Chaplains improve well-being of visiting sailors
Published on 30 January, 2015
Tim Bell is the chaplain for the Port of Leith. He has lived in Leith for 30 years with his family and is an elder in the Church of Scotland. He was a social worker and teacher before gaining a Bachelor of Divinity in 1994 and worked as a prison chaplain before moving to the docks in 2005.
Here he describes the unique role of being a chaplain in one of Scotland's busiest ports.
Earlier this month mv CEMFJORD was on a routine journey with a cargo of cement from Denmark to the Mersey in England when she went down very suddenly in the Pentland Firth, off the north of Scotland, so suddenly that there was no time even to send a distress signal. Very puzzling, and very distressing. One Philippine and seven Polish seafarers lost their lives.
There is a string of port chaplains and ship visitors around the coast of Scotland. We all checked to see if she was one we were visiting the day before, or were expecting the following day. It could easily have been some of 'our boys' who went down.
There was nothing unusual about the nationalities of the seafarers. It would have been surprising if there had been a single British seafarer on board. Probably the biggest nationalities of seafarers that come into Leith are Russian and Philippine.
Well over 90% of everything we buy in Scotland is brought by sea. That's almost certainly every stitch you are wearing, and probably a good percentage of your last meal. We are virtually entirely dependent on a non-British merchant maritime workforce to keep us warm and fed and in business with our trading partners beyond these small islands.
We port chaplains and ship visitors get familiar with some ships that come regularly into our ports, and we form some wonderful friendships. I had an email the other day from an old friend who has been 43 days at anchor outside Lagos, Nigeria, and he was in touch with everyone he knew as soon as he had some communication.
Communication is a big thing. We carry top-ups for the networks we know they like. Many of the men are from the poorest countries of the world, sending every dollar home for their children's education. They are working their people out of poverty. And we are in their debt.
The next best thing we can do is get them off the ship. After the confines of a ship, with its constant movement and unceasing noise, the grass underfoot on Calton Hill or Arthur's Seat is exhilarating.
And there's always time - time for a wee personal conversation about the sort of thing they can't discuss with their shipmates. Nobody else gives them time.
We collaborate actively with other agencies doing the same thing. Sailors' Society – the oldest – is a free-standing charity drawing its support from the Reformed churches. Many of my colleagues are Methodists, Baptists, and others. Scotland is our home territory. The Mission to Seafarers is an agency of the Episcopalian church, and the Apostleship of the Sea is directly related to the Roman Catholic church.
There's no room for proselytising, of course. That only causes trouble on ships, and we wouldn't be invited back. Our aim is to be friendly, trustworthy and useful.
We need more ship visitors, men and women. We should have one in every port and harbour in Scotland.
Land-lubbers require a little training to get anywhere near a ship these days. Think about it. Interested? On-going support is part of the package.