‘Who is my neighbour?’ – a question which is at the centre of the Christian’s faith and about how we are to live, faithfully, with others in this world. A story about what happened on a desert road miles from the sea might seem a strange Gospel for Sea Sunday.
‘Who is my neighbour?’ – is an interesting question to ponder on Sea Sunday, a day when we think about the sea and those who work on it and our connections with them and how they’re supported and ministered to by amongst others, The Sailor’s Society, The Mission to Seafarers and Stella Maris.
In 1856 Revd John Ashley, was on holiday near the Bristol Channel. As he looked out over the water, he saw hundreds of sailing ships at anchor far out from shore and he realised that the seafarers working on those ships had no one to minister to them. However he recognised that these peoplewere his neighbours and he became a chaplain for seafarers, devoting his life to ministering to them.
Sea Sunday is important because it’s a day set aside in the year for churches to remember seafarers. These are the people who work on our oceans, sailing ships across the seas often in difficult circumstances, bringing us the goods we need to live and the materials for industry. Seafaring is a hidden world. It’s generally invisible to mainstream society, but the people who work on these ships are our neighbours and it’s important that we remember them.
The war in Ukraine might be 1,500 miles away, but many seafarers are Ukrainian and the terrible destruction and separation has ripped apart families. Many shipping contracts are very long – sometimes 10 months or a year in duration. This means being separated from home and family for very significant periods of time. This can bring many stresses – and often feelings of intense isolation or powerlessness, particularly when crew become aware of problems at home.
A chaplain in Sheerness met with the Ukrainian captain and first officer. He writes:
“We sat together in the captain’s mess and I said to the captain, ‘How are you?’ He looked at me with tears in his eyes, unable to speak. And then the first officer said, ‘We are at war.’”
It was for the chaplain a very painful moment as the reality of what he’d said really hit home. He continues:
“After a few moments the captain said, ‘I don’t know where my wife is. We don’t know if our children are well.’ We all sat together in silence but in solidarity for some time.”
The chaplain was able to give the captain and first officer mobile phone SIM cards, which he always carries with him when visiting ships, so that they would be able to keep in contact with their families back home.
Both Ukrainian and Russian sailors are shocked and horrified by what they’re seeing and hearing. As the chaplain says:
“I spoke to the Russian captain of a vessel with 13 Russian crew members. His mother was half Ukrainian and he was almost apologetic, as were the crew members, simply for being Russian. It struck me that there may be many more seafarers feeling the very same.”
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that our neighbour is the one who does something for us. Clearly the chaplains are neighbours to those sailors who call in at the ports where they work, but think about this.
Those who work the shipping lines give virtually everything to us. The 40,000 mostly container ships and tankers on the seas today between them carry 80% of the world’s trade and 90% of its energy. Nearly everything we eat, wear and work with has spent some time on a ship. Although it’s almost invisible the trade that takes place on the sea is enormous, andshows us how dependent we are on our international ‘neighbours’ whose work ensures that our material needs and desires are met.
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan also teaches us that our neighbour, the one who does something for us, is often the one we’d least expect to.
Of all the occupations in the world, sailors aren’t the best regarded. Their hard living, social isolation and general poverty has always put them on the margins of society, and when they come ashore they have on the one hand been prey to the exploitation of opportunists and on the other often looked down as drunken good-for-nothings.
Life at sea is often lonely, difficult and dangerous with long anti-social hours and the risk of shipwreck, piracy, or other accidents. Seafarers find themselves far away from home, often sailing to countries where they don’t speak the language and where people can sometimes be hostile or unwelcoming. This can make them feel isolated and vulnerable.
How we answer the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ will depend on our answer to another, more fundamental question, ‘Who am I?’ For there are deep-rooted reasons why we see others the way we do, and it’s to do with the stories of our own lives. Part of the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ rests in how I ‘love my neighbour’ – how I behave towards the other – and especially, towards the one I’m least connected to, or comfortable with.
This Sea Sunday we’re asked to pray for seafarers, who work in hazardous conditions, all types of weather, and even during war, to bring us many of the goods we rely on in daily life.
Sometimes seafarers are left in dire situations, just like the man who was left half-dead on the road to Jericho. In our world today some governments, ship owners and other organisations and people involved in the shipping industry find it very easy to pass by on the side of the road and ignore the needs of seafarers. We have only to think of the way that P&O treated employees on the ferries that serve these islands recently and the lack of compassionate and helpful action from our governments.
They might pass by on the other side we can be like the Samaritan and respond by showing compassionate action and prophetic leadership and not turn aside from situations of injustice where seafarers are abandoned in ports or where they haven’t been paid. Organisations such as The Sailor’s Society, The Mission to Seafarers and Stella Maris, are only able to exist and serve our seafaring neighbours because of the generosity and support from people across the world, people who have decided that they are not going to pass by or ignore the seafarer, people who have decided to recognise the seafarer as their neighbour, people such as us who are responding to the question ‘who is my neighbour’?