Christmas in Corpus Christi

Article audio (courtesy of Don Sheets)

by Susan Huppert, NAMMA

It can be lonely to celebrate Christmas at sea.

When a cadet at sea looks out the small window of his cabin on Christmas Eve and sees only the reflection of the moon on a black sea, it’s tough.

Our common Christmas experience is to find ourselves surrounded by family or friends. Not so for a hefty percentage of merchant seafarers who have chosen sea as their livelihood. They will be alone. Perhaps they will be among crew mates of the same language and nationality, perhaps not. This is why seafarer centers in North America have a high priority to see that those who crew ships globally transporting our goods are recognized with a gift during the Christmas season; even if the gift comes from a stranger.

In Texas, Port Corpus Christi is the nation’s largest energy export gateway. According to its website, it is the No.1 U.S. port in total revenue tonnage. But, regardless of the port size or activity, corporate donors to private knitters in homes across the nation are pooling their energy and funds to accomplish the immediate Christmas goal of the seafarer center in their area. Give a gift to a seafarer.

Last year the Corpus Christi Downtown Rotary Club donated funds for 1,500 gift bags for seafarers docking at Port Corpus Christi.  

This season, 1,000 gift bags will be given according to Corpus Christi International Seamen’s Center, Executive Director Sharon Emerson.

“We are here for them,” she said.

Once working in a law office, Emerson exchanged her profession for her “calling.” She served the Corpus Christi outreach for 25 years in a part-time role before accepting her current position four years ago. She oversees four chaplains, a remnant of the ten during pre-pandemic times.

Lead chaplain, Tom Reilly, a Catholic, attended the Houston Maritime Ministry Training Program, which is managed by the North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA). He has been carrying Christmas gifts up gangways since 2009. Although the number of chaplains is down, he says the deliveries are parallel to those before COVID-19.

At the Corpus Christi port, chaplains and drivers began delivering the gifts Dec. 1. Packages containing personal hygiene items, calendars, candy, socks and watch caps are joyfully received at the foot of the gangways when greater access isn’t possible. Some chaplains may even break into a Christmas carol to boost the spirits of those they serve.

 “The seafarers are very grateful,” said Emerson. “If we run short of gifts and Port Comfort, [a smaller neighboring outreach,] has a surplus they share them. Last year we received 124 gift boxes from them to deliver.”

Christmas magnifies the critical need of seafarers for family contact.  Aware of the associated challenges, the interdenominational outreach also provides free phone cards at Christmas and free access to internet.

Thanks to the eatery included in the Corpus Christi center crew members benefit from free pizza and drinks during the holidays – a diversion from thoughts of home.

The center’s commercial kitchen is also a source of revenue for the center by serving the greater port community. Emerson sees the 30 to 50 customers who visit weekly as an opportunity for relationship building.

“Many had no idea. They see the ships come and go, but are unaware of the seafarers’ lives,” she said. “When they come in, they learn about us. They see what we do. I think the connection is very good.”  

The 79-year-old lead chaplain has seen financial changes over the years. It is difficult to recruit chaplains.

“Competing with church budgets for funding is challenging,” said Reilly.

In shipping, industry and ministry grow side-by-side. Each additional vessel brings more seafarers with specific needs. Emerson’s goal of reaching out to more diverse communities in 2023 will expand the mission’s work, its financial support and its Christmas impact. Anyone can get onboard.

“Christmas,” she said, “is universal.”

Photo: Christmas gifts in Port Corpus Christi (photo courtesy of Corpus Christi Seamen’s Center)


NAMMA members receive a print copy of The MARE Report, NAMMA’s annual magazines for seafarer’s welfare professionals