By Susan Huppert, NAMMA
Smaller ports are significant when the measure is not volume of cargo or the speed of exchange, but care for seafarers. Seafarers’ welfare work in the Port of Point Comfort, Texas, with only five deepwater berths and 6 barge slips, deserves attention for its personalized care.
Ship visitor, Rhonda Cummins, an Episcopalian, calls on seafarers in Point Comfort. Working jointly with Stella Maris, the Catholic maritime charity, she views the port as “tiny” compared to others like Corpus Christi or Houston. Yet, regarding the impact on seafarer’s lives it is far from tiny.
When ships dock, international seafarers commonly search for people who have their interest at heart. Seafarer ministries and ship visitors fill that role. Those living and working at sea feel a sense of trust when they hear a ship visitor is from the “Stella Maris” or the “Seamen’s Mission.” They need someone they can trust and Cummins and her team are those people at Point Comfort.
“She is just on fire,” said the Most Reverend Brendan J. Cahill, Bishop of the Diocese of Victoria, Texas, and serves as the Apostleship of the Sea, Bishop Promoter for the United States. Bishop Cahill encourages seafarers’ welfare in ports around the country, but is especially happy to support the work of Rhonda Cummins and her team in his own diocese.
“Seafarers need a friend in every port,” said Cummins, Volunteering her time in conjunction with the Catholic mission. “I am trying to fill that void.”
“I have been listening to a small, quiet voice for years, saying that I could make a difference. I have searched, learned, grown, and stepped out in faith. These very beginning days of starting a center at Point Comfort are challenging,” she wrote.
Cahill, recalls his important contact with Cummins in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey. He received a call from Cummins with her concern for fishers needing to raise their sunken shrimp and oyster boats.
“She is a woman filled with faith, commitment and zeal,” said Cahill, who Cummins views as a key partner along her way.
“She is a person who is passionate about this ministry.”
Cahill believes she has a story to tell and a call to fulfill. He helps by encouraging, listening and giving her time. As financial needs arise, Stella Maris assists.
Cummins’ goal is to create something at Point Comfort that will be as self-sustaining as possible and flexible enough to grow with the changes in the port and industry. This will take time and patience. She contends that a carefully thought out and tailored solution should be able to stand the test of time.
The Reverend Tommy Chen, priest of Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church is the port chaplain for Point Comfort’s budding outreach. He celebrates Mass with seafarers when requested and able. Chen also supplies Bibles in the Tagalog language and his parish donates generously when asked for donations for care packages or Christmas gifts.
Point Comfort is part of the Calhoun Port Authority, a key gateway to world markets for the Texas mid-coast region. The port plays a vital role in supporting Texas chemical manufacturing industries and in building a stable economic foundation for Calhoun County.
Woven within this economic exchange is the nascent seafarers’ mission, extending itself without a physical center or team of paid staff. As the mission grows these services will come. Yet, because they are still small, they can give personalized care to visiting seafarers.
As bishop promoter of port missions within the Catholic Church nationwide, Cahill feels Point Comfort is likely to grow and this ministry along with it. He is confident the church will get behind it even more.
“Right now, all you have is people who care,” said Cummins. “I am living out my faith tradition which is to welcome the stranger. I walk along the port, smile and wave and remind seafarers that they are not forgotten.”
Cummins’ interest began more than a decade ago, when she visited the Seamen’s Church Institute in Paducah, Kentucky. There she discovered a formal system of care for merchant mariners. The impact resulted in her campaign to fill Christmas shoe boxes and deliver to seafarers’ centers in Houston and Galveston in the years to come.
In 2017, following Hurricane Harvey, she attended the World Conference of Stella Maris which was held in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Cummins gave a speech on good practices in fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, as she was at that time Calhoun County Extension Agent for Coastal & Marine Resources. Since that time she has kept up contact with seafarers’ and fishers’ welfare colleagues, especially in the Apostleship of the Sea of the United States of America.
In 2019, she attended online classes and completed the Introduction to Seafarers’ Welfare and Maritime Ministry produced by the North American Maritime Ministry Association on site at the Houston International Seafarers’ Center. This course in Houston prepared her for outreach and ship visitation. She ultimately gained access to ships at Point Comfort.
“For years I felt it was important to do this,” said Cummins.
Her ongoing education about international seafarers is through continuing conversations with a select few including Cahill, which she calls a “valuable stepping stone of mentorship” considering his extensive knowledge as the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) Bishop Promoter for the United States.
“She is a beautiful example of someone’s journey to serve,” said Cahill.
During the 2019 Christmas season Cummins coordinated donations from more than 40 organizations including Cub Scouts, churches, families and individuals to fill and deliver 517 Christmas boxes to seafarers on 31 vessels at Point Comfort.
Cummins is looking for opportunities not limitations.
Although COVID-19 curtails contact with seafarers to a great degree, Cummins finds the opportunities to deliver more than requested. Recently, an opportunity when a ship’s agent messaged the Point Comfort Facebook page that a ship captain had a special request for “cleaning wipes”. Cummins made a care package for the ship including the request and much more, leading to multiple gangway visits since.
In the coming years the ministry will continue to grow, strengthening the volunteer base, making the right partnerships, and considering new services that could help seafarers.
She has her ear to the ground for such a provision and her eyes toward the ships so that many seafarers can hear “Welcome to Point Comfort!”
Follow the work of the Point Comfort Seafarers’ Ministry or contact them here: https://www.facebook.com/aospointcomfort