Maritime Bethel Savannah Gives to the World

Article audio (courtesy of Don Sheetz)

by Susan Huppert, NAMMA

Not all gifts come in a ditty bag.

Concern for seafarers’ welfare has existed at the Port of Savannah since 1969. Maritime Bethel Savannah began its outreach to seafarers in 2007. Executive Director, John Houchens joined the ministry only three years ago. He feels God was preparing him for the international outreach years earlier.

Houchens had worked in more than 50 countries. As a result, a global worldview became personal for him. His experience benefits a port ministry in Savannah, Georgia where the world comes to him.

“It’s a natural and good fit for me,” said Houchens. “I always had a heart for international work. But I had no knowledge of this. God kind of put it together.”

The Christmas Ditty Bag program is one avenue of outreach where personal contact with a mobile and often forgotten population is achieved.

The non-profit organization is supported financially by workers in the maritime industry, community partners, local churches and individuals. During the holiday season a cross-section of volunteers help prepare about 150 ditty bags for distribution to seafarers the week of Christmas. Thanks to funds donated from the ITF Seafarers’ Trust distributed through the North American Maritime Ministry Association, Maritime Bethel Savannah received a grant of $300USD to help fill Christmas gift bags, likely the only Christmas gift a seafarer will receive.

“Seafarers always greatly appreciate the gifts. It is another way to care for those I call the invisible people,” said the director. “It’s good for them to know that people see them and appreciate them.”

Bags containing stocking hats, socks, notecards, toiletries, and chocolates will be assembled and personally delivered by faithful volunteers who climb the gangways to care for the global community on ships at Port Savannah.

“We want the bags to be filled with things that will make them smile,” said Houchens.

Those in greatest isolation are the highest priority for ditty bags. Gift distribution begins with the ships on which seafarers are still not allowed shore leave.

“We develop personal relationships with a lot of these seafarers. We can get a sense of where gifts may be needed,” said Houchens. “Ships determined to be more needy than others are next.”

The personal connections seen in the eyes of seafarers when they take the gifts seem more valuable than the gifts.

Technology supports giving also. Houchens receives 80 percent of his global communication with seafarers through WhatsApp and 20 percent by email. Staying in touch is critical to building relationships. 

The 63-year-old director appreciates the near-personal contact that technology provides. Not only can package deliveries be managed, but chaplaincy services for holidays, Holy Communion or a memorial service when a crew member dies at sea are provided on board when requested. These critical components to well-being onboard are also opportunities to give to an often neglected group of workers.   

Maritime Bethel Savannah has no center currently. It has rented office space and a capital campaign for near future plans. It is a port where 78,000 seafarers from other countries dock each year.

Richard Hadeed, lead ship visitor for the ministry feels there is plenty of room for the mission to develop. He takes no wage for his time. He plans to visit the three ships likely to be in port on December 25.

“Being on a ship is a hard place for seafarers on Christmas Day,” he said.

Photo: Facebook Maritime Bethel Savannah on November 27 with caption “Lots of thanks to the Jenkins Small Group of Compassion Christian Church and Savannah’s own United Community Bank for putting together almost 100 Christmas bags for our ministry to seafarers!”