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The Reverend Tom Anderson settled by a table in a cabin aboard the MV Edenborg. Soon, members of the Chinese crew, clad in grease-stained red jumpsuits, crowded excitedly around him, eager to see a new face after six months on the oceangoing ship.
Minutes earlier, Tom and I had scaled the swaying gangway to board the 452-foot Dutch ship that arrived in Duluth ahead of the rising sun.
Wang Jian, the Edenborg’s second officer, joined us at the table, soon regaling Tom and me with stories of his travels, of Greece and Mount Olympus, of Italy and the Leaning Tower, and of violence in North Africa. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to talk to Tom, and lending an ear, Tom tells me, is a big part of his job.
Since 2006, Tom has directed the Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers. For more than 40 years, the center has provided services to the crews of foreign vessels that venture to this most-inland port of the Great Lakes system. Several thousand mariners arrive here each year on more than 100 oceangoing vessels, or “salties.”
“We have the kind of ministry here that doesn’t do big things,” Tom says, “but we have the time to … pay attention to these guys.”
What crew members want or need is not all that extravagant. Wang describes what he looks forward to finding in port, banalities the rest of us take for granted: shopping trips for new toothbrushes and shampoo, phone calls to loved ones and, of course, conversations with fresh faces.
It’s all part of Tom’s job. He or his volunteers visit each ship in one of the ministry’s 15-passenger vans, bearing the center’s most popular offerings: cellphones, phone cards and rides to WiFi hot spots.
“People is fixed, our information is fixed. This is our life,” Wang says of the ship and its 12-member crew. “We have not so much the communications here. Mr. Tom, his very good guys, they bring the telephone for us.”
The ministry offers shuttles around town and transportation to its Seafarers Center, where crews can pick through donated clothing, surf online and relax in the basement recreation room. If requested, the center will try to bring sailors to religious services if requested. Some vessels may be in port for as few as 10 hours between days-long voyages.
“But a lot of it,” adds Tom, “gets to be, too, that these guys are on the vessel, on the foreign ships, a minimum of four months and up to a year at a time. They’re seeing the same handful of people day in and day out. And so to have someone local to just come aboard and have time to sit down with them in the mess room … that person-to-person contact is a big part of what this ministry is about.”
The Twin Ports Ministry to Seafarers was founded by the Reverend Norbert Mokros, a Lutheran pastor who in 1966 aided crews stranded in port during a lengthy millers’ strike. In 1969, the ministry opened officially in a mobile home near the docks. Six years later, it moved to its current home, the rectory of a shuttered Catholic church.
“He was born in Germany,” Tom says of Norbert, who came here after World War II, “and had quite a personal sense of what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land. … Norbert spoke about seven languages, so it was like he was made for this ministry.”
The Seafarers Center is a charming 1950s building on a grassy corner lot in Duluth’s West End. Its décor, naturally, is nautical, down to the porthole in the chapel. The basement walls are plastered with pictures of smiling visitors, sailors playing table tennis and pool, chatting with family on the phone and on Skype and savoring meals.
Tom recalls one man still struggled with seasickness, loneliness and homesickness after 10 years as a sailor. “I think the hardest thing is being away from their families. Most people would be surprised to realize what these guys go through in order to support their families and make a living. It’s a hard life.”
The ministry tries to make that life easier.
The requests are usually simple. Ed Hall, chairman of the ministry’s board of directors, recalls one mariner wanting to replace a broken guitar “to have something to play on the way back.” Once an entire crew was desperate for a few basketballs; out of boredom, they’d built a hoop on their ship, but had lost all of the balls over the side.
“We can take pride in the fact that our volunteers make it possible,” says Ed.
The United States has tightened security significantly in the last decade, so some foreign mariners can’t leave their ships. Sailors must have visas to go ashore, and applying is not simple.
“Developed countries, rich countries, always need visas,” Wang says. “It’s a pity, my U.S. visa is expired this year. I cannot travel out.”
Tighter security goes both ways. Visitors to ships must present a Transportation Worker Identification Credential card or tag along with a card carrier (as I did). It’s a significant change from the past, but, says the Reverend Tom, “the upside to it, is there’s less temptation to the guys with unwholesome kinds of visitors to the ship.”
Thanks to community donors, the Seafarers Ministry spent the summer and fall renovating its aging building. “For an organization that has an annual budget of $60,000, trying to raise $50,000 … was a major chunk of change,” Ed says.
The building, and the ministry, will go on as long as there are mariners who need help and hospitality from its small group of volunteers. The grateful postcards and letters plastered on the walls prove the service’s worth. Or just ask Wang Jian, who parted from us with a word from the crew: “Thank you very much, Tom.”