WASHINGTON, D.C. — Until late last year, Rhonda Cummins was one of those who had resisted joining the throngs on Facebook.
But when the coronavirus arrived on the world stage in early 2020, she gave in, looking at it in a different light: as a tool to continue the ministry of helping seafarers and maritime workers in the middle of a pandemic.
“I’ve been on Facebook now for less than three months and it has been an uphill battle,” said Cummins, a maritime associate with the Apostleship of the Sea ministry in Port Comfort, Texas, during the ministry’s May 22 National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for Mariners and People of the Sea hosted via Zoom this year.
But through the social media platform, she’s been able to keep in contact with those she cares for, including giving them information that they now share with others.
Like many volunteers, deacons and others who minister to seafarers and whose work consisted of valuable face-to-face conversations and in-person visits with maritime workers, Cummins could only watch as the spiritual accompaniment she offered was impeded by ships cutting off contact with those on land.
New immigration restrictions and other federal directives prevented the seafarers from leaving the ships and the ministers and volunteers from going onto the ships as they had before.
During the Day of Prayer, Cummins shared challenges she’s faced but also offered some solutions she found to move the ministry forward in a new landscape.
She said that when the visits stopped, she began asking herself: “How do we reach those seafarers when they can’t get off the ships? How do we minister to them when we aren’t giving them rides to the (store), and not having them come to our centers to use our free Wi-Fi?” — referring to some of the services offered by the ministry.
After months of observing and keeping electronic communication going with captains, workers and seafarers following the pandemic, she and other volunteers from the Point Comfort ministry began looking, not so much at the limitations, but at the opportunities.
After a captain asked her if she could secure some cleaning wipes needed onboard, she threw in some comfort items, snacks and games with the wipes, and she got the idea of putting together care packages inside liquor boxes — chosen because they’re free and are an easy-to-carry size — and asking other ship contacts if she could send them on board. She recently had her 12th gangway visit to drop off the boxes.
“There’s no booze in them,” she said about the boxes, which are packed with necessities such as toothpaste and razors, but also snacks. She also sends bags of magazines and books of various genres.
“Normally, what we would do prior to COVID was ask if we could come on board. We’d carry a few magazines, a handful of books, novels, science fiction. We’d go on board to say hello, ask about their families,” she said in a May 29 interview with Catholic News Service.
Because of prior experiences she’d had with seafarers, including many who were Catholic, she also decided to place blessed rosaries and holy water in small bottles inside the boxes.
“I’m not Catholic, I’m actually Episcopalian, but it’s not about my faith tradition, it’s about serving these guys,” said Cummins, who became involved with the Apostleship of the Sea ministry, or AOS, after talking with Bishop Brendan J. Cahill of Victoria, Texas, the ministry’s bishop promoter.
The ministry, which began in the U.S. in 1976, is part of the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers in the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and its work includes caring for the spiritual life of those who work in the seas.
Though the ministry has physical centers in major port cities, where, in addition to its spiritual services, it offers free Wi-Fi or rides to shopping centers for seafarers when they have permission to leave, the Point Comfort Seafarers Center, which Cummins operates with the help of friends who volunteer, doesn’t even have a physical space.
“We don’t have a building, a van, we don’t even have a bank account, yet,” Cummins said, adding that in the time of a pandemic, when it comes to ministry, “this virus has leveled the playing field.”
Many locals have donated the items sent to the seafarers onboard, Cummins said.
Deacon Paul Rosenblum, port chaplain at the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, said during the May 22 prayer service that even though the virus had changed the way AOS ministers, its work would continue. Referring to the ministry’s spiritual care, listening and spending time with seafarers as the “ministry of small miracles,” he said not even the coronavirus would defeat the spiritual mission entrusted.
“These odd days have certainly altered the way we go about our ministry of small miracles, but we persist as best we can, knowing that social distancing and face masks have no power to stop these small miracles from occurring,” he said. “This ministry of small miracles is how the Lord has called us to show the world that we are his disciples. May he continue to bless us and strengthen us each and every day.”
Cahill thanked the deacons, ministers and volunteers for their perseverance and creativity.
“Each of you is a sign of hope to others in the world,” he said during the prayer service. “For our beloved seafarers and their families … please know you are not forgotten, that you are in our hearts and prayers, and in Point Comfort, it might be in little liquor boxes that we send our love to you.”