Seafarers’ Ministry and a COVID-19 Vaccine

by Susan Huppert, NAMMA

The COVID-19 vaccination roll-outs around the world have generated many questions for those patiently waiting. We might wonder when it will be our turn and which vaccine will be available to us.

These questions are not just for personal health, but because a vaccination might be soon necessary to work in certain sectors or areas. And getting vaccinated might not even be principally to protect ourselves, but actually safeguarding others around us.

As the vaccination efforts ramp up across North America, port chaplains and seafarers’ ministries feel more pressure to protect themselves, but also their team members and especially the seafarers that they serve.

The Center for Mariner Advocacy is the legal service of the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York & New Jersey, advocating for seafarers’ rights. Director Philip C. Schifflin, Jr., encourages chaplains to include getting COVID-19 vaccinations as an avenue for greater service to seafarers.

“While we all have been resilient and resourceful in continuing to provide services to mariners throughout the pandemic, vessel owners, operators and masters have sometimes been reluctant to allow chaplains to conduct face-to-face visits due to COVID concerns. It is likely that once chaplains complete their vaccine regimen, that these same vessel owners, operators and masters will be more willing to invite face-to-face visits,” said Schifflin.

“So, for that reason it is important for chaplains to be vaccinated as soon as they can.”

Several port chaplains in North America have now received a vaccine through their local health provider vaccine programs. The Reverend Winston Rice, Executive Director of the Maritime Pastoral Institute in Covington, LA received his vaccination recently.

He and his wife registered online to receive their vaccination through their local health care provider. But, when the date did not work, they called back requesting a change. Surprisingly their appointment was moved forward. 

Soon to be 75, Rice welcomed the opportunity. As a Gulf Coastal Chaplain he is excited to interact more safely and resume his critical work of serving maritime workers and those on off-shore drilling platforms, which is currently limited by the pandemic.

“I encourage all the chaplains to get vaccines,” said the Senior Chaplain for the Institute. “As chaplains, our interactions with and service to these workers is interrupted until we do.”  

In accord with the desire to serve others, Chaplain Marshal Bundren in Burn’s Harbor, Indiana received the vaccine as well. His open door came as he was taking his aging parents for their vaccination.

“I am leery of the fast-tracking of the vaccine,” Bundren said. “I had to weigh all things related. How will it affect my health? Will the vaccine provide opportunities I am missing, like attending my church? What about my response to the greater population?”

Bundren wasn’t expecting to get a vaccine so quickly, but he was thankful to receive it. His spur-of-the moment thinking was motivated by his faith perspective. For Bundren, the Biblical teaching to put the needs of others ahead of our own is worth considering.

Having access to the vaccine is a challenge that may continue to hinder face-to-face contact with seafarers.  Dana Blume, Executive Director of the Houston International Seafarers’ Center is pursuing all options to ensure her chaplains and ship visitors have access. New ideas emerge as she encourages her board members to contribute.

Board members considered drafting a letter requesting the ship visitors and chaplains at the Houston Center be given priority because they serve as first-line responders to seafarer welfare services. Such a document can be submitted to local hospitals. The Board is also open to partnerships with other groups that frequently traverse the port, like the Houston Pilots.

Finally, chaplains should contact their personal health care providers regarding their status as chaplains and a vaccine provision that may be available.