by Susan Huppert, NAMMA
Port Alberni may seem small to the shipping industry, but to those who make their living at sea, passing through a quiet fiord to a less congested and relatively calm setting, is a fine location. It’s personal.
In 2015, Dr. Jason Zuidema, Executive Director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA) and Christian Reformed Church leadership began to determine if an outreach to seafarers could be established in the Port of Alberni, B.C.
Among them was 73-year-old Matt Gregory, a retired school teacher, who was sold on the idea. With minimal funding and no physical location, the vision took hold.
“I got hooked on it and I haven’t looked back,” said Gregory. “It’s a practical outpouring of Christ reaching out to humanity.”
It is a mission project of sorts and operates loosely with a core of about 6-8 volunteers.
The Upper Room Seafarer’s Centre is located on Vancouver Island and operates out of a rented apartment suite within walking distance of the port. The Rev. Curtis Korver of Alberni Valley Christian Reformed Church and the church board provide direction and oversight.
The quick turn-around of ships common to most ports is pleasantly missing in Alberni. The majority of ships export raw logs to Asia which can take three to six days to load.
Korver and his volunteers visit the ships in port to engage with crew members and assess their needs. Filipino crews often request Mass be celebrated. The local Catholic priest is a willing ministry partner and welcomes the opportunity to serve seafarers.
The Port of Alberni offers the precious commodity of increased time to interact with seafarers. A practice of getting a ship’s manifest when first boarding a vessel provides volunteers the opportunity to hold a surprise birthday party for crew members born that month. Colored balloons, decorated cakes and ice cream with a few simple gifts convey care and concern to the global workers far from home.
“We try to bless them in their walk with God in the moments we have,” said Korver.
The mission is a community effort. After days or weeks on ship, a game of basketball is a welcome alternative to ship life. Thanks to the cooperation of the Alberni District school, seafarers and mission volunteers can connect over a game of hoops. The junior hockey league offers free tickets to sports events.
“We like to provide something of a break from the monotony of the ship,” said Korver.
Korver developed a fondness for working with seafarers 26 years ago, when a portion of his practical seminary study included harbor ministry with the Montreal Ministry to Seafarers. His first-hand knowledge helps volunteers gain confidence with those from other lands.
The relationship between the ministry and seafarers is clearly one of trust.
The Upper Room Seafarers’ Center is seen as an extension of the ship with regard to seafarer access. The ministry provides the ship a key to the center so seafarers can visit when unhindered by their obligations and requirements on board. When schedules allow, they walk to the 700 square-foot apartment suite which offers 24-hour Wi-Fi away from the noise and discomfort of the ship. Ministry workers offer rides to shop or sightsee. Occasionally, they share hiking trails and “Lake Day” bar-b-ques at a volunteer’s home. The personal interaction reduces work related stress and eases feelings of isolation for seafarers.
Through online courses, NAMMA helps workers understand the plight of seafarers and ways to serve this distinctive community. Training on a range of topics from safety to the value of listening enables volunteers to better serve those who dock at Alberni. Gregory appreciates the professional training and the personal exchange of his new endeavor.
“It has been such a rewarding experience. I can’t say enough about what the fellows have given me,” he said. “It’s been a grand experience.”
Looking forward, it is unclear at this point what the future of this small mission might be.
According to the port’s website, Port Alberni Terminals has historically operated as a mixed forest products facility. However, cargo volumes have experienced significant fluctuations in recent years due to changes in market conditions, and the logistics and distribution decisions of the local forest industry clients.
Pastor Korver takes a serious look and waits.
“The future of the ministry – it is difficult to say,” said Korver. “There is a push-back against shipping raw logs. The church in Vancouver is interested in funding this. The volunteers are committed. The future is entirely the economy of the local forestry industry.”
For now, the ministry continues.
“Christ admonition is that whatever I do to the least of these, I do to him,” said Gregory. “I feel this is what Christ wants me to do.”