Episcopal-affiliated nonprofit supports seafarers docked in Baltimore, Maryland

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Jan 9, 2024

A crew of seafarers sit and stand aboard their ship docked at the Port of Baltimore in Maryland. Photo: Maggie Schorr

[Episcopal News Service] For the Rev. Joshua Messick, executive director of the Baltimore International Seafarers’ Center, a typical work day consists of going inside bulk carriers docked at the Maryland port to offer seafarers welcome gifts to pass on to their families, local information, transportation and spiritual counseling.

“We’re really trying to make a welcoming space for seafarers to come and see different faces outside of their regular floating four walls and be able to relax,” Messick told Episcopal News Service. “They can come to the center, which we’ve newly renovated, and have some refreshments and be somewhere different for a bit. We provide good quality internet here for them to call their families.”

Seafarers’ time ashore is “very limited” before they need to depart for their next destination. If a seafarer who’s cleared to leave the ship requests to run errands, Messick and his small team operating near Fort McHenry will offer transportation to wherever they ask to go, usually a nearby shopping mall for entertainment to keep them preoccupied during voyages and gifts to send their family, or a grocery store for provisions. Sometimes, the seafarers simply request to order food from McDonald’s.

“Seafarers go unseen and underappreciated most of the time, so my job is to do what I can for them and to help shed light on their work, their industry and what they do for us every day,” Messick said. “We can’t live our lives without the work that they do, so what I do is I serve the people that move the world.”

The Baltimore International Seafarers’ Center is an independent nonprofit organization supported by the Diocese of Maryland. It mostly consists of volunteers and two part-time employees. Messick is the only full-time employee. The center is also affiliated with the Mission to Seafarers, a Christian welfare organization that provides practical, mental and spiritual support to seafarers, who can spend between four and 11 months on ships before going on a short leave.

The Rev. Joshua Messick, executive director of the Baltimore International Seafarers’ Center in Maryland, takes a selfie with a seafarer and his family. Photo: Joshua Messick

More than 80% of international trade goods are carried by sea, according to a maritime transport review compiled by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The cargo ships supply manufactured goods, food, medicine, raw materials and energy resources. Out of the estimated 1,892,720 seafarers across the world who operate on about 74,000 ships, as many as 50,000 of them pass through the Port of Baltimore every year. A vessel’s voyage can take up to 45 days before docking ashore.

“We can’t live without seafarers. Without seafarers, there is no merchandise; there would be nothing on the shelves to buy. So, yes, they matter, and what they’re going through matters,” Messick said. “It can be a dangerous job, and if we don’t think about them, then we’re really taking a lot for granted.”

For Messick, caring for the physical and wellbeing of seafarers is crucial. Seafarers — mostly men and sometimes women from the Philippines, China, India, Russia and Ukraine — are subject to abuse by senior officers. Additionally, many ship materials contain the carcinogen asbestos, a fibrous silicate mineral that was popularly used for construction and insulation in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Exposure to asbestos puts seafarers at higher risk of developing health issues, including mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer that causes chest pain and breathing difficulties, according to research compiled by Bergman Oslund Udo Little, a Seattle-based law firm that focuses on mesothelioma and asbestos cases.

Seafarers often ask Messick for spiritual guidance and support. Because they face long workdays, prolonged isolation and piracy attacks, seafarers are susceptible to mental health issues. Suicide on board is not uncommon. 

“Seafarers are at the mercy of ship owners and their captains, and if they’re on a ship that’s not good, they can really be taken advantage of and face human rights violations,” Messick said. “Labor violations are common, so I always do mental health checks and look for red flags when I’m on board.”

Sometimes, Messick will offer the Eucharist seafarers’ request.

Messick said his job is about seeing Christ in seafarers, who come from different social and economic backgrounds in their home countries. When he’s not directly helping seafarers docked in Baltimore, Messick travels to conferences in different countries to advocate for seafarer rights.

“What I try to do is not just bring Christ to the seafarers, but to see where Christ is already and how he’s at work in the lives of these people,” he said.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.