Dazzling light, gusty winds, constant machine roar and sky of a ferocious blue: It’s early morning in Port Newark, New Jersey, winter of 1998. The port is a city of symmetrical, artificial planes, its metal face to the sea. Cranes are everywhere, robotic arms thrown back in the wind, waving to someone in the sky who never arrives. With every glance, I see disorder, wear and dankness in schematic patterns. It bears some resemblance to a sci-fi movie, with strange structures adapted for an alien world. Yet, it is really like nowhere else but other ports.
Today, I’m visiting the big ocean-going ships with Reuben Tompkins, a Seamen’s Church Institute chaplain. Originally from Jamaica, he is a tall black man in his thirties who grew up in Brooklyn. I have never seen what SCI actually does. I am an office worker far from the action.
We approach the first ship. The gangway is a rope ladder covered with oil and grease, and we hoist ourselves aboard. The crew is Russian. So many sensitive, haunted faces are here! Several immediately accept our offer to drive them into the city. The vessel has TV, VCR, and tapes. We add books. As I write notes on a legal pad, I suddenly notice fear on some crewmen’s faces. Most are old enough to remember communism during the Soviet Union, I reflect. Not enough time has elapsed since there were other watchers and listeners, writing notes on pads of paper. I put my writing away.
Back on the ground, trucks of varying sizes and shapes careen wildly around, as though the port had spawned its own mad children. The constantly differing shapes allow them to lift weight in any shape from any height and pack it in crates throughout the port. Our tinker toys have grown up with us. The crates rest in rectangular piles like pieces from a Monopoly game.
We board another ship, this with a Danish crew. They are foreign looking, as were the Russians, their eyes a startling blue. They stare in astonishment at Reuben, unaccustomed to a chaplain who is black and towers over them. I feel surprise and embarrassment at their inexperience.
We enter a small bedroom where the TV is on. The Danes are hooting over a Jerry Springer program which appears to show a group of prostitutes expressing rage at men and hitting them with their purses. This is funny beyond anything to this crew. Still, they have their own set of strict laws: we are asked to place our shoes in the hallway as we enter their bedroom. Other vessels are similar. What would Jerry Springer say? I have no idea why I have removed my shoes. Our English does not extend that far. We are, self-consciously, very well behaved. We fill all requests, spoken or unspoken. We walk softly and wash our cups if given a cup of coffee. We are emissaries of something that is never verbalized. We wait for signs and a silent speech.
You must be in good shape for the ships. There is much hoisting up gangplanks, and you must wear gloves to keep off the ubiquitous oil whose constant presence is a great mystery to me. I wonder if this much oil is hazardous; it covers every hand. I don’t go to the last ship. Reuben thinks I must have some quiet moments, though I did not ask for them. Bravely, I have just climbed down a long, slender tenuous rope ladder, weaving in the windy tumult. To enhance my courage, I didn’t look at the ground or the water. There was no other way in or out of this vessel. The chaplains must exercise to prepare for this.
I have thus far seen no instance of pastoral counseling or mention of religion. Everything is watching and silence. We are just good friends to the crews, bringing them books and transporting them without being asked. They take this readily, seemingly for granted. Obviously, the chaplains are very well known to crews of many vessels, perhaps all. Again, I don’t have to be told this; I see it.
Reuben is walking rapidly back to the car, excited. The ship I missed while waiting in the car had a crewman who apparently was much in need of Reuben. The man wanted to talk about God and religion. He said that he prayed twice a day and felt very fortunate. His good fortune was that he was in good health and that his wife of several decades recently had a stroke yet survived. It was good fortune that he could care for her when he was home and that his income as a seafarer still supported them both at home. Another might consider this bad fortune, I reflect, but he insisted it was God’s good fortune uniquely for him, and he said that his wife felt very well loved and happy in spite of her illness. Happiness one would not expect: good fortune. The man had to express his gratitude to a chaplain; he felt that he could not say this to the other crewmen. Reuben was the good listener. They prayed together.
And, that was all. I had missed the larger moment. Reuben’s God is not readily available, and his chaplaincy speaks to moments as rare as the flower opening where we are not. Far from the television, radio, movie projector, where a chaplain is and we do not follow. “Sometimes God just puts people together,” Reuben explains. The man needed a listener. Reuben heard, and I missed the moment.
I would tell you all that it meant, perhaps better than some others, for I am accustomed to writing. Perhaps I am now the emissary. But I missed it, as you have. We were not addressed by God or mariner, and that is what chaplains do in place of us. Listen carefully, for the light may not make a sound.
By Bev Jafek