Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mercy Ships, Mariners, and Religion (Re-post)

A version of this post originally ran on January 30, 2010. I'm also reprinting Dr. Ben La Brot's Comment below.

A reader noted that in a previous post about maritime-based relief efforts in Haiti, I pointed out that two of the charities were Christian. Having worked for a large charity in the past, I know it's important for many donors to know where their money is going. Some would not want their money going to a Christian charity, some would not want their money going anywhere but a Christian charity, some couldn't care less. I only pointed out the charities' religious affiliation since I was encouraging people to donate money, goods, and expertise, but I thought they should do so with their eyes open.

One of the charities, Mercy Ships, was for many years associated with the Christian missionary organization Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Mercy Ships itself was founded by two YWAM members, but has for years been operationally separate from the youth missionary organization. YWAM has been the subject of several controversies over the years. Mercy Ships has been criticized recently for high salaries paid to its top officers. According to the Charity Navigator website, the charity's president earned more than $124,000 in 2007. Mercy Ships also note that more than 82 percent of donations go to programs, as opposed to salaries, administration, and other expenses.

For Charity Navigator's complete report on Mercy Ships, click here.

South African Murray Tristan Crawford is currently serving as an Assistant Purser with Mercy Ships and blogs about it here.

Modern mariners sometimes have an uneasy relationship with religion. One captain I worked under forbade crew members from holding non-denominational "gatherings" in public areas on board the vessel. Another told the crew to honor the Sabbath as best as possible by only performing necessary watchkeeping, safety, and sanitary duties on Sundays. On the evening of September 11, 2001, I was asked by some passengers to lead a prayer before dinner. It was a natural reaction on their part, but I had to refuse: with sixty passengers on board, you can be sure someone would be offended. Then there's the HR issues that come up when "asking" crew members to pray with you.

Religion used to be a much more important part of mariners' lives. Englishman John Newton, a seaman working on a slave trader, did not consider himself a spiritual man until his vessel was in a storm one night and he called out to God for help. His conversion would eventually lead to him giving up the sea and the slave trade, becoming a clergyman, and writing and publishing the song "Amazing Grace" in 1779. Religion is a major theme in Herman Melville's Moby Dick which, while it is fiction, is based on real events and informed by Melville's career at sea.

Churches and other faith-based organizations have often rallied to the cause of the seaman, traditionally lonely, poor, and possibly a slave to the bottle. Sometimes, religious orders provide material needs, like the monks that Time magazine reported on in its January 11, 1960 edition:
The little coastal freighter barely made it to the lee of Caldy Island, in the Bristol Channel, one mile off the Welsh coast. Bound out from the Scottish port of Irvine on a 30-hour run to the Welsh port of Milford Haven, the 700-ton St. Angus had run into one of the winter's wildest storms, which raked and pounded Britain from the Hebrides to the Scilly Isles. Off tiny Caldy (pop. 59) the seven-man crew faced a grim Christmas. Their food was running low and there was little hope of getting more. The men of St. Angus radioed the situation to the mainland, and resigned themselves to riding out the storm on empty stomachs. Suddenly they saw a sight to make Lord Nelson rub his eye. Out from the island, against 8-ft. waves and a 60-mile-an-hour wind, bucked an old World War II amphibious craft manned by four cowled monks and a coast guardsman. When St. Angus finally got a line to them, the crew hauled up a tea chest of staples. It was no ham or roast goose Christmas dinner, for the monks who brought it were austere Trappists, who eat only bread, butter, cheese and fruit, but there were some cans of beer (kept for monastery guests), for St. Angus men.
Today several religious organizations exist to serve seamen. All listed here are Christian. If you know of any serving mariners of other faiths, please add a Comment below or email me at

New York's Seaman's Church Institute, which I mentioned in my "Holidays At Sea" post, can be contacted here. Also mentioned in the at post were the Charleston Port and Seafarers Society (more information here) and the Seafarers & International Home in New York here.

Seamen from around the world call on the Stella Maris Center nearest them. More here.

UK seamen may look to the Seamen's Friendly Society of St. Paul here.

The Mission To Seafarer's is also based in the UK but ministers to mariners of all nations. More info here.

Comment by Dr. Ben La Brot

I actually happened across your blog while looking up mercy ships; my name is Dr. Ben La Brot of the Floating Doctors. We are another 501c3 all-volunteer non-profit (no salaries here) medical relief team working from our 76' 77-ton ship Southern Wind. We worked in Petit-Goave, Haiti for 2.5 months this spring [of 2010 - RE], then transited to Roatan, Honduras where we have been working in health centers opening a clinic, and doing mobile clinics with Southern Wind. We are getting set to head back to Haiti in late January to deliver IV fluids, medical supplies, water treatment systems and medical personnel to a string of clinics along the north coast, west of Cap Haitian.

Any info, suggestions, comments, or helping us put the word out would be a great help. Please visit our website for blogs, pics, and more about us. 

We are not affiliated with any specific religion, but we welcome help from all quarters. If anyone would like to support our mission to Haiti, or can help connect us with more support in country (we are working with Partners in Health, Direct Relief International, and the Cap Haitian Health Network on our upcoming trip), please contact us directly at
Fair Winds, y Prospero Ano Nuevo de la costa de Honduras...
Dr. Ben La Brot
President of Floating Doctors

1 comment:

  1. Happen to come across your website and would like to correct a concerning error stated. The Mercy Ships President may receive the salary figure stated, but it is not from Mercy Shps charity coffers. His salary is paid to him directly from the private pockets of the International Board members. You will note the Charity Navigator link gives Mercy Ships 100% for transparenty and honesty.