Progress

You know when you are getting old because progress seems to speed up, hurtling headlong to the horizon, leaving whole generations running to even stand still. As paper maps, Space Hoppers and Compact Discs are right-clicked to the recycling bin of social history, we know that they will make an interesting media post for the younger generations in years to come, probably entitled ‘share, if you know what these were used for’.

Since we are mentioning social media, it’s worth thinking how this technology, and the internet in general, has been immensely disruptive. Not only has it almost seen off traditional print media, it is showing no signs of slowing down. Newspapers, printed books and written letters are all struggling to maintain a hold. Why pick up a book, when the instant download, click and send, cloud of knowledge is all around? Real-time broadcast media is suffering too, on demand bulletins can be summoned from a device at any time of the day. Why would anyone need to make time to sit and listen to, or watch a particular programme, when it can be played back from the internet at any time of day or night? I’m not attempting to sound like a bona fide Luddite, there are many bright sparks from the bonfire of technological innovation which make life much better, like the advances in medical technology, the ability to predict and prevent illness, the way in which we can understand more about nature and the effect we have on the planet, these are all wonderful. We live in an age of great progress. It is indeed a great time to be alive.

One great innovation is the ability to speak with and see loved ones on the other side of the world almost instantaneously, this is a huge innovation for billions, but by no means all people.

It was one of those ugly grey winter days in South Wales. I was cold. I had managed to get to the deck of a ship between gusts of icy wind. After my ID had been checked, I stood in silence, listening to him speak.

The seafarer spoke with a mixture of anger and despair about his family life, and how from a distance of ten thousand miles, everything he held dear and precious was slowly unravelling. He felt helpless.

“They don’t work at sea” he said, waving his mobile phone close to my face. “Useless! Not good at all.” Then, he just looked at me, his face was a mixture of anger and despair, “I tried to contact them, I tried” he said. Then, as the next blast of icy wind crossed the ship, he waited to see what I would say. I said nothing. I took the phone from his hand and put it on the bench next to the security station, where all visitors sign in.

I arranged to take him and some other crew to the Mission to Seafarers Centre, where they would do what seafarers usually do – get some refreshments and speak to me or one of the volunteers for a few minutes, so as not to seem rude. Then, they type the all-important password into their tablets, phones or laptops, enabling access to the free WiFi. Then this disruptive power, this exponential growth in technology, works for them and with them. It catapults them straight into their homes, so many thousands of miles away. They see live images of their loved ones, gaining clarity as the buffer fills and the network traffic management shares the precious data between those present and connected.

I sometimes watch their faces as they speak. Something important is happening. The volunteers at the Mission Centres know this too. There is a quiet attentiveness, waiting to see if the seafarers need help. We know that our guests are lost in something important, catching up with family news, sharing stories, listening to and seeing those who miss them. Sometimes, in a language we don’t speak, they are trying to repair relationships that distance and time have devastated.

Of course, the frustrated and windswept seafarer was right, mobile phones just don’t work at sea, apart from prohibitively expensive satellite phones expensive monthly bills. A few miles from land the signal from their mobile phone dies, slowly and frustratingly. For the remainder of the voyage it serves as an expensive photo album, where you can stare at the unmoving faces of family, until the signal slowly reappears and they come back to life. The lucky few seafarers have access to some satellite data with more progressive shipping companies, however this is rarely enough to do more than send a few emails or pictures. Meanwhile, in our streets, cafes, public places, even buses and trains, those of us ashore have free wifi, should we wish to connect, we have this option, this choice, because we are being taken along with the wave, this exponential growth in technology.

Seafarers have benefitted over the last few decades from free WiFi and more innovative ways of delivering welfare and support, it’s just that this huge wave of technology hasn’t hit them. When your children and partner can connect and speak with relatives living on the other side of a world at the speed of light, and you are incommunicado for up to fifty days, it’s as one seafarer explained “they understand, but don’t understand, at the same time, sometimes they forget us because life moves so fast. This is why free WiFi is better than free beer”

Port-side WiFi will help with ships that discharge so quickly that the crew can’t get to our centres. Asking the question of shipping companies about the slowly reducing cost of satellite internet will eventually bring more communication to the ships at sea, and the continuing welcome the Mission to Seafarers provides in some of the most remote ports will keep families talking, because without communication things get complicated quickly. In other parts of the world, our family centres will continue to provide help and support for the families of seafarers at sea, and of course, we will keep doing all we can to advocate for those who need prayers and action.

