It’s a rainy morning at the port of Oshawa, Ont., and burly stevedores swarm around a huge ship from China, hoisting long poles of steel rebar up and out of the hold. But not everyone is there for the cargo. A man in a gold hardhat strides around the machinery, slapping backs and waving hello. Father David Mulholland is here to meet the men on board.
For 37 years Mulholland has been a chaplain with the Mission to Seafarers, a worldwide Anglican mission that serves the 1.2 million men and women who haul 90 per cent of the world’s fuel, clothing and food.
“It’s a lonely job, full of adventure or danger,” says Mulholland of seafaring. “Either you’re bored or you’re terrified.”
On the worst days workers face storms at sea, poorly equipped vessels, injuries and owners who won’t pay up. Many seafarers come from developing countries—the Philippines, India, Ethiopia—and their work supports extended families.
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In 11 ports across Canada, mission staff help these workers any way they can, everything from offering a listening ear to a ride to the mall. Often, the connection starts with an on-board visit. Their Flying Angel logo on a shirt or hat means a quick passport to foreign ships.
Today, Mulholland climbs up the slippery gangway of the Heloise and is greeted by a young, smiling Chinese crew. They chat in simple English and Mulholland is invited into a tidy meeting room for a tall glass of leafy green tea.
Sprightly at 74, Mulholland has met thousands of seafarers while serving the ports of Toronto and Oshawa. He’s lived through the era of Soviet shipping, watched shipping ports grow and shrink around Lake Ontario, and he’s seen the shift from human to machine power. (“Now it’s sore thumbs, not big muscles,” he says.)
But his mission remains the same: welcome the stranger.
“Where are you from?” Mulholland asks his two hosts. In careful English, they unpack their story: Tao Hongjia and Liu Ning, both in their mid-20s, left Shanghai six months ago, with stops in Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, where they picked up their cargo. They’ll be back home in four months and right now, they are terribly homesick.
Loneliness is a common challenge for seafarers, often away for six months to a year. While at sea, access to satellite phones and the internet is infrequent and expensive.
At the Halifax mission, Maggie Whittingham-Lamont, seafarer coordinator, brings cell phones directly on board for seafarers. Time to touch base is precious, she said, as ships often dock for hours instead of days.
Sometimes, her help is more hands-on. Recently, a seafarer from Ghana asked Whittingham-Lamont to help him recover a lost money transfer of $5,700 (six months’ wages) that he sent home to pay for his niece’s tuition. Whittingham-Lamont spent almost five hours on the phone pleading the man’s case and was finally able to help recover most of the money.
Whittingham-Lamont likes that this ministry brings new people and new needs every day.
Bishop Michael Ingham of New Westminster agrees that this is a strength. He recently became liaison bishop to the Mission to Seafarers, replacing Bishop Terry Finlay who retired after 25 years of serving as this national link.
“Many who come through [the missions] are not Christians and yet everyone is treated with the same dignity and respect,” he said. “Very often their personal and family crises receive help.”
Back on the Heloise, Mulholland follows Hongjia and Ning for a ship tour. They stroll through control rooms, the kitchen, and then out on the deck, overlooking the grey waters of Lake Ontario, the conversation takes on an urgent tone: the young men need to go to Chinatown…for dumplings. They grin sheepishly.
“Very good,” says Mulholland, returning the smile. “I’ll send someone here with a van tomorrow. We’ll get you some dumplings.”