“When I started doing chaplain work aboard ships, crew members always wanted to talk to the male chaplain,” Karen Parsons confided last year.

“They would ask me what are you doing here? That was 34 years ago. But, I still am afraid to climb gangways.”

We had just climbed a very long gangway up the side of an empty cargo ship. That gangway was set on angle, so we actually were walking on the edge of each step, not the regular flat part. I had taken two steps at a time with my long legs, and yes, I had trouble keeping up with her. On the way down, she was on the ground before I was halfway.

As we walked toward the Seafarers’ Center van, I commented, “Well, you certainly went down that gangway fast. You must not be afraid of them anymore.”

She laughed and said, “Oh, I am, I get it over fast.”

Not many women, even strong women, are brave enough to board foreign cargo ships full of unknown men to spread the word, and explain what’s available at the Seafarers’ Center.

Now when Karen Parsons comes aboard, the men smile. They know why she’s there, even though they may have never met her.

Seafarers’ Centers are found all around the world, and ship crews have a very effective network to share information on each port. Most Seafarers’ Centers provide a home away from home, and more importantly, internet service.

The key to unlocking the crew members is to ask them about their family. Karen begins by asking, “Are you married?” If the answer is yes, the next question is, “Do you have children?”

So far, the answer has always been “yes” when I’ve heard the question. Next, “how old are the children” and then the men are off and running telling their life stories, their plans, and how much they miss their family. Not only is there an emphasis on family in the United States, there is a real focus on families all over the world.

Karen also asks about their present home, the ship. Crew members shared a detailed history, where it was built, what country each crew came from and where they spend their time. In this case, they say it was launched four years ago, and both Karen and I are surprised that it was that new.

She asked how long has there been a Filipino crew onboard. The first year the ship was crewed and operated by the Chinese. As we leave, Karen said ”Clearly the first crew was very hard on the vessel.”

Rarely do we catch most of the crew at one time, even in port as the crew stands watch or sleeps. And yet, if there were crew around, after 55 days at sea, they probably have heard each other’s stories over and over.

For part of the 1.6 million seafarers, Chaplain Karen Parsons is a welcome respite in their routine. To volunteer, visit www.galvestonseafarerscenter.org.

Alvin Sallee lives in Galveston.

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