Mark Lawson Jones

Ports Chaplain -Wales

Mission to Seafarers

Another Life

Working with the Mission to Seafarers for the last year or more I have learned a lot about myself.  One of the things I now know is that I value listening to the stories other people tell. I like to hear about the truth of their lives and how they see the world through the people around them, the power of nature and the passing of time.

To visit a ship and speak with seafarers is to have a glimpse into how they see the world. Standing shoulder to shoulder with a seafarer talking, whilst looking from the ship to the landscape, is a wonderful thing. It is being allowed the privilege of sharing the same view, even if just for a few moments. It is in these moments seafarers talk about the things which concern them. If we can help in any way, we will.

The journeys across the vast oceans watching day turn to night and seasons turn too, seem to stay with seafarers for a lifetime. However, the effect on family life also remains with them.

The recent words of a retired seafarer resonate in my mind. When I asked how difficult it was to leave his family for another long contract, he said “It’s like I had another life”, he continued “as soon as I was out of view, as the taxi took me away, it was as if my life switched and I was in my other life”.

The ‘Forgotten’ Seafarer

It was a rather ordinary morning visiting ships when I found a seafarer due to sign-off at the next port. Although he was glad to be going home, he was afraid, and very upset. Fifteen years ago his first marriage had broken down, he lost contact with his children. It was many years before he found love again and married for a second time.

He was convinced that this marriage was failing also. Communication with home had been difficult during his last contract. Quick turn-around in ports meant he hadn’t got ashore much at all, and felt as if they had been separated by distance and time, that the bonds were breaking.

He also spoke of seafaring being “another life”, that can demand you leave all you value behind. “Seafarers are dead to the world” he said, “forgotten people”. I was concerned for him.

I sought permission from the Captain to take him ashore for a few hours, explaining that I was anxious and would like to talk with him. The Captain quickly agreed, saying he also had worries about the seafarer, but was unsure what he could do to help him.

At the Seafarers’ Centre, we spoke for some time and then used the free Wi-fi to contact his wife for a video call. It was the first time he had seen her or spoken in four months.

Then the seafarer called to me, so that I could be introduced to his wife. I explained my role and told her how much he was missing her and their young child. We spoke about how life at sea can be difficult. From her face, I could see how difficult it must be for her and the hundreds of thousands of seafarers’ partners and children who remain ashore, waiting, counting time, remembering the good times.  The seafarer and his wife continued their conversation until quite some time had passed.  I waited quietly, wondering how I might cope with the pressure they both feel.

The work of the Mission to Seafarers across the world is continually evolving to serve seafarers in the most practical ways possible. No two seafarers are the same, neither are their difficulties. It is a ministry of listening and learning, and what I like to think of as creative pastoral care. It is all about not missing the little things.

So, practicality being important, when the call ended, we visited the local city to buy presents. He hadn’t had time to do this, this was part of the difficulty. It was part of his upset and anxiety.

We went to a toy shop and a clothes shop, a gift shop and a supermarket.

Returning to the ship, he seemed to be a different person, looking forward to the next week and being reunited with his family. I kept them all in my prayers, remembering the words of the retired seafarer and his real sense of living ‘another life’.

Several weeks had passed when I received a call from the seafarer, he thanked me, saying aboard ship he had been having suicidal thoughts and had been in a very difficult place. He had sought help at home, and wanted to thank me for taking the time to care for him.

I thanked him too, for letting me glimpse, however fleetingly, at the struggles and challenges he felt. I felt privileged that I could ‘share the view’ and do all I could to help.

What remains is the feeling that we owe much to the men and women who bring us over 90% of the things we enjoy, by sailing the world and living ‘another life’.

The smallest kindness can change the lives of those a long way from home and loved ones.

