Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Seminarians discover the wonders and challenges of ministry in the Port of Philadelphia

As part of a field work assignment, five scholars from LTSP learned about the work of Seamen’s Church Institute and visited crewmembers aboard a Chinese ship bearing a cargo of steel to Camden, NJ.

“I discovered the ministry of Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) to be such a positive thing, just what the church should be doing, caring for God’s beloved children in a time of real need,” said Susan Loney of Wilmington, DE.

“I was impressed to learn of the advocacy side of SCI’s ministry, looking after crewmembers often confined to visiting ships because they may be viewed here as potential terrorists,” said Kerri Walsh of Medford, NY.

“We sometimes think of shopping malls as representing the ‘religion’ of the marketplace,” said Daniel Spigelmyer of McClure, PA. “It’s neat to see malls as also a focus for ministry, places SCI takes seafarers who need a little time for respite away from their ships.”

And Alexa Epstein of Philadelphia, PA, remarked about “the complexity” of those who participate in the life of the Port of Philadelphia. “All the different goods that come through the port, and all the agencies that are a part of the work – the ministry of SCI brings a humanizing dimension to it all.”

Loney, Walsh, Spigelmyer, Epstein, and their colleague from The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), Rachel Anderson of Newington, CT, were part of an historic field work visit to SCI today. The first-year seminarians learned about the many aspects of the ministry. They toured the Maple Mighty, a steel cargo ship from China delivering goods to the Camden-Beckett Terminal in New Jersey along the Delaware. It was the first time in SCI’s 168-year history that seminary students had made a field work visit to learn about the ecumenical and interfaith ministry that serves 50,000 seafarers annually. The quintet discovered that SCI visits 1,500 ships in a given year in the Philadelphia Port’s 31 terminals along 125 miles of Delaware River shoreline – from Fairless Hills to Marcus Hook in Pennsylvania and from Burlington to Paulsboro in New Jersey. They learned that the vast array of cargo ships bring to Philadelphia includes fruits, cocoa, oil products, steel, wood and gypsum to make sheetrock, and that 95 per cent of goods made use of by regional citizenry come to them by water. The seminarians were hosted the Rev. James Von Dreele, an Episcopal priest who serves as executive director of SCI; the Rev. William Rex, a Lutheran chaplain to SCI on call from Seafarers International House in New York City, and Mark Staples, seminary writer for LTSP, and a volunteer shipboard visitor for SCI. Arrangements for the visit were made by the Rev. Dr. Charles Leonard, a one-time U.S. Navy Chaplain who supervises contextual education at LTSP.

Von Dreele shared many stories and anecdotes, exploring the ecumenical scope of the SCI ministry, which includes Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, as well as Lutheran and Episcopal chaplains. Volunteer ship visitors also include a Muslim Imam. He explained that worldwide there are 750 seafarer ministry programs, with 150 in the U.S. He emphasized that the SCI outreach is incarnational – a reflection of Christ, and that the ministry focuses on the goodness of Creation – which includes the essential importance of water.

He emphasized the hardship seafarers endure to get us goods that we need – nine months or more away from home and family at a time, voyages over storm-tossed seas that can last as much as seven weeks, and then, when seafarers reach port, only about 25 percent may qualify for shore leave because of tight, post 9/11 security restrictions. Shipboard visitors from SCI thus provide critically important affordable cell telephone services and MIFI equipment, making it possible for seafarers to contact loved ones by phone or via the Internet. “We are ambassadors,” Von Dreele and Rex pointed out. “We provide the only hospitality that these visitors really receive. That makes us not only the face of Christ to them, but also the face of America.”

Von Dreele and Rex told the seminarians they are hoping a new generation of chaplains may be found for ministries like SCI, including pastors who, like Rex, may serve a congregation and also serve part time in America’s seaports in chaplaincy. In addition to his service as a Lutheran chaplain, Rex is pastor of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Ferndale, Bucks County, PA. Anderson is a member of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Newington. Epstein is a member of University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation in Philadelphia. Loney belongs to Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Wilmington. Spigelmyer belongs to Trinity Lutheran Church in McClure, PA, and Walsh belongs to the Lutheran Church of Our Savior in Pachogue, NY. All are candidates for the MDiv degree, which makes them candidates for ordination.

Five LTSP scholars took part in the first ever field work visit from the seminary to the Seamen's Church Institute (SCI) Sept. 24. From left are Pastor Bill Rex, Lutheran Chaplain to the Port of Philadelphia; seminarians Daniel Spigelmyer, Susan Loney, Rachel Anderson, Kerri Walsh, Alexa Epstein, and the Rev. James Von Dreele, SCI executive director and chaplain to the Port of Philadelphia. The seminarians learned of SCI's ministry of hospitality to 50,000 seafarers visiting the Philadelphia Port each year. They also visited the crew of the Chinese-flagged cargo ship Maple Mighty, seen behind the seminarians. The ship was delivering steel to the Camden-Beckett Terminal in New Jersey.
reporting and photography by seminary writer Mark Staples

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