Seamen's Church Institute charts new course for 21st-century ministry
Organization to sell Manhattan facility, relocate ministries to renovated New Jersey center[Episcopal News Service] Spurred by changes in technology and the maritime industry, the Seamen's Church Institute is charting a new course in its ministry to the world's mariners.
SCI is selling its six-story Water Street building in Manhattan, New York, and relocating two of its flagship programs – the Center for Seafarers' Rights, which provides legal services for seafarers around the globe, and the Christmas at Sea "Knitting Room," the assembly point for 17,000 knitted gifts collected annually for mariners – into its newly renovated International Seafarers' Center in Port Newark, New Jersey.
Staff from the former headquarters building in New York will relocate to Port Newark or other SCI facilities, including the maritime training center in Houston, the Rev. David Rider, SCI executive director, told Episcopal News Service.
The goal is to "get the right people in the right place," he said. "That's where we're called by the gospel to be, is where the action is. That's what mission is all about."
Rider spoke by telephone from the Houston facility as it fired up its new multimillion-dollar simulator to train ship captains, Coast Guard members and others in safety, navigation and security maneuvers. On Thursday, the Houston center will host a round-table meeting of 28 Coast Guard, admiralty law, maritime insurance, shipping and oil company representatives to discuss what happens next after the Gulf oil spill.
SCI has been sailing toward the action, and adjusting course along the way, since 1834. "We have continued to upgrade as the world upgraded itself," Rider said.
For most of the 19th century, SCI operated floating chapels for mariners in New York's East River. "As we moved into the early 20th century, there was a need for overnight hospitality for the seafarers," Rider said. SCI created hotels to provide a safe space for mariners to stay during their five to seven days in port. "Otherwise it was brothels or the street.
"In the Depression we housed a thousand mariners a night," he said.
Advances in technology – notably the use of large shipping containers and big gantry cranes to move them – cut the average stay in port to 18 hours, eliminating the need for hotel space, Rider said. In the 1980s, SCI sold its 500-room hotel in Manhattan and spent some of the proceeds on the Water Street building. The facility held SCI's first training simulator, but rising costs prompted the organization to relocate its training and simulators to sites in Houston and Paducah, Kentucky, during the 1990s, Rider said.
"That was a very smart mission model, but it kind of emptied the building of mariners," he said.
Meanwhile, mariner activity was thriving at SCI's hospitality center in Port Newark, which offered recreational facilities, chaplains and the opportunity for mariners to connect with their families back home via telephone or computer. In 2009, the center served 37,980 seafarers, truckers and port workers, SCI reports.
About five years ago, SCI decided to gut and rebuild the Port Newark center, which will open fully by early November, Rider said. The $13 million, three-story, 18,000-square-foot building is "totally state-of-the-art," he said. "It will be the most advanced [seafarers] center, certainly in North America, and one of the two or three most advanced in the world."
Mariners will be able to play soccer or use a fitness center, transfer funds, worship in a new chapel, receive spiritual or legal services, or contact their loved ones. Full-time van drivers provide ship-to-center transportation.
SCI hopes to increase the number of volunteers who can come to knit or spend time with the seafarers, and sees it as a ministry opportunity for the dioceses of Newark and New Jersey, Rider said. SCI hopes ultimately to offer clinical pastoral education at Port Newark and plans to work with the bishops of the New York and New Jersey dioceses to offer deacon training and the opportunity for clergy to assist at the center, he said. "We'll be reaching out to active and retired clergy who want to volunteer as … chaplains in addition to our core staff."
While the Water Street building will be sold, he added, "We will continue to have a New York presence. We've always been in Manhattan. We love it, and we will continue to do that. What that really means is connecting with the churches and connecting with maritime industry events."
"Presence does not mean some bricks and mortar," he said. "The real presence is being out and about at the meetings of the industry."
Houston – "the emerging port in America" – is in the midst of a multiphase upgrade of its training facilities, Rider said. Phase one features the new $1.3-million simulator, which allows trainees to work in four ship "pilot houses" in virtual space, each affecting the others, as they practice navigating tricky bridges or practice safety maneuvers, he explained. "It's a very specific geographic space. One company might want to deal with one bridge that it has challenges with or navigate through New Orleans. If there's a Wal-Mart on the right shore, there's a Wal-Mart" they see in the simulator.
Phase two will involve upgrading a second simulator and phase three will let SCI provide post-9-11 security training, Rider said. Such training is important in Houston, he noted. "Houston's the most vulnerable port in the country because it's all petrochemical. The Episcopal Church is right there with the Coast Guard and shipping companies and the Port Authority, creating security exercises. … We'll be sponsoring regular security simulations."
SCI receives training fees from those using the education facilities, while other programs benefit from philanthropic support, Rider said, comparing it to the combination of funding that would support a hospital or college.
Armed with a MacBook Pro and Blackberry, Rider divides his time among SCI's centers, which also include a hospitality center in Oakland, California. In addition, SCI has a center serving cruise-ship workers in Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York, and ministries on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
"We have multiple specialized sites," Rider said. "We serve a mobile international industry that's constantly on the go, and for us to sit in one building or one space is an anachronism."
"We're trying to be a cyber-missionary organization and be smart in terms of today's technology," he said. "So I can work from home. I can work from [a train on] Metro North and an airplane or any of our four centers with equal ease. It's a great way to do ministry."