Chaplain overcomes fear to help seafarers in a strange land
When budding Galveston Seafarers Center Chaplain Karen Parsons realized she had to cross moving gangways suspended high over water to do her job, she wanted to quit. Her teacher said she wasn’t allowed to until she’d met her first crew. After that, she never again wanted to quit.
Parsons is the Galveston port chaplain, based at the Seafarers Center on 20th Street. She arrived in the historic seaport city from Michigan in 1992 to take the position and has acted as chaplain, friend, mentor and administrator to sailors since.
“We see ships instead of people,” Parsons said, nodding toward the Gulf of Mexico.
The lines of cargo ships trudging in and out of the Houston Ship Channel are part of the coastal silhouette. Often, the crews on these ships hail from distant countries and may have been at sea for 50 days straight. Many officers have access to Wi-Fi on board, and lower ranking crew do, too, as long as they have the appropriate SIM cards. Nonetheless, family and friends overseas also have to be connected, and depending on their location, it’s more than difficult to manage a proper signal on Skype, for instance.
Recently, a grain freighter was in port. The crew was mostly Filipino and Catholic. Parsons was asked to conduct a Communion service on board. As they were about to
begin, a crew member came running in, asking whether his wife could participate. Parsons naturally agreed. The man then set up Skype and told Parsons that it would be the first time in months he would get to pray in the company of his wife.
Sailors often can become isolated from family, their culture and support systems. But there are other issues the Seafarers Center helps to resolve. Crews are dependent on the goodwill of their employers. Parsons has seen her share of abandoned sailors waiting in vain to be paid, stuck in a foreign country. Sailors might also be confronted with a crisis at home with no way to help or intervene. It’s the practical support, from providing legal aid to phone cards to toiletries that go hand-in-hand with the moral, spiritual and psychological support the Seafarers Center provides.
To help a Sri Lankan crew member suffering from burns after a terrible accident on board ship, Parsons spoke to the Buddhist center in Houston, and together they found people who cooked Tamil food to bring to the man’s hospital bedside until he was well enough to travel again.
“Ships go away, not the crews’ problems,” Parsons said. She has stayed in touch with some sailors for more than 30 years, a constant in their changing lives. Recently, she received an email from a Russian sailor with pictures of his daughter’s wedding. She remembers that same sailor sending her photos of his daughter when she was in a child’s snow suit. Sadly, Hurricane Ike, which struck in 2008, had damaged her files and computer, and decades of correspondence was lost.
“It was never just paper,” Parsons said.
Her own children grew up in Galveston and had birthday celebrations at the Seafarers Center, where sailors would give them small, self-made gifts from their homelands.
“It opened their hearts to people from all over the place,” Parsons said.
Galvestonians see the importance of the Seafarers Center, and support it. The center, which offers free Wi-Fi and other computer services, transportation on the island, clean, used clothes and a library, among other things, relies on donations.
Visit http://galvestonseafarerscenter.com to help or for information.