When Christmas time is mentioned in conversation, usually the words family, presents and food are bandied about without much thought. But for some people, Christmas isn’t actually a day to spend opening presents, sipping on bubbles and stuffing yourself full of turkey surrounded by friends and family. For the seamen who happen to dock at the Port of Newcastle over the Christmas period, it is just another day on the job.
This year, however, the StellaMaris (Star of the Sea) Mission to Seafarers plans to provide a 'home away from home' experience for the many sailors who walk through its doors.
"We want to do whatever we can to make life better for the seamen," says Rick McCosker, Catholic Chaplain to the Port of Newcastle.
To spread the joy and spirit of Christmas this year, the Mission is planning to put an assortment of gift packs together which they will distribute to seamen on board the vessels over the Christmas season. This, together with a lunch of cold meat and fruit, should help to ease the pain of being away from families at such an emotional time of year.
"At the very least we want to be able to give them something to eat and drink, and an opportunity to contact their families," Rick said.
Over the years the Newcastle Mission to Seafarers has been a shining beacon of comfort and faith for seamen aboard more than 3000 vessels entering the port annually. The ecumenical ministry, which includes the Anglican, Catholic and Life Churches, provides sailors with a chance to stretch their sea legs, get some supplies in town and contact their families from the numerous computers and wi-fi available.
"It doesn’t matter what our background is, or what religion we practise. The main consideration is that we are all caring people, and are here because we want to care for the seamen," said Rick McCosker.
Those whose English is reasonable often strike up conversations about their wives and children back home in countries such as the Philippines, Japan and China.
For Rick, it’s a fulfilling role but one that involves many bittersweet moments.
"There was one Filipino who hopped back on the bus after shopping in town with this really tall box. I asked him what he had bought and he said it was a portable high chair for his young daughter at home. He showed me a photo of her, only three months old. She was born while he was away, he hadn’t even seen her yet. But he told me that by the time he got home she would be big enough to sit in the high chair."
It’s a way of life for the seamen. Once they sign a contract they will be at sea for nine or ten months at a time, with virtually no chance to go home and visit their family. There are very few ports that provide the facilities and opportunities of the local Mission to Seafarers.
"It gives us a buzz...it is really rewarding. It makes you feel good to know you are doing something important," Rick smiles.
The Mission volunteers' tasks include greeting the seamen at the centre when they arrive, helping them to exchange money or connect to the internet and driving the bus to and from the port. But the role is often as simple as offering a smile at the end of a hard day.
Rick tells of one man whose wife had left him and was now trying to prevent him contacting his two daughters.
"I had a chat with the other chaplains and we told him, 'We can’t do anything about your family situation, but what we can do is pray for you.' So the next time he came back in, even though his situation had become worse, he told us, 'I feel happy, I feel at peace, I feel sad that my family is apart but I know you prayed for me.'"
It is the smallest acts of kindness which often bring about the most comfort for these seamen.
"Sometimes you might think, well so what? But the things we do are very important to them."
It is this effort from the handful of tireless volunteers which brings a smile to the faces of seamen from around the world. While Rick and his team are very grateful for the support of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, more volunteers are required to meet the needs of the increasing number of seamen entering the busy port.
"The more people we have, the more services we can provide," Rick explains.
So now that we are enjoying the festive season, let’s give a little time for the seamen down at the Mission. You might simply donate some second-hand clothing for men, or perhaps a box of books...every little bit counts.
If you have some spare time and would like to volunteer over the Christmas period or in an ongoing capacity, phone Rick on 4961 5007 or 0411 442 861. To leave donated goods, please visit the Mission at 96 Hannell Street, Wickham. You will be very welcome.
For more information visit www.mts.org.au/newcastle.html