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Nov 13, 2013 | Luke Blount

Port Chaplain Buoys Spiritual, Emotional Needs of Seafarers

 

[Diolog Magazine] The Rev. Lacy Largent jokingly refers to herself as the “surf and turf priest” of the Diocese of Texas. Many Episcopalians may recognize her from her turf role as spiritual director at Camp Allen, but few have seen her surfing the docks of the Port of Houston as port chaplain at the Howard T. Tellepsen Seafarer’s Center. 

 

Established in 1968, the Seafarer’s Center was the first ecumenical center in the world, offering chaplaincy services and amenities to the thousands of maritime workers constantly traveling to and from Houston. The center was founded by Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Catholics and Methodists, Largent said. “This all started because it was so dangerous for the seamen in this part of town. They wanted a place to relax and be safe,” she added.

 

Originally, the Seafarer’s Center hosted hundreds of seamen every day, but due to higher automation, smaller crew sizes and stricter security measures, that number has dropped. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, stronger security measures were established across the port. Now, seafarers need escorts and special access cards even to reach the Seafarer’s Center, much less leave the Port of Houston. Some are unable to step off the ship at all. 

 

“After 9/11, the whole ministry became going to the ships,” Largent said. In a single shift, she usually visits up to eight ships. Her record is 13 ship visits in one day.

 

Following Largent for a day can be a tiring affair. With a hard hat and a backpack, she constantly drives to and from ships, climbing up and down steep gangways and narrow staircases. When she approaches the ship crew, she prepares to encounter people from all over the world. Largent says she once counted seamen of 67 different nationalities in just a few months time.

 

“I do consider myself a world missionary,” she said. “Every day I see people from no less than 15 different countries. It’s world mission without any travel expenses. I’m a cheap missionary.”

 

In her car, Largent always keeps the elements for a Eucharist if needed. In her backpack, she carries a few items that seafarers always need: Bibles, magazines and phone cards, which the men use to call and even videoconference with their families. She takes some phone cards from the store at the Seafarer’s Center and sells them to the seamen who are unable to come ashore. Largent keeps several different currencies on hand, and in one month, she sold more than $13,000 worth of phone cards.

 

“If you have what they need to connect to their families—which is their number one priority—then they start really talking to you,” Largent explained.

 

DONATE TO SEAFARERS CENTER

In one particular instance, Largent rented out a “My-Fi” device to a ship, which offers a portable Wi-Fi connection allowing up to eight people to connect to the Internet at one time. The captain of the ship begged Largent not to take the device after the rental period ended because he wanted to watch his five-year-old daughter open the birthday gift he had sent her. “He was almost crying and so grateful that he was able to see his daughter,” Largent said. “Its not like it used to be, where the kids wouldn’t recognize their dads after a voyage. Now seafarers can actually watch their children grow up.” 

 

Many of the seamen request prayers and blessings of safety for their journeys, and some seek more in-depth counseling. When seamen are able to visit the Seafarer’s Center, Largent will often stumble into deep conversations, even with men of different faiths.

 

“One of my main roles at the Center is serving at the bar,” Largent said. “That’s where they sit, and I’m in my collar and that is where most of the pastoral conversation happens. It is just incredible.”

 

One night at the Center, Largent found herself trying to help a Filipino seaman named Raul search online for a certain kind of baby formula that could help his sick newborn child. As she helped the man, he began to confess his anxieties about his child’s condition, a child he had never even seen in person since the average contract at sea is nine months. After Raul left, they continued to exchange text messages, until one day, Largent received a message that said Raul’s baby had died.

 

“When he came back to port, he asked me to visit his ship, and I actually went to his bedroom, which I almost never do,” Largent said. “Then, he started weeping and weeping and weeping and he said, ‘I haven’t been able to grieve my baby until you came on board.’ And then I just held him and talked to him. We continued to text until he was assigned to a ship that doesn’t visit the U.S.”

 

Encounters like the one with Raul are somewhat rare, but they remain the driving force behind the work of all the chaplains. Each chaplain must raise their own funding from their designated denomination because Houston International Seafarer’s Centers, Inc. is considered its own separate, secular entity, providing the infrastructure for the chaplains to operate, but provides no direct funding for salaries. 

 

Even though the Port of Houston and the shipping companies do not directly support the chaplains, it would be hard to imagine the port without them. Chaplains serve as escorts, counselors and veritable information portals. They provide Eucharist, blessings and sometimes even bereavement services. They are bartenders, ambassadors and often just a listening ear. 

 

“If they didn’t come, we wouldn’t be able to talk to our family or friends,” said Amit, a seaman from India. “Without SIM cards or calling cards, we would have to go without, so they are very helpful.”

 

The chaplains also serve as one of the few people that seafarers trust. According to Largent, the seamen sometimes will call anonymously to report a leak or unsafe conditions. “We have an agreement with the Coast Guard,” she said. “So we will call and ask if they will do a ‘random’ inspection. We want the whole ship to trust us, so we try to keep it quiet.”

 

DONATE TO SEAFARERS CENTER 

“These people are really reliable,” said an Indian seaman named Sameer. “You cannot always trust people in a new place.” 

 

As soon as a ship hits U.S. waters, Largent will begin to receive texts, calls and Facebook messages. “I have 2000 contacts in my phone. A lot of those are seafarers that I’ve pastored,” she said. “I thought when I left a parish that I would miss the depth of pastoring the same people in a congregation. But these seafarers are communicating all over the world.”

 

Though most people don’t know about them, and few will probably witness their work, the chaplains at the Port of Houston are an essential part of an often forgotten mission field. 

 

“To me, I am a walking Matthew 28:19. I am going forth into the world,” Largent said as she drove up to another ship. “I just feel like I’m doing what Jesus did: ministering to the people of the sea.” 

 

SEND A CHRISTMAS BOX

During the Christmas season, the chaplains will deliver more than 10,000 Christmas gift boxes filled with toiletries, socks, pens and other items. To learn more about that program, visit tinyurl.com/xmasboxes.

 

The Howard T. Tellepsen Seafarer’s Center features free Wi-Fi, a cafe, a bar, pool tables, air hockey, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, soccer field, basketball court, ecumenical chapel and more. The center was named after Howard T. Tellepsen, who directed his construction company to build the state-of-the art center. In 1973, when he served as the chairman of the Houston Port Authority. 

 

Tellepsen’s father, Tom, was Norwegian and served as a deck boy at age 14 in the early 1900s before immigrating to Houston. He always wanted to be a sea captain, but settled for founding the present day Tellepsen Builders, a construction company that built many wharfs at the Port of Houston in addition to some of the most iconic structures in the city, including the original Miller Outdoor Theater, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Shamrock Hotel, St. Luke’s Hospital, and Palmer, Redeemer, and St. Martin’s Episcopal Churches.

 

Howard Tellepsen’s son, Tom II, now serves as president of the board for the Houston International Seafarer’s Centers, which oversees operations at the Tellepsen Center at the Port of Houston and the Lou Lawler Center in La Porte. “Our maritime executives have been all over the world, and they all agree that this seafarer’s center is the finest one in the world, despite it being 40 years old,” Tom II said.

 

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