Reverend Stephen Miller places phone cards, newspapers, and DVDs into a backpack marked with The Mission to Seafarers’ logo. It is deep-sea blue, an oval-shaped picture of an angel flying over water. Below the picture, the motto reads Caring for Seafarers Around the World.
“These are recordings of recent soccer games”, says Miller, “they’re really popular, but when we visit a Filipino crew, we’ve got to take boxing matches”.
Bag packed, Miller makes his way to the Kowloon Public Pier, a five-minute walk from his office. He jumps aboard the mission boat, off on his first visit of the day. Some twenty minutes later, Stephen scrambles up a rope ladder dangling over the salt-encrusted edge of a 12,000 tonne container ship.
The Spanish owned boat is waiting at anchorage for containers due later that night. On board, 22 seamen from Latvia, Sri Lanka and the Ukraine are hard at work. A gruelling roster of four hours on, eight hours off, cycles continuously. “Ships don’t stop”, says Miller, 50, “you can’t take a day off when you’re out in the ocean, and you can’t take a day off when you’re at port”. They work seven days a week for months on end; rarely setting foot on land.
More than 90 per cent of the world’s goods are transported by ship. The shipping industry is critical, especially in Hong Kong, the world’s third busiest port. It has been estimated by academics from Hong Kong Polytechnic University that it would take 12 days for Hong Kong to become unlivable if arrivals of goods by sea were to stop. Miller is the senior chaplain at the Mission to Seafarers, one of more than 250 missions serving a population of 1.3 million seafarers at ports around the globe.
“If Hong Kong and the rest of the world depend upon shipping, it means that we, as fellow human beings, also have a responsibility to the people who drive those ships,” he says. “And often their job is quite difficult because they’ll be away from home for six to nine months, they will be from all different nationalities, mainly from the developing countries of the world. They are dependent on the ship owner to keep his side of the bargain, and dependent up on the seafarers’ missions to look after them when they come in to port”, says Miller.
The Mission is based out of the Mariner’s Club in Tsim Sha Tsui, which is open to seamen for rest and relaxation on the rare occasions they are granted shore-leave. On top of his duties managing the chaplaincy, club facilities, as well as organising fundraising activities (the mission offers a free service to the world’s seafarers), Miller spends much of his week out visiting the ships. He provides much needed goods and a listening ear. “We’re there just to say hello, first of all, and to see how people really are”, says Miller, who originates from the UK but spent 10 years in Dubai before coming to Hong Kong two years ago.
On board the ship, Miller spends some time in the engine room with a crew’s chief engineer. “Seafarers are very proud to show you where they work and where they live, and during that, they’ll often tell you their frustrations”, says Miller. Way down below the deck, in the ship’s hot and noisy depths, the sweaty, oil-stained man explained that his staff is two people short. To manage the extra work, they are working six hour shifts with only six hours off. Simply hearing him out “cheered him up a bit”, says Miller.
It’s a pleasure for Miller to hear the thoughts and insights of people who spend most of their time out in the elements. “Seafarers understand the power of the sea, the power of creation, and their small part within it. I find that they’re really very spiritual people. They understand that they’re not responsible for the storm and wind. That perhaps this is God doing this and they feel much more part of His creation. Whereas we tend to forget. We’re in a concrete city, we kid ourselves that we are all responsible for our own destiny, but it’s very different when you’re on a ship and you’re being tossed around by the power of the sea”, he says.
“Seafarers don’t go home at the end of the day. It can be quite lonely and isolating, the life is quite hard, it’s a tough job, and it’s physically demanding”. Miller doesn’t seem to realise that in his work caring for these men, he too takes on a heavy load. Miller, who is married with children, also works seven days a week. Just like the ship’s crew, he lives where he works, and makes himself available around the clock. But he humbly downplays his personal sacrifice. “It’s a privilege to be there, to be part of their lives, and hopefully be able to help in some way”.