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Aug 12, 2011 | Kate Shellnutt

Chaplains Minister to Foreign Sailors in Port of Houston

Especially with investigations into conflicts of interest at the Port of Houston recently, it's easy for Houstonians to see the Ship Channel in terms of dollars, deals, vessels and crates of cargo.


But for the men and women who serve in the port's chaplaincy program, it's always been about the people.


"We deal with the human aspect of the port," said the Rev. Rivers Patout, a Catholic priest and the director of the Houston International Seafarers' Center. "It's a ministry of presence."


Patout has been at the port longer than nearly anyone else: He helped start the ecumenical ministry back in 1968 and pioneered the model for port-chaplaincy programs across the world. He remembers bringing Bibles wrapped in brown-paper bags to Russian sailors under Communist rule and when conditions were rather gruesome on some ships, without proper quarters for the young men desperate for work on the sea.


Though ship conditions have improved, foreign sailors face tougher restrictions and often must remain onboard while in port because of Homeland Security regulations, so a team of chaplains from across denominations helps them communicate with family members and offers spiritual support if needed.


The chaplains have offices in the Seafarers' Center, alongside a small chapel. Patout's is lined with country flags, alongside an image of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. Down the hall, a bookshelf holds Bibles in 40 languages. The complex includes a restaurant, bar, TV, pool and basketball court.


Before 9/11, sailors would come to the Houston port's center by the hundreds to find rest and refuge from life at sea. It's a tough job but often the only way they could find to support the wife and kids they left in Eastern Europe, Asia or other far-away homes.


Now, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security requires foreign sailors to have visas to exit their ships while in port, even though some don't know what countries their ships will be visiting and can't afford the cost. The Transportation Security Administration also has new credentials that citizens and noncitizens must have to move around the port unescorted.


With these measures keeping sailors aboard, chaplains are doing more work on the ships, where they set up Wi-Fi hotspots and provide phone cards and SIM cards for men desperate to talk to home.


"This job isn't like anything else. We end up staying far away from our homes," said Pragnesh Tandel, a Hindu from Mumbai working on a cargo ship that stopped in Houston earlier this summer. "It's good to have them around. They cooperate with us when we need to get phone cards."


The chaplains also provide a friendly face to the seafarers, regardless of faith. Many now are Chinese, Indian or Middle Eastern, so they connect Buddhists with local leaders as necessary and provide prayer schedules to Muslim crews during Ramadan.


The average container or cargo ship has 20-25 seafarers, and 8,000 ships pass through the channel a year, according to the Greater Houston Port Bureau, giving Patout the biggest parish in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, he joked.


The Rev. Lacy Largent, one of the seven full-time chaplains with the program, visits several ships a day as a chaplain with the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, their schedules scrawled on dry-erase boards at the Seafarers' Center.


She wears a plastic hardhat, gloves and a big bookbag on her back as she climbs shaky metal gangways to get on board, greeting crews with a smile and loud hellos. Largent's usually the only woman on a ship since crews are almost always all-male, but that doesn't intimidate her. She gets down to business introducing herself, checking in with workers and passing out materials about the Seafarers' Center.

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