Rev. Mark Lawson-Jones

Port Chaplain – Wales

The Mission to Seafarers

‘The Mission’

“The days of languorous shore leave are long gone. Overnight stays are unheard of and sailor towns a distant memory. In better ports, seafarers head for a seamen’s mission.”
Rose George
There has been a theme running through interactions with seafarers over the past few months, it is a melancholia, a sort of wistful longing for better times. I hear stories of voyages of the past and days long gone, when seafarers could balance the upset of a long and dangerous journey with the great stories of the sights, sounds and people of far away lands.
A seafarer said recently that amongst the gifts they took home to loved ones, the stories of far off places were the ones his children asked for time and time again.
There seems to have been a deal struck between the seafarer and the ship, which meant both benefitted from the partnership. Cargoes were delivered , despite the huge distances and time that took so much life from the seafarer, however the exchange was that life could be lived in glorious technicolor, knowing that each day would bring a story which would make it all somehow worthwhile. These stories were then shared at home, so families became vicariously involved with their sacrifice.
“What do I tell them now?” one seafarer asked. “All ports look the same, it’s like being on a bus, not a ship! We seem to stop for a few hours and then sail at high water. It’s a busy time in port and we don’t get ashore for weeks sometimes”.
This is an odd sort of deprivation. It’s one that could be quantified by minutes and hours, if we really must reduce life to time alone. A better way to see this deprivation is a sort of loss of humanity, where the opportunity to see, hear and enjoy is all but lost. Days can blend into weeks and weeks to months as time seems to become an exercise in counting rather than living.
The Mission to Seafarers provides trained ship visitors, who attend ships and make the effort to climb aboard. There, they speak with seafarers and will leave gifts of woolly hats, scarves and gloves: Good gifts indeed, but visitors also tell crews that the gifts have been knitted by people who want them to know that they are not forgotten. Each gift comes with good wishes and prayers for them.
A colleague recently commented that chaplains and ship visitors are the only people who board ships with no other reason than to ‘see how seafarers are’ and ‘bring gifts, information and stories’ of the place they find themselves in.
Those of us who have the privilege of visiting seafarers from around the world draw satisfaction in knowing that just maybe, one day, thousands of miles away, a seafarer will be telling his family about how the Mission to Seafarers sent a chaplain or ship visitor and they made a difference at a critical time.
It is a great sadness that seafarers suffer from mental ill health in great numbers. It is our hope and prayer that just for a moment, we can help them see life in Technicolor and help them get home safely to those who love them and miss them.
In the meanwhile, I’ll carry hats, biscuits, information, news, bibles and books to those whom we rely on so much, but easily forget.
In your prayers, please remember those beyond the horizon and those in port, and quietly give thanks for their work, wellbeing and that the wonder may be restored to their lives.
We should all have stories to tell.

Do the Little Things

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It is St. David’s day here in Wales, a time when almost everyone is involved in some sort of celebration of the 6th century saint’s life. However today, in the middle of the worst snow Wales has seen for possibly a decade, many of the celebrations have been cancelled or postponed.

Of all the saints, we know quite a lot about St. David, much of which has been found in historic documents. He founded monasteries, churches and communities, was an active force in the growth of the church in Wales, and his last words are reported to have been;

“Arglwydi, vrodyr, a chwioryd, Bydwch lawen a chedwch ych ffyd a’ch cret, a gwnewch y petheu bychein a glywyssawch ac a welsawch gennyf i. A mynheu a gerdaf y fford yd aeth an tadeu idi”.

This translates as, “Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”

It includes a phrase that St. David has become famous for, “Gwnewch y pethau bychain“ which translates from Welsh as “Do the little things”.

This reminds us that if the world is to become better place, where justice is available to all, where the world’s resources are fairly shared, and all peoples live in peace and harmony, then it won’t happen by grand ideas alone, but by people all over the world doing the little things. Nothing is lost, every little kindness is important. This, after all, is the example of Christ himself, who showed us that the Kingdom of God is to be built brick by brick, each one representing a kindness to someone else.

The work of the Mission to Seafarers is committed to the little things, the things that others might easily forget or not even spot at all. In 1836 when the Rev. John Ashley established the Bristol Channel Mission, he saw the need of seafarers at anchor, waiting for days in loneliness for their ships to sail. Quickly, a number of Anglican ministries followed suit and formed into an organisation which could co-ordinate the response to the need. Many years later, in 2007, The Mission to Seafarers was created and now supports those who do the little things for seafarers, in over 200 ports throughout the world.

