Before the days of email and cellular or even satellite phones, a letter from home was the most important thing on a seafarer’s mind on arrival in port. But not all letters brought good news. While I was still a cadet in training I remember a second officer telling me about a ‘Dear John’ letter he received in Hamburg. A Dear John is a letter from a girlfriend ending a relationship.
The procedure for dealing with a Dear John letter is to take it into the ship’s bar, get everyone to sign it, and then send it back. On this occasion this did not happen, because the recipient became suicidal. He left the ship and eventually found himself in the ‘Mission’, a facility provided in Hamburg in those days by the British Sailor’s Society. The port chaplain based at the mission listened as this man poured out his heart. The officer returned to the ship and managed to get over his setback and continue with life. He never forgot what the chaplain had done for him.
Two years later I found myself in the same Mission in Hamburg. The same chaplain was there. But he was now at a low point in his life and seemed very down. He explained to me that he was giving up because he just felt that he hadn’t achieved anything. His life had become a daily grind of serving seafarers, helping them make phone calls home, taking new paperback books onto the ships, etc. The excuse for resigning? “I’m nothing more than a telephonist and a librarian.”
I explained to the chaplain how he had made a difference to just one man. I told him that being there was important, even if he felt used. Then I asked him if he could bring a change of paperbacks to my ship. When he came to the ship the next day the chaplain sat in the officer’s bar where he was welcomed by everyone. They all knew who he was. He was the face of Christ that they had seen in many ports. He just did not know that.