Jeff Johnson grips a rope rail and walks up the gangplank of Balsa 89, a cargo ship docked for the day in Port Canaveral, Florida. Seven thousand tons of road salt is being conveyed from the ship’s hold to a tall mound on dry ground. Johnson looks up, and the crew waves from the deck. After many days at sea, they are anxious to greet this guest from terra firma. Once inside the galley, Johnson unzips his backpack and begins to stack phone cards and magazines along with Bibles, evangelistic tracts, and In Touch Messengers on the table.
Johnson is a Seafarers chaplain, serving with one of the more than 30 unaffiliated Seafarer ministries in ports across the United States. These ministers offer physical and spiritual support to cruise and cargo ship personnel as they dock and come ashore to shop, reconnect with the world outside, and rest. Today is Johnson’s first contact with Balsa 89’s new crew, which is composed of 19 men from the Philippines. The captain takes an immediate interest in the Messengers. Johnson explains that these devices have an audio New Testament and biblical lessons in Tagalog, the most widely spoken language in the Philippines. The captain is pleased. “When you hear it,” he says, “you can memorize easy.”
The ship’s chief officer eyes the items Johnson has placed on the table and asks, “Do you have a Tagalog Bible?” Johnson discovers that this man has been reading an English-language King James Version, but as much as he enjoys it, he’s been missing some of the richer meanings of the text. In fact, he prayed for a translation in his language just that morning. A smile breaks across the officer’s face as Johnson hands over a paperback copy of Scripture in Tagalog. Then the officer gathers up a handful of Messengers and goes to share them with the crew.
When he leaves, Johnson shuttles several crew members—now in shorts and sandals—to the Space Coast Seafarers Ministry, a spacious single-story building about a mile from the docks. Port Canaveral is the second-busiest seaport in the United States, and this Space Coast location sees a steady stream of visitors. The vans outside—with makeshift gold crosses affixed to the front grill—are a welcome sight to weary ocean travelers. Last year, volunteer drivers shuttled 35,000 of them from the port. The Seafarers also provide hot food, computers and Wi-Fi, and a ride into town for shopping. Sundays keep them the busiest, with about 200 people entering the doors. “It’s a complete ministry,” says Johnson. “We don’t charge them anything.”
People from over 80 countries are greeted by a team of domestic missionaries, mostly volunteers, who are honored to serve Christ by welcoming the stranger. And when these visitors from many far-flung places return to Port Canaveral, they are strangers no more. “We really want to work one-on-one,” says Johnson, “so we can build a relationship that goes past sharing the gospel and having somebody get saved. We want to disciple as well.”
Food for the Journey
When the crew of a cargo ship or a cruise liner enters the door of the Seafarers ministry, Jeanie Wodka is there to greet them warmly. She takes the guests on a tour of the facility and listens as they describe their life back home and the languages they speak. Visitors are all led to one of many bookshelves along the walls where they can find Bibles and resources in their heart language.
Daily life for those aboard these ships is an experience of being away from the things they know and the people they love. Jeanie and her husband Mark—the director of the Space Coast Seafarers—can relate: They chose ministry as their life’s work, at one point moving with two small sons to Indonesia, where they shared the gospel with new friends and neighbors.
In fact, every member of the Seafarers’ team can relate to that sense of loss and unmooring. By using their experiences—uncertainty in a foreign land, hardship in the loss of a job, or loneliness—these believers are able to connect with all who visit. They know that working aboard the ships can be a challenge—endless days at sea, unforgiving contracts, and a life below deck that is fraught with temptation. Promiscuity and substance abuse begin to look like normal behavior, presenting a challenge for even a mature believer. Johnson learned this from someone who experienced it first-hand: A young man who went to sea as a missionary on a cruise line found the environment so oppressive that he barely got through his six-month contract.
But the Seafarers also get to witness the wonderful encouragement God brings to the crews through their ministry. Like the musical entertainer who leads a Bible study on his ship and renews himself with visits to his friends at the Seafarers. Or the ship’s cook who is up early every morning, listening to his Messenger. He uses the teaching to help him lead a gathering of believers and unbelievers alike. And recently, from within this group, a Hindu man trusted Christ as Savior.
After the most recent crop of visitors has had a chance to visit the library and check in with relatives back home, Johnson steps to a microphone. “We’re going to go shopping in 29 minutes,” he says, as heads look up from cellphone and computer screens, “but I want to ask you about God, all right?” One man from India tugs at an ear bud, letting it fall limply away as he tries to catch every word. Johnson shares a brief explanation of the gospel and concludes by saying, “Any of us would be happy to talk with you. If you have problems or you’ve got a question, come to us.”
In this sanctuary of gentleness and hospitality, the love of Christ is on display. Each day, staff members and volunteers come prayerfully, following the opportunities God gives them. And when a Christian crew member reports that there isn’t a Bible study on his or her ship, Johnson says, “Here’s the deal: I’m not the Holy Spirit, but ask God to raise up a leader and see what He does.” Inevitably that person will come back, saying that God is leading them to start a group. And Johnson will lean in close, “Tell me what you need. I’m here for you.”
Photography by Stephanie Brunner