June 24th

Seen from our Portishead home the ships plying to and from Avonmouth and Portbury make a fascinating sight: mighty bulk-carriers and tankers, snub-nosed car-carriers, container ships resembling nautical shopping-trolleys piled high with boxes… What we rarely see are the men and women crewing them. They’re invisible behind the plate glass of the bridge, or down in the engine-room, or wherever. In fact the invisibility of merchant seafarers seems endemic in our culture and history. Because they didn’t perform spectacular feats in Lancaster bombers, or storm the beaches of Normandy, the merchant seamen tend to be left out of the World War II story. Yet they were the lifeline that kept the country fed, fuelled and armed, at the cost of thousands of lives lost to enemy action in the Atlantic and elsewhere.

So different today? Some 90% of our daily goods come by sea but the seafarers – now of many nationalities – still remain largely invisible. Seafaring for all sorts of reasons remains a fragile way of life, the more so in the Coronavirus pandemic. The slump in world trade is already hitting seafarers hard – and their families who depend on their incomes back home in countries like India, the Philippines, Russia and Ukraine. Thank God for that most practical arm of Christian service, the Mission to Seafarers, which is helping both here and internationally – helping not just the sailors themselves, in many cases marooned far from home, but providing food parcels and other forms of help for their families in desperate financial straits. In the gospels, Jesus made the unseen people, and their needs, visible. He still does.

Keith Clements