This week, I was reminded of the privilege, to be called to serve those who serve us so well, the seafarers who visit Wales. Visiting a ship this week, with Louis, our newest Ship Welfare Visitor, we were greeted by a complicated situation. Welcomed aboard and taken to the captain’s office, we could see that he was obviously concerned and rather upset because he was being told by a visiting official that more charges would be incurred in port. We waited quietly to talk with him, however he got more and more irate. Eventually, we realised what the difficulty was, he said to the official “Why am I being inspected by Port State Control”, and looked directly at us.

By now, many of the rest of the crew had gathered at the door of the captain’s office to see what was going on, they didn’t look happy at all.

In the noise of the alarms and the crew scurrying around, he did not hear me say that we were from ‘The Mission’. As the situation escalated, and he continued talking with the official, always keeping an eye on us. Slowly we opened our bags and started to remove the contents. Fifteen wooly hats, one each for the crew, chocolate biscuits, tourist information and port information, international shipping news and finally a few pairs of gloves, all placed on the captain’s table.

The official finally left and the captain turned to us and said, in broken English “what the hell do you want?” Louis and I explained that we were from the Mission to Seafarers, and were just visiting to see how everyone is, and if we could help in any way. There was silence. The crew quickly and quietly took the hats, biscuits and information and left, leaving us with the captain, who told us to sit down. He called for cofIMG_0222.JPGfee and sandwiches, which arrived quickly.

His mood had lightened somewhat, and now had lots of questions.

In twenty years as a captain, in the Baltic Sea and very northerly ports, he said he had never encountered anyone from the ‘Mission’, and wanted to know what we ‘do’. In the next hour, we spoke of family, how long he had spent at sea, what his greatest challenges were, and if there was anything we could do to help. The captain responded that he hadn’t been ashore for some time, and would very much like to visit the local city to see the museum and historic monuments. His crew had been to the city already, but he had been too busy to leave the ship.

We said “get your coat”, and we were off the ship and making our way across the dock to the Mission to Seafarers car within five minutes. A tour of the city, showing him the sights followed, it is fair to say that he was a completely different person.

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We laughed and joked and gave him information about the Mission for other crews and contact details should he return to Wales.

Just before we left, we were asked “Why do this work?”, and I said “It’s the little things captain”, as we wished him farewell and God bless.

Seafarers and Shepherds

Journeying through Advent with many different congregations as a parish priest, I came to appreciate the players in the nativity.  They all had their part to play in the re-telling of the story of the birth of Christ.  The ‘Kings’, or ‘Wise Men’, with their strange gifts; Joseph and Mary, with their courage, obedience and determination.  Herod, the Roman appointed ‘King of Judea’, the busy innkeeper and the even the animals in the stable, they all speak to us of the best, and worst, of human nature. I have to say that it is the shepherds who continue to live in my imagination.

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I once played a shepherd in my school nativity play, I must have been six or seven.  I remember being asked to hold a toy lamb and sit around a ‘fire’ constructed by placing a sheet of orange film on a small pile of wood.  I also remember the one line I was expected to deliver, it was “let us go to Bethlehem”. I wore a really itchy sack-cloth to look like an authentic shepherd, or at least what Mrs. Venn, the head teacher, thought a shepherd looked like in the First Century Near East.  This was my first and only break into the world of theatre and drama.  It didn’t go well, I even needed to be prompted for even the one short line.  I do remember, thinking about how horrible it must have been to be a shepherd, sitting for hours with uncomfortable clothes.

There is no doubt that the shepherds were the ones who were special to God in this story and their part in the Nativity preserved for all time, after all, they were the ones who heard the news of the birth before anyone else.  I have always believed that God is with those who struggle with difficult jobs, those who are away from society, sometimes close to nature, with all that brings in terms of danger, loneliness and how you are perceived back in ‘civilisation’.   It was these who God chose to bring in as players in the story of the birth of Christ.

