Seamen's Salve

Filipinas/April 2008
Story & Photos by Bill Stephens

--As a maritime chaplain, Fr. Henry Hernando provides emotional and spiritual support to seafarers who are far from home

Story and Photos by Bill Stephens

On a chilly Friday evening maritime chaplain Father Henry Hernando arrives at the International Seamen's Center in the sprawling LA/Long Beach port complex.

He's already put in a full day at his own Catholic maritime hospitality center in nearby cruise ship Pier 93. But Father Henry also comes here six nights a week to see cargo seafarers.

Inside the modest but lively center the former U.S. Navy chaplain finds many seafarers--mostly Filipinos like himself--huddling at computers, phoning home, watching TV, shooting pool and the breeze. The sixty-five year old priest's a regular jogger, and has an athlete's posture and build.

He chats with two young Filipino seafarers.

"Where you guys from?"
"Me too," he says.

The seafarers are six months into a 10 month stint away from families, and will sail next afternoon.

As they leave, Father Henry says: "If your crew wants me to visit your ship, your captain can call me." Father Henry hopes he can visit. But he's doubtful because the ship sails soon.

Father Henry visits with assistant center director Mary. She says Father Henry knows sea life and relates culturally to seafarers. "We call him when we see a depressed sailor."

Father Henry watches the Lakers game with seafarers. At 10 p.m. the center closes, and he drives some sailors to their ships.

Later, driving back to his local parish room, he says he doesn't mind the hours. "I'm touched by their sacrifices for family."

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Next morning Father Henry arrives at his Pier 93 Catholic maritime center and enthusiastically greets a volunteer. The small but cozy center has phones, a computer, magazines, t-shirts, snacks and coffee, couches, a small chapel.

Seafarers, mostly Filipinos, pop in and out. They greet Father Henry, phone home, mail packages, and grab rides into town.

In his comfortably cluttered office Father Henry says when he took this job in 2003 he was excited about helping merchant seafarers. Born in the Philippines the son of a U.S. Navy cook, he eventually served as a priest in L.A. and as a U.S. Navy chaplain globally.

"I'd seen in the Navy, how a chaplain can boost morale and productivity by addressing homesickness and job stress with counseling and church services," he says. "Sailors share their problems with us. Mass, special blessings, and counseling give them a boost."

"These sailors are doing their job, moving the world's goods. But sea work can be lonely, stressful, and hard on marriages. I can identify with their loneliness in a foreign port, their need for a home away from home. For sailors, being in port is a time of healing, recouperation, and R&R.

Shipping companies increasingly hire third world crews, especially Filipinos, valued for their English, hard work, adaptability, and sea savvy.

Father Henry says about 70 percent of the seafarers calling at Los Angeles/ Long Beach port are Filipino Catholics. "They are young, often educated guys, sending money home that supports families, including parents. They are patient by nature and keep problems to themselves. But they can snap. So they need emotional support."

Father Henry thought his Navy, Filipino, and global background was ideal.
But his maritime chaplain job has been a challenge.

--With technology, merchants ships have shorter and shorter port stays, from a few hours to a few days. "During their time-off, often at night, sailors want to shop, grab a meal, call home. They run in and out of hospitality centers. I need to be flexible and understanding."

--The Long Beach/L.A. port complex, America's busiest, is so sprawling it's inconvenient for seafarers to reach hospitality centers.

--Since 9-11, port security has tightened. A confusing array of Coast Guard, port, pier, shipping company, and private security firm rules make it harder for Father Henry to connect with seafarers.

Father Henry prepares for his daily 12:30 mass. "The best solution is for me to visit the ships in port. But at times I've been stopped by pier security guards. Or, by the time I navigate the paperwork, the ship has sailed."

Recently a ship captain wanted Father Henry to visit. But the pier guard didn't have his name.

"I'm here to meet a ship."
"Your name isn't on the list."
"But it's been arranged."
"Rule's a rule."

Once, he arrived at a pier to help sailors upset after a shipboard tragedy. He was denied access.

Anotehr time , he was alerted by his worldwide organization to meet a ship. But the ship came and went before he could get the approvals.

"It's frustrating with my experience not to be able to help. Caution is the key these days."

He adds: "Ideally I could visit ships from 5-7 p.m., then take sailors to the ISC for transport to shopping areas."

A young Filipino seafarer named Geraldine stops by Father Henry's office to say hello. He's a first time visitor to this center. They talk about the seafarer's California to Mexico ship route.

"So you have family back home?"
"Yes. A wife and two kids."

The sailor sends his pay home to pay off their house. He says workplace treatment is good. "But it's hard being far from family. It's good to have this home-away-from-home where you can relax and see a chaplain."

He says he came here for spiritual refreshment, a blessing, social conversation, and an emotional boost. He also wants a ride into town to try a Filipino restaurant and to shop for family. "I plan to be a regular here," he says.

Father Henry gives him special blessing.

