Burns Harbor ministry gets “Gofundme” upgrade

Committed to his church and seafarers, Chaplain Marshal Bundren continued to pull alongside ships on the South shore of Lake Michigan in his 15-passenger rust bucket until December. That’s when things took a surprising turn.

Reed Wilson, second officer aboard the M/V Burns Harbor, one of only sixteen 1,000 foot long self-unloading freighters in the world which routinely moves iron ore from the ports of Superior and Duluth to the steel mills on the Indiana shoreline, had watched the van as Bundren made rounds for years.

“The thing was falling apart,” said Wilson, about the beat-up vehicle Bundren used.

“It had 369,000 miles on it, one headlight, no brake lights, and was missing inside door panels. There was lots of rust. Bundren was afraid the starter might fail if he turned the engine off.”

Since 1974, Chaplain Bundren has served seafarers along the entire southern coast of Lake Michigan including ports of Burns Harbor, US Steel Gary, Buffington Harbor, Indiana Harbor, and the Port of Chicago. When funding changes occurred in 2011, depriving the ministry of any denominational support, he continued the chaplaincy independently, just his hand-me-down Chevy with duct-taped windows and one room of borrowed office space provided by a stevedoring company on Burns Harbor. Two years ago, the stevedoring company required their space full time for training new longshoremen, and Bundren had to move out. The ministry on wheels then became his office, chapel, post office, and taxi for the more than 1,200 seafarers he cares for during a ten month season.

Wilson and Bundren crossed paths for more than 23 years. Bundren frequently transported Wilson from the ship to his pickup truck in the parking lot of a Burns Harbor steel mill and occasionally on a foray to Walmart with other crew members. Wilson grew to feel strongly that the ministry van needed replacement. He often told the chaplain that if he won the lottery he would get him a new van. But the lottery looked like a long shot. So, in early December 2018, Wilson accepted the challenge to set up a Gofundme account: “Marshal’s Van”. The site was up the day after Christmas with an impressive response.

“I was dumb-founded,” the mariner said. “On the first day, six grand came in! Central Marine Logistics and others gave; companies and individuals. It just started pouring in. It was really something.”

Wilson used social media and word of mouth to spread the news of the account. The message went by radio as ships passed in the night.

“I posted it on Facebook and friended every sailor I knew,” he said.

Over $30,000 was raised within two weeks.

“It was a sort of ‘pinch me and wake me up’ moment,” said the 67-year-old chaplain.

When the time came to pick up the new van, the pair traveled from Burns Harbor to Detroit where they overnighted at Wilson’s home. The next day they continued on, through the season’s first blizzard, to Findlay, Ohio where Wilson had located the best vehicle for the money. Marshal’s new 15-passenger Ford van is a huge step up for the mobile ministry.

“It was amazing,” said Bundren.

It is important that seafarers have someone to help them navigate when in port, Bundren says. He describes a sailor from another country as “a turtle on its back” when the ship docks. Bundren’s goal is to help them fulfill the needs they have, whether it is shopping for a computer for a son in college or cosmetics for a wife.

“I want to create the most positive experience they have while in the United States.”

“Working with seafarers is my life,” said the single chaplain. I married a ministry. It has been my wife and my children for all these years. I share meals in the mess room and see many crew members weekly as they travel between the Port of Duluth/Superior and the southern shore of Lake Michigan.”

The International Seafarer’s Center of Burns Harbor began its outreach in 1972 when Reverend Cass Vincent, a Polish-American and veteran of the Polish navy; and his wife, a British navy veteran; created and directed the mission. They were a perfect fit. Both had been at sea and had a command of multiple languages. During a random church meeting a plea was made for volunteers. The Polish chaplain was offering an international experience to befriend others, Bundren recalls. The search was underway for people to become ‘instant friends’ to those on the ships. It was a divine appointment Marshal could not refuse. With hardly a pause, he joined the ranks as a volunteer.

Over the years, his commitment to each seafarer he meets is the same. In addition, his long-standing memberships in the North American Maritime Ministry Association and Port Ministries International, two major organizations strategically caring for seafarers worldwide reveal the scope of his vision. With unwavering concern for those who work and live on ships, the former U.S. Steel worker continues his daily response to people’s needs.

Wilson and the port chaplain share a nearly 25-year relationship established through the shipping industry. The seasoned sailor identifies the needs of fellow crew members:

“Sailors need to get off their ships, travel to shop, talk with others, and make connections at the train station or airport.  Marshal never turns people away, morning or night. He never asks for money. He is a very dedicated man. It’s too bad more people aren’t like him,” said Wilson.

The chaplain sees additional benefits for workers to get off vessels they live and work on. He feels a deep concern for the isolation the internet has introduced.

“The negative impact of high-tech face-in-screen time is distressing. Family contact is very important, but when crew members only eat together and then go to their rooms, there is very little fellowship. They can become a crew of strangers, which is not good for them, their families, or the company. At times, I have to use a crow-bar to get them off the ship.”

The new van is a great tool for an old mission, to become instant friends to an international population of people with real needs.

“God’s timing is so amazing,” said Bundren. When I first heard of this work, it was a life-saver for me.”

The outcome is reciprocal today.

Author: Susan Huppert