I was thinking this thought as I pulled up about 200 metres from a ship in one of the ports I visit.  It was early, that time just between night and day, when the light seems to just hang in the air.  In the distance, there was no movement on the ship, apart from a crew member on watch.  As I stopped thinking about the shepherds and started to think about seafarers, I realised there are some similarities which are worth noting at this time of year.

The shepherds had an extremely important job for society at the time.  The sheep were not just for wool, but also milk and meat.  Their horns were used to fashion musical instruments, or used to hold oil, their skins were made into clothing or wall covering.  If you open the Bible to see how many times sheep and shepherds are mentioned, well that’s 247 times. That’s how important they were.

Of course, being a shepherd, you needed to live away from the general population, so you were set apart in many ways, although without your work, society would have been completely different.

I can see that the people we serve, international seafarers, are very much like modern day shepherds.  They are set apart, spending their time in at sea or in the ports, regularly away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but also away from their family and friends.  The work they do, sometimes in difficult and dangerous places, is critical to society as we know it.

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This Advent, delivering gifts at Christmas to seafarers from parishes, groups and individuals has shown me that what we are doing is much more than taking chocolate, gloves, hats, scarves and information. We are taking the ‘thanks’ of many people, who haven’t forgotten the ‘shepherds’ in the nativity story, they haven’t forgotten that in the midst of all the good things we enjoy, there is always a price that has been paid by someone.

The angels appeared to the lowly and set-apart, not the rich and the powerful.  As I speak with seafarers, as they reflect on faith and life, I have learned much about closeness to God in the terrifying beauty of nature, and how, even in the most difficult of times, they feel safe and cared for, and special.  It was on one of my regular ships I asked the question about how they will celebrate Christmas, the answer came that there were three faiths aboard; Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.  Then I was told that “all religious festivals are celebrated by all the crew, there is no distinction.”  Then he said “We do this because we love each other”.

This statement tells me that if we leave the comfort our own surroundings, to support and help those who serve us so well, we might just see a glimpse of God.  It also tells me that, in a world so often overwhelmed by turmoil, division and intolerance, if Christmas is to be properly celebrated, we need to hear these words.

As the last ships leave for sea this Christmas, to spend the day sailing to new ports or at anchor miles away from shore, I am thankful for the gifts people have provided, the hundreds of seafarers who have invited me to sit and talk in the past six months, and the hint that I have been able to see some of God’s wonderful and radical grace in the most unlikely of places.

May you all have a blessed and peaceful Christmas.

Rev. Mark Lawson-Jones

South Wales Port Chaplain

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The One Hundred Day Journey

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us”.  John Steinbeck

Shortly after I started to work for the Mission to Seafarers’, I read this seemingly rather dire warning. It then proceeded to float around in my thoughts for a few weeks like an annoying pop song.  This was probably because I had started a new journey myself far from the usual rhythm of parish life. However, as the days turned into weeks, I could see that the words didn’t really apply to me at all, but those I had been sent to serve; the people who bring us over 90% of the goods we enjoy.

These are the people who, from the decks of their ships, see the hidden landscapes of our towns and cities, the places where the public no longer wish to, or cannot venture.  This might be all many seafarers see.  The constant drive to efficiency, the reduced number of crew on ships and the speed of discharging and loading cargo, means that time ashore is reduced and rare.  All too often, the hours of their days are spent working or sleeping, as time blurs into weeks, months and years.

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Ship visitors and port chaplains visit these people, to hear their truth and be a presence, being willing to help in any way they can. In the last 100 days, I have prayed, offered cakes, literature, woolly hats and scarves.  I have heard about beautiful lands from people who wish they were back home with their families, I have heard from older seafarers who have had to go back to sea because their children and grandchildren can’t find work, and I have been asked the big questions about life, death, faith, love and suffering.

I have been with seafarers in those liminal spaces that sit at the edge of some of our towns and cities, not quite within and not quite without, where every ship extends a warm welcome, without exception.  There seems to be an understanding that I am there to listen and learn.  Seafarers never merely take what I offer, there is always an exchange: I receive knowledge, information, and sometimes unanswerable questions that help me to understand the importance of the work of the Mission.  There is something revolutionary about seeking out those who are almost invisible to everyday society, whilst wandering with purpose through the ports, to see what God has to offer.

