PARSONS: Seafarers are part of my family

January 11, 2022

Captain Grigorios and his crew at St. Patrick Church where a Mass was held for the two dead crew members who died on his ship when it caught fire.  (Photos courtesy of Karen M. Parsons, OFS)

GALVESTON — “I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the Gospel from the first day until now” (Phil 1:3-5).
This is a passage I have used often throughout the years whenever writing to seafarers. St. Paul understood the importance of keeping in touch with those he ministered to on his travels. I used his model for my correspondence ministry with seafarers that I began way back in 1985 after visiting my very first ship, the M/V BALSA 6. On that ship, I met a Filipino seafarer named Ben Estevez. He was sad that he hadn’t heard from his family in many months of being on board. That was back in the days of very expensive phone calls home from only landlines and very slow mail. Seafarers felt extremely isolated and homesick. I exchanged addresses with Ben and began to write him letters. I wrote to the address of the shipping agent, and he received my letters at different ports when the letters caught up to his ship. We wrote to each other for many years. Then, one year, he forgot to send me his new address when he joined his ship, and I lost contact with him. It made me very sad because I felt Ben had become my brother.
Over the 36 years of my active port ministry, it is estimated that I have written over 50,000 letters to seafarers and their families. I have files of letters from seafarers and their families to me that are in the tens of thousands as well. On Dec. 31, 2020, I visited my last ship, M/V SHARK ISLAND. Even though I am no longer climbing gangways, I am still corresponding with seafarers and their families. Many I have communicated with for over 30 years! They are part of my family.
Every year I send out over 100 Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year cards to seafarers and their families from 23 countries. I send a family update to them, and then I hear back from them with their news.
This year I received two Facebook messenger messages from relatives of seafarers I had been writing to for many years. The first is the son of a Filipino seafarer, Rey, whom I met when his ship came into Galveston pretty regularly in the 1990s. He was a young man, not married yet. He was full of life and loved to hang out at the Seafarers Center. He helped with center activities and even interacted with the Texas A&M cadets that came to the center for meetings and recreation. When he left his vessel, we had already become good friends. For years I wrote to him at his home address in the Philippines. Then suddenly I stopped hearing from him. My letters were not returned, so I wasn’t sure why I didn’t hear from him. Then I got the message from his son, Renz. Renz told me that his father died of a heart attack. It was shocking to hear because Rey was only 50. Renz then told me that he and his sister also lost their mother to a stroke shortly after. His sister is married now with a baby of her own. Renz just graduated from high school. He is living with his mother’s best friend’s family. We keep in contact via Facebook messenger now. At Christmas this year, he asked me to tell him stories of his father when I knew him in Galveston. So, I did. He was happy.
The second Facebook message I received this year was from the nephew of a Greek Captain I had been writing to since 1993 when his ship caught fire in the Galveston Ship Channel, and two of his officers died in the fire. Captain Grigorios had to order his crew to abandon ship that day. All but two made it out to the muster stations. As the crew evacuated, Captain Gregorios did not want to leave until the others were found. The fire became too strong, and the Coast Guard ordered him off the vessel as well. He stayed on a firefighting vessel for two days until the fire was under control. Then his ship was towed into port.
He and his crew were taken to the local La Quinta motel for debriefing. They were traumatized, and I was allowed to spend time with them grief counseling. Captain Grigorios was busy with the investigation. He had to speak with all the authorities as well as the company and insurance representatives. He was exhausted. During a meeting of all these entities, I came in and insisted that they allow me to take the captain to a quiet part of the motel and let him let it out. To my surprise, I was allowed 30 minutes to spend time listening. And that is what I did. Captain Gregorios told me that the two men that died were friends. In fact, the chief engineer was his best friend and godfather to his son. They were neighbors back home in Greece. And now, the chief engineer’s family is blaming him. When my time was up, and he was needed back in the investigation, I went to my office and wrote him a letter of encouragement. And each day that I visited the motel to take care of the crew, I handed Captain Gregorios a letter knowing I wouldn’t get time to talk with him again. After the three-week investigation and everyone was released to go home, I made one last visit to the motel to say goodbye to everyone. Captain Gregorios handed me a paper with his home address on it and asked me to continue to write him. He said, “I will need to hear from you.” So I began writing to him and wrote to him often over the next 27 years. His nephew contacted me on Facebook to tell me that Captain Gregorios died. He thanked me for all the years of sending cards and letters to his uncle. He said it really helped. Captain Gregorios never sailed again after the fire. He fought depression.
The seafarers whom I have been writing to for over 30 years are family. We celebrate with weddings of our children, births of our grandchildren, and other major life events. As a chaplain, developing these relationships has been key to me being able to continue my ministry even after the gangways are raised and the ships leave port. †