After three days of enjoying our Taiwanese colleagues’ hospitality, on Wednesday evening the attendees of the ICMA 2019 World Conference finally got to visit our hosts at their center in the Kaohsiung fishing port and see the work that they do. In the late afternoon, all 250+ of us boarded tour buses and, accompanied by local tour guides, made our way down to the port to see the fishing vessels there and have dinner at the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan’s (PCT) Seafarers’ and Fishers’ Service Center (SFSC). We were also joined by the Cardinal of the Philippines and President of Caritas Internationalis, His Eminence Luis Antonio Tagle.
As our buses came in we were greeted in the centre with bubble tea, a Taiwanese drink made by sweetening cold tea and adding large tapioca balls. Those of us who were new to the drink greeted it first with confusion and then with very pleasant surprise, while some of us who were more familiar remarked on the quality of Taiwanese tea. Later on in the evening the center served us local seafood and chicken soup for supper, along with Taiwan’s famous bananas and sweet guavas for dessert. As we left workers at the center handed out gift packages with Taiwanese “miracle soap” and souvenir bamboo chopsticks and spoons.
Of course, these were only the latest and most visible of the many gifts with which the Seafarers’ and Fishers’ Service Center has blessed us over the week – the conference’s organization, from the hotel arrangements to the registration to the activities, has largely been the work of PCT SFSC staff over the past year, and this week they have always made themselves close at hand to help with translation, keep things running smoothly, and make the rest of us comfortable. “Just like ancient Israel in the desert, here on the island of Taiwan we have a tradition of hospitality, so we really want to make our colleagues at ICMA feel welcome” said PCT Elder Daniel Lin.
Cardinal Tagle and caring for fishers
This event was also our first chance to meet Cardinal Tagle, who was to give the keynote address on Thursday. “I really appreciate such an important man making himself available to meet us” said one guest, Praison Alexander of the Sailors’ Society in Deendayal. “I think it will also be a good way of connecting with the seafarers I work with that I got a photo with him, since many of them are Filipinos and respect him.”
Although Cardinal Tagle had not himself worked in seafarers’ ministry, he was eager to go aboard a fishing vessel and meet with the crew. “When the cardinal said he wanted to go on the boat I got a bit nervous, because I was worried that the ladder might be a bit unstable, but he is very good and he really wanted to. He went on board, he saw their bedrooms and their environment on the boat, and he gathered the Filipino fishermen together and pray for them. He asked detailed questions about their work. He showed that he wanted to know them.”
Seeing fishers’ welfare issues firsthand
For many of us, though, the real surprise of the day was going to the fishing vessels, where we learned about the needs the PCT SFSC addresses and the environment in which it operates. While most of us are familiar with the hazards of port environments, the state of the vessels here was shocking – they were rusty and old, one had a rope ladder in place of a gangway, and fishers had to walk from their vessel to an SFSC bathroom to shower. Some of us went on board to see what living conditions were like inside the vessels, including Monika Otto of the Seamen’s Christian Friend Society in Hamburg: “The spaces in which they live and sleep are so extremely small,” said Monika. “When I think about these young guys living far from home in these conditions, it breaks the mother’s heart in me.” Martin Otto, Monika’s husband and partner in ministry, was equally shocked. “The work the PCT SFSC is doing is so needed. Coming away from this I think we need to tell more people about this situation and get more people involved. It also encouraged me to pray for the fishermen, because they really need strong help. They need love, care, compassion, and solutions, and who is better for that than God?”
The PCT SFSC has all the features of a state-of-the-art seafarers’ center, with lots of space, billiards tables, basketball nets, computers, and free wifi. But more important than these to Elder Lin is the ability to offer fishers a bit of shelter. “The bathroom we have for the fishers is very important, because in the night, especially in winter, it can be very cold for the fishers on the vessel. Being a space where they can spend some of the night is also important, because a few fishers have also been bitten by dogs in the port area.”
Elder Lin also explained that caring for the safety of fishers in the Taiwanese fleet is an important factor in the PCT SFSC’s interest in hosting the conference: “We need to know more of our fellow ICMA members. We learn from others, and it is especially important that we get to know the people in the harbours our vessels go to. We can’t do it by ourselves only, because Taiwanese-flag fishing vessels go all over the world. So we wanted to make the effort and serve our fellow members, and we want to have a better relationship with them.”