I have made mistakes.  There are some questions which seafarers find difficult to answer.  Any question about the future, is usually met with a kind of wistfulness.  The answers usually go something like ‘Today we know, tomorrow is uncertain, beyond this we know little or nothing.’  I have noticed that they seem to measure their journeys not simply in distance between ports, but the manner in which the journey has informed them about life, faith and humanity.

Close to the beautiful and terrifying power of creation and far from the assurances of family life at home, uncertainty is always present.  For us ashore this would be a disaster, we like to place our events and appointments in diaries which stretch through the next weeks and months.  We seek certainties in our lives, if nothing else to give us an illusion of control.  It is not so for seafarers: As the days remaining in their time at sea counts down, the weight of time bears heavy, waiting features prominently and any sense of having any power, or the ability to control their own destiny, seems distant.

I have found seafarers asking me for souvenirs; fridge magnets, postcards and badges, anything that represents the nation, city or port.  Initially, I thought this was just a hobby for a few seafarers who collected such things.  Recently, I discovered that these have a much more important task. They are to mark the passing of time, reminding them of where they have been, so that the days, weeks and months might not become a blur.  One wise and almost mystic chief engineer said “If you can’t remember where you’ve been, the journey seems to be never-ending.”

Steinbeck’s keen social perception of being ‘taken by a trip’ is present for seafarers’.  If you visit a ship in port, you will meet older seafarers, full of stories of what they would do if they had their time again.  Then there are younger seafarers, full of excitement as they visit new lands for the first time.  Then there are those seafarers who seem to be lost on the journey, taken, waiting until they can find context in their lives once again.

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I have heard the most deeply moving and haunting words used to describe life at sea, and it is a privilege to listen to their truth.  The practical help the Mission to Seafarers’ offers is comprehensive, however it is the time and presence that is much more difficult to quantify.  These pauses are when we really glimpse the world of the seafarer, even only for a few moments: it informs what we do and helps us to focus on the issues that affect these people that work so hard for us.

Mental ill-health is common amongst seafarers and particularly difficult to recognise. Cultural differences mean that some might be less likely to explain how they feel.  For others the concept of pastoral care is distant on their own difficult and dangerous journey.  For others still, the challenges of the job mean that some have little time to speak.  The presence of the Mission extends beyond the barriers of culture and language, to that shared humanity – we visit to hear of the trip which has taken them, physically, mentally and spiritually.

There is something of the beauty of God in a ministry which drives us from the comfort of our own surroundings to meet those in need of any kind, never quite knowing what we will find.  There is also something of God’s purpose in seeking out those who serve us well, in a society which rarely acknowledges their service, but completely relies on them.

In my first 100 days I have spoken and preached many times to support the work of the Mission to Seafarers’ at churches and groups across Wales, from the North to the South.  I usually tell people facts about the shipping industry.  One such fact reminds us that a single bulk carrier can carry enough bananas to give one to every person living in the whole of Europe and North America, this is 748 million bananas.  People are genuinely surprised at this fact, because it is difficult to imagine that many bananas.  I have also come to realise that this fact isn’t really that helpful, because there are other, more important statistics.  Recently, that I also learned that globally there are 50,000 merchant navy ships, 1.5 million seafarers’ that work in conditions that can be difficult, dangerous or lonely.  There are over 2,600 casualties a year and the loneliness, separation and depression means that the rate of suicide is three times that of shore workers.

These are the statistics that should surprise people – these are the statistics that should make people think about the 1.5 million people without whom the world wouldn’t be the same.

So, in 100 days I have learned a dozen new things every day.  Information from seafarers who in exchange for my presence give me valuable information about the truth of their lives.  Of how a journey has taken them across the world, and how difficult it is to still feel part of the world in which they live.

If you pray, I would ask that you pray for seafarers’, if you do not, then I would ask that you spare a thought for them.  If you would like to support the work of the Mission to Seafarers’, information can be found at www.missiontoseafarers.org

 

Rev. Mark Lawson-Jones

South Wales Port Chaplain

mark.lawson-jones@mtsmail.org