Father Henry notes that today's seafarers are mostly serious young family men who send money home. In port, they call home and shop for family gifts. "The stereotype of sailors drunk in port isn't accurate. Their goal is to provide for their kids and buy a house."

A few minutes later during the mass, Father Henry blesses the handful of Filipino, Indian, and Latin American seafarers attending. "Father, protect these seamen and their families. We hope they will feel this is a home away from home, and feel protected and blessed. We pray for those who are lonely."

After the mass, one of the attendees, a 35-year-old Filipino cruise ship repairman named Deje Aballe says he comes to mass here twice a week when he's in port. He feels homesick for his wife and child in the Philippines.

After the mass, Father Henry pauses for a sandwich lunch. "I'm humbled when I here their stories. Many are college grads working as ordinary seamen. Earn money for the family."

He says that he doesn't proselytize. "Seafaring is a hard life. We're trying to give them an emotional and spiritual boost. We provide a place to relax, call home, socialize, attend a religious service, receive a blessing, discuss problems, and get a ride to town. I also visit their ships."

He finishes his sandwich. "It's frustrating when only a few show up for mass here."

He's trying to solve the short port stay/limited access situation by showing up at the ISC six nights a week, and by getting to know port stakeholders to gain better ship access.

"The merchant marine industry doesn't yet recognize the value of a chaplain to help sailors' morale and productivity. They tend to view crews as low priority, third world, short-termers."

"I feel frustrated by my difficult working conditions. I'd like a more efficient way of helping sailors because I see a human need."

"The shipping company agents and captains are the keys. If they value the
morale and well-being of the crew, they would see the chaplain as an asset."

"I urge them to see the value of being listened to, of having someone you can talk to. A happy sailor is more productive."

He tells about one Indian captain, a Hindu, who asked him to visit the ship. The captain attended the service and said he wanted his crew to be able to worship. "He was the ideal captain."

"Usually, I feel like an outside. For some reason, chaplains aren't viewed as part of the team."

Father Henry, known as the most active chaplain in the port, has had some successes.

For instance, in 2004 he learned that 13 Filipino sailors were stranded in the port because their ship the Katrina was accused of illegal dumping. He hurried to court, where the a judge was sentencing them to jail as witnesses pending trial.

Father Henry complained to the judge.
"These men aren't criminals. They're your star witnesses."

The judge released the 13 men to Father Henry's charge.

News reports inspired L.A.'s Filipino community to help house and feed the "Katrina 13" until the trial. When the sailors eventually returned home, Father Henry become a mini-hero to Filipinos.

Another time, when a Filipino sailor died in a shipboard accident in port, the crew feared the site. After Father Henry visited the ship, held mass, and blessed the site, the crew regained peace of mind.

Another time, a worried Filipino sailor was being transferred to a ship sailing into stormy seas. "After I talked to him and blessed him, he relaxed," Father Henry says.

He says Filipino seafarers are resilient and stoic, but can become discouraged. "I counseled one seafarer who was very depressed. I told him to see the bright side of life, to keep going, that his wife and kids needed him. We prayed together and later he thanked me."

Another time a sailor came in and said he wanted to quit his ship. I asked him:
"What will you do? You'll be illegal, jobless. You have to learn to endure or you'll never have a permanent job. Your family is counting on you, and they are also sacrificing for you." He stayed on.

Father Henry says if seafarers are lonely,
"I encourage them to make friends. If they're worried about family, I encourage them to call often. If they have workplace problems, I suggest talking to their supervisor. Sometimes talk to the ship captain about morale."

Father Henry says working conditions at sea have improved, but social injustices still occur. When a seafarer reports unfair contract treatment, for instance, the priest will provide moral support, and if necessary, contact the local ITF union rep.

Cruise ship beautician Marites deles Reyes wanders into the Pier 93 center for the first time and says hello.

"I'm happy to find this place," she says.

"Welcome," says Father Henry.

She sends money home to the Philippines, where her six year old daughter is cared for by the girl's grandmother.

The woman picks out a card to mail home. She says she feels welcome and safe at this center, which she sought out to relax.

Father Henry blesses the woman: "Father, look after her at sea. And protect her daughter and mother."

After the woman returns to her ship, the Pier 93 center grows quiet. Father Henry says he's not satisfied with his progress, and will try some new ideas. In 2008, he plans to:

--promote a more united, ecumenical approach among port chaplains to lobby for more ship access.

--create three pastoral ship visiting teams, each composed of a priest and two parish volunteers.

--encourage local parishioners to "adopt a seafarer"

--upgrade the Pier 93 hospitality center and promote it

--lobby for a large, central seafarer's center with a restaurant, an interfaith chapel, and spaces for all port chaplains

"This great port needs an outstanding center and a unified, organized port hospitality approach."

* * * *
After some parish business, a bite, and some rest, Father Henry drives back to the ISC center.

"This is hard work. But I have valuable spiritual and human goods to offer. So I keep at it."

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