A Day in the Life of a Chaplain to Mariners

Contributed by: Steve Welch, Canon for Communications

Chaplain James Kollin (right) and Canon Steve Welch on the bridge of the Endo Breeze

This week I had the opportunity to tag along with the Rev. James Kollin, chaplain at Seamen’s Church Institute, as he made pastoral visits to ships docked at Port Newark and Port Elizabeth.

Kollin, who has been at the Institute for more than 30 years, also serves as long-term supply priest at St. Lukes All Saints in Union.

Chaplains at the Institute—part of the International Seafarers’ Center (ISC)—visit nearly every ship that docks in one of the largest cargo ports in the world, providing pastoral care and convenience items that are difficult for these international crews to obtain for themselves.

Kollin came to the United States from his homeland of the Philippines in the early ‘90s specifically to take on this role with Seaman’s Church Institute. A large number of cargo mariners are Filipino, with others coming from a diverse range of countries worldwide to form blended international crews.

Providing pastoral care to crews can be challenging. “Some people come to this work with their own agenda,” Kollin told me. Chaplains sometimes want to minister to crews specifically out of their own traditions, “spreading Christianity,” rather than meeting mariners where they are. “It’s not about us; it’s about them,” Kollin says.

Crews come from a wide range of cultures and a wide range of faith backgrounds and beliefs. As such, conversations with mariners need to be guided by the mariners themselves, providing pastoral care in a manner that is both welcome and needed by the recipient.

The Seamen’s Church Institute employs several chaplains to visit ships, bring personal items, and even sometimes to transport them to local shopping malls or to the Institute’s port facility, which serves as a kind of community center for the port, including a chapel, gym, showers, and other service areas.

Kollin and Welch posing with crew aboard a ship docked in Port Newark

I wanted to learn more about the Institute, as I’ve been looking for more ways to explore my calling as a chaplain, and the institute has a current need for Chaplain Associates. Fr. Kollin and I visited three ships in port, with crews from the Philippines, Ukraine, Russia, Sri Lanka, and several other countries. Language is sometimes a problem, though English is the official language aboard most commercial vessels. Crews are typically young men who have taken to the seas to provide a better life for their families back home. They are away from home for months at a time. A visit from a chaplain can be a true moment of grace for them.

Fr. Kollin and I spent the largest amount of time aboard the Endo Breezer, a tanker under repair at the port after a fire at sea. The primarily Filipino crew has unexpectedly been in port more than two months while repairs continue, and Fr. Kollin has held regular services aboard the vessel and spent a great deal of time with the crew. We had lunch with the crew, a soup of cabbage and beer, as well as a Filipino fish dish. Fr. Kollin believes that sharing meals is the best way to help them relax and open up, leading to more meaningful conversations.

Ships are often boarded via a long set of temporary stairs leading from the dock to the deck

The International Seafarers’ Center (ISC) has a growing need for Chaplain Associates to assist in this godly work. Ordination is desired but not required, as is experience with clinical pastoral care or in the maritime industry.

The International Seafarers’ Center (ISC) Chaplain Associates provide direct pastoral care to international seafarers and port workers in Port Newark and Port Elizabeth NJ, work collaboratively with other SCI port chaplains; and report to the ISC Director. Ship visiting hours are typically Monday-Friday from 9:00 am to noon. Chaplain Associates provide services on scheduled days, from once a month to one or more days each week. A full description of the position and information on volunteering is available here.