Tamás, a Hungarian ship captain, carefully navigated his sea vessel into Mississippi’s Port of Pascagoula. With his ship experiencing mechanical issues, he knew his time in port on this voyage would be longer than desired.
So far from home, the captain resigned himself to unanticipated and unwelcomed down time.
While in port, Tamás met Vince Smith, director of the International Seafarers’ Center.
As the two became acquainted, Tamás acknowledged his doubts about the Christian faith.
Smith listened to the well-over-six-feet tall, ponytailed, “swashbuckling captain,” and he began to tell him about another Thomas, this one a follower of Jesus in the Bible, who also had doubts about Jesus.
Tamás exclaimed, “That is me when it comes to religion!”
So began “a long and deep conversation about Jesus,” Smith said.
Such conversations often lead to renewed or newfound Christian faith for the thousands of international seafarers whose ships dock in the Port of Pascagoula annually.
For Smith, his team of volunteers and others who support the ministry, it’s an opportunity to impact the world with the gospel.
Great Commission effort
“We are told to go ‘to the ends of the world’ (Acts 1:8), but in Pascagoula we are blessed to have seafarers float to us from remote areas. All we have to do to complete the Great Commission is to take the short drive to the [port] and serve the needs of this unique people group,” said Philip Price, associational missions director for Jackson County (Mississippi) Baptist Association.
Jackson County Association and the Mississippi convention’s Margaret Lackey State Missions Offering financially support the port ministry. In giving, church members and churches have “invested in making an impact for Christ,” Price said.
The international seafarers’ ministry, for Smith, seems to be a natural fit. As a young man, Smith was a submarine officer. He knows the loneliness, isolation and temptations that come with being at sea for months on end. Although he was one of three Christians on his submarine, Smith acknowledges that, at the time, he was trying to “live in both worlds,” one foot in the world of following Christ and one foot in the world of living for himself.
Today, as he gets to know the seafarers coming through Pascagoula, he often discovers that God “connects the dots” and smooths the way for the seafarers to confide in him and trust him. Although Smith has been serving as chaplain to the seafarers only since June 2020, it’s almost like he’s already one of them.
Acts of kindness
In pre-COVID days, when ships would arrive in port, volunteers from local churches welcomed sea-farers into the ministry center, where they could enjoy refreshments, play games, attend a Bible study, relax and access Wi-Fi. Vans and drivers stood ready to take seafarers to local stores to pick up food and other necessities. It was a comfortable routine for the weary seafarers.
Adrian Turner served as chaplain for 16 years during those days.
When COVID forced a shutdown of the typical services, Smith said the ministry adapted. Seafarers couldn’t leave their ships, and volunteers couldn’t board the ships.
For months, volunteers would take gift bags of socks, toiletries, snacks and gospel materials to the docks to be distributed on the ships.
Smith and his team of volunteers also connected through social media, virtual calls and other electronic means. Sometimes volunteers would shop on the seafarers’ behalf.
“These were acts of kindness from a distance,” he said, and often they would lead to a gospel presentation.
Don Kumpunen, a port ministry volunteer from Belle Fountain Baptist Church, Ocean Springs, Mississippi, has served since 2004.
His typical ministry is to drive seafarers to local stores. The drives offer time to chat about life in their home countries and share the gospel.
He has found “satisfaction in helping people and delivering the gospel. It’s simple to do,” said Kumpunen, who has developed an easy rapport with the seafarers.
Port ministry volunteer Tommy McLemore, from Ridgelea Baptist Church, Escatawpa, Mississippi, “loves” serving the men and women passing through the port. “Just being able to do something for somebody — you never know how God’s going to use it,” he said.
Slowly, as COVID restrictions have eased, some volunteers are going back on board, even if the crew members cannot leave the ships.
‘Can’t get away from Christians’
According to the Mississippi Department of Transportation, the Port of Pascagoula is the state’s largest port and ranks nationally in the top 20 ports in foreign cargo volume.
As many as 200 to 300 ships enter the Pascagoula port each month, with an average of 20 to 25 men and women serving as crew on the ships.
“We are blessed to serve the port,” Price said.
Even as the ships roll in and connect seafarers with ministry volunteers, the ships will roll back out, heading to their next destination.
Yet, it’s not necessarily “goodbye” for the seafarers and ministry volunteers. Many continue to connect through technology. Also, Smith is a member of Port Ministry International, “an association of agencies and individuals serving international seafarers and port communities,” according to the PMI website.
Often, if he knows one of his new seafaring friends is heading to a port where he knows the chaplain, he will facilitate the introduction between the two. It’s inspiring, he said, to see “how God pursues the seafarers.” They sometimes think they “can’t get away from Christians,” he said with smile.
Smith hopes the seafarers, who have experienced God’s love and heard the gospel message from the many Christians they have met in Pascagoula, will take God’s love and the gospel message back home.
The partnership Smith has with Jackson County Association, with his many ministry volunteers, with Mississippi Baptists and with fellow seafarers’ chaplains throughout the world are all a part of getting the gospel to the ends of the earth.