Hope is the most precious gift of all.
We know that for organised people, Christmas starts early. But for Mission to Seafarers South Wales Port Chaplain Mark Lawson-Jones, getting ready for the festive season means starting his annual search for good quality chocolates and biscuits in mid-October.
The goodies are wrapped as part of the Christmas packages the mission takes to seafarers. Mark spends some of this time trying and usually failing to get supermarket managers to give the charity some sort of discount.
Mid-October is also when some seafarers start talking about Christmas but this year is different. Most seafarers sign off before or after Christmas but this some are telling the Mission they have extended their contracts for one or two months to ensure that they will be home for Christmas.
One seafarer told him “I will be on board for 10 months, so that I can be home at Christmas with my family for the first time in six years”, adding, “I have small children, and I can’t keep missing Christmas, I won’t have memories”.
By the beginning of December, Mark will have started giving presents for seafarers to keep until Christmas, getting to every ship with enough for all, which needs speed and flexibility, as turnaround times and weather are wildly variable.
In the first year he worked for the Mission Mark spent a summer’s day driving around the ports in his area to visit ships By chance he drove to a quiet and rarely used dock, boarding a ship waiting for a spare part to arrive.
With time on their hands, the crew were happy to explain how good it was to have a few quiet days to visit the city and not have to sail immediately. Soon the captain appeared, an ebullient and good-humoured character, who offered more coffee and proceeded to tell stories of his life at sea.
He told Mark about his days on great ships, sailing the world to ports which took weeks to discharge cargo, and how they spent their time whilst waiting to sail again. Speaking of the difference internet has made, he said it was good that seafarers can speak with families, although he noted that this means less social time together as a crew.
Eventually he rose to leave and assuming Mark would so the same he said, “I would be dead if it were not for a Mission chaplain, you do a good job”. He sat back down, saying nothing for what seemed like an age. Slowly, the story unfolded. It was a very different story to the ones he had heard earlier.
He had been at sea for almost a decade when he married and even though he was away for long months, they seemed to make it work. Eventually, he and his wife welcomed the birth of their first child, and all seemed to be going well. He regularly thought about leaving deep sea, foreign-going vessels and try to work locally. He had some time at home before his next contract and made enquiries, but nothing was currently available. Signing what he hoped would be his last long contract, he said goodbye to his family and went to sea, to earn money to save for a new house and to invest in their future.
A month later, as he was about to sail from a distant port, he received communication. It was from his wife, telling him she was leaving and taking their child. She explained that she was sorry, and that she had never realised how difficult it was to be married to someone when they would only spend one fifth of their time together. She said she was sorry and asked him to try to understand.
Two weeks later, it was Christmas Day, and the ship was sailing in the deep ocean. He went to the mess to eat with the rest of the crew and returned to his cabin. He hadn’t slept properly since the devastating news, in turmoil he couldn’t concentrate and felt there was no future for him. He resolved to kill himself and planned how he would do it.
As he sat in darkness, he remembered a Christmas present that the Mission to Seafarers chaplain has delivered several weeks earlier that he had promised to keep until Christmas. Searching for it, he opened it to find some chocolates, a comb, some soap and a pen, pencil and a notebook. There was also a small card, with a picture of the Flying Angel, the instantly recognisable symbol of the organisation. Inside the card were several signatures from the volunteers at the station, wishing him a Merry Christmas, and thanking him for all he did at sea.
He said that he cried for what seemed like hours. When he thought it would stop, he was overtaken by another wave of emotion, and he was, once again, in the grip of a deep and painful desolation. Eventually, he fell asleep and woke for his watch late on Christmas night. Whilst on watch, he resolved to just stay safe until the end of the journey and then think again. Many years later, he was able to recount this story, on a remote dock, on a sunny day, after telling many stories of a good life.
The captain explained that the gifts didn’t solve any of his problems, but he was moved by the fact that someone had taken time to do something special, just for him, so that Christmas Day wouldn’t be just another day, especially such a long way from home.
Mark says chaplains like him hope and pray that in the little things, the Mission can make a big difference. “We just keep visiting ships, listening to the truth of seafarers’ lives, so that we can show them they are appreciated, because without them the world would be a very different place.”