort food.
The change that came over the crew was immediate and profound. Some of them had tears in their eyes, says Alltree. “It was like a waterfall of sound, because they were so thrilled to have somebody who could speak their language…It’s essential-I can’t speak Romanian, but I’ll find someone who can. Whatever you need, we’re going to find somebody who can [provide it].”
The Fritz set sale for Toledo, Ohio, several weeks later, where, after it had discharged the last of its cargo, the crew was placed under arrest over a $900,000 fuel bill that had gone unpaid by the absentee-owner. The crew was eventually allowed to return home to Romania, but their experience serves to underscore Alltree’s point that it is more often than not the crew that bears the brunt of the punishment for the owner’s transgressions.
“These people are living in a very precarious life,” says Alltree, “and what little we can do at times is great to them, because it’s that human connection, somebody is actually willing to do something for them.”