My cruise ship summer

This past summer I took a temporary, seasonal job with a seafarer’s mission. It wasn’t a clergy position. It was an hourly job helping to operate two hospitality centers for the crew of cruise ships that dock here in the city. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, and it didn’t pay much, but some money coming in was better than none. It was something to do while my husband and I figured out our next steps. I started out this job rather grudgingly, but somewhere along the way I discovered that it was yet another example of that cheesy-sounding but true phrase: nothing is ever wasted in God’s economy.

I picked up some random skills along the way. I re-learned a lot of Spanish (I’m the only non-Spanish speaker among my co-workers). I learned a bit of Tagalog. I learned how to operate a cash register, how to settle up accounts at the end of the day, and how to count money quickly yet accurately. I learned how to wire money all over the world, which phone cards give the best rates to which countries, and that short phrases containing the basic information are almost always the best way to answer a question from someone who is not a native English speaker. I was privileged to be welcomed as a guest for lunch on certain cruise ships. I could give you a tour of the ship considered the most luxurious ever built – including the crew and officers’ mess halls – and not get you lost more than once or twice. 

Tomorrow I will head to one of our local ports to play host yet again to the crew of a huge ocean liner – probably for one of the last times this year. Over the last six months I have come to love the people we serve, the young men (and occasionally women) from all over the world whose back-breaking labor puts cheap, all-inclusive vacations within reach of the average middle class American. The crew members have been, almost to a person, friendly, warm, funny, and generally a delight to work with. I have learned many of their names and stories, and they all know my name. My experiences with them have formed the foundation on which I built my ministry as a transitional deacon. Except for every once in a while, I don’t work with the cruise ship officers. The people that I come into contact with are the cabin stewards, the laundry staff, the guys who sort the laundry, the assistant buffet stewards and junior waiters. These folks have a very difficult life. They endure 10 months away from home at a time. They usually spend some part of that time paying off the broker who got them the job in the first place, plus their transportation to and from home to meet the ship at its home port. Except for an occasional half day of shore leave they work 7 days a week for those 10 months. When they come to see us during shore leave they spend most of their time calling home (or sometimes video-chatting to home via Skype, where they might get to watch a baby walk for the first time). They wire home all of their wages except what they need for basics, and they lose money on both the transaction fees and the exchange rates. Onboard ship they deal with long hours, lack of bargaining power, language barriers, and passengers who are incredibly stingy with their tips. They have too many roommates, not enough sleep, and the constant threat of being sent home in shame if they cause trouble.

I often wonder how many passengers take notice of these folks who wait on them 24 hours a day. Do they wonder who pressed their tux for the formal night, or are they just annoyed when it arrives back at their cabin 15 minutes late? Do they know that their waiter is trying incredibly hard to deal with their ridiculous demands because his base salary is only $50 a month unless they tip him? Would it ever occur to them that the crew member who helped them onto the tender boat bound for a snorkeling excursion is desperately worried about his family because a typhoon struck his village? Do they notice that aboard many ships you can witness a re-enactment of British or Dutch or American imperialism, with crew being drawn from the developing world nations the ship’s home country has the closest ties to? Do they see the segregation and class system aboard, and how people get pigeon-holed into certain jobs? On some ships I’m familiar with, West African are the cabin stewards, Indonesians are waiters, Eastern Europeans and South Americans are entertainers, bartenders, and cocktail waitresses, Thai and Vietnamese women do the drudge work in the spa, Indians are security personnel, and Philippinos fill in all the rest of the low level jobs, from touching up the exterior paint to re-stocking the buffets. Americans, Western Europeans, and New Zealanders get the high-ranking jobs – the officers, accounting staff, tour guides, etc. Do passengers take note of this disturbing shipboard reality?

This job has given me the chance to get to know these people in a way I never could as a passenger. I get to talk to them as one human being to another in a setting where they are not being watched by supervisors or the ubiquitous on-board security cameras. My time around them has helped to make me more aware of, and more sensitive to, the people like them that keep this shining but deeply flawed city running. I take much greater notice of the hardworking souls who deliver our food, clean up our garbage, move furniture, and sit at the front desks of swanky apartment buildings.

In seminary we never talked about what it means to be a deacon. After all, we were all there to become priests, right? To us, the diaconate was only temporary, a means to an end. Yes, once in a while someone tried to tell us it is the foundation of priestly ministry. I don’t think we really listened. It was my cruise ship crew members who taught me what it means to be a deacon. They told me to look for the people behind the things we take for granted. They taught me to find out those people’s stories. They taught me to go the extra mile to work around a language barrier. And they taught me to open my mouth and tell every other affluent person around me what I learned. 

I’ve never thought of myself as overly spoiled, and I certainly would never treat anyone the way I’ve witnessed cruise ship passengers treating crew members. I’ve always thought of myself as supporting those organizations, laws, and politicians that make things better for those in difficult situations. I’ve spent countless hours in many settings with the homeless, the elderly, and those with addictions and mental health problems. I ran a clothing ministry for the homeless, one of the few in Manhattan, while I was in seminary. But it was my work with the cruise ship crew that taught me that diaconal ministry isn’t just about doing things that you think are helpful. It’s about loving – not feeling pity for, but loving, and identifying with, those among whom you serve. The officers and passengers on cruise ships are generally of my race, socio-economic class, and education level. However, I have come to love and identify with the crew. Hopefully, that will change my future ministry for the better.

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~ by Sophia on November 5, 2009.

3 Responses to “My cruise ship summer”

  1. Wow…Sounds as if you’ve learned wonderfully and well, my friend. When we went on the RevGals 1st Big Event cruise I had quite simply never seen anything like it, in terms of either conspicuous consumption or the way that the crew seemed to exist simply for our benefit. It made me deeply uneasy, even as I revelled in being with so many wonderful friends irl, but I have to say that I came home and pretty much forgot about it. Your post read, for me, as a call to prayer xx

  2. Thank you for this.

    I will be spending the weekend with the students in our diocesan School for deacons, as an instructor. I would like to share this reflection with them (with due credit, of course).

  3. Well said. My bishop told us when we were ordained tot he diaconate that, although we might be ordained later as priests, we would be deacons forever. May it be so, and may we always listen as carefully as you have.

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