On an average day the principal chaplain of the Mission to Seafarers in Sydney, the Rev Un Hui Tay, would be busily ministering to the sailors that come to his Millers Point office. But 2020 hasn’t provided many average days, so now he’s busy going to them. And shopping.

“We’ve become shopaholics,” he jokes, when we meet in the supermarket aisle. “And we’ve also become delivery men.”

Joking aside, Mr Tay and his fellow chaplains have been very busy since COVID forced all seafarers into lockdown. None of them can come ashore while their vessels are in port here – and there are more than 400,000 seafarers across the globe in the same predicament.

Ordinarily, crew members on freight ships would be in Sydney for a day, perhaps two. They would be bussed into the Mission’s ministry centre to relax, purchase SIM cards and snacks, transfer money home and use the free wifi before heading back to their vessels.

Now, when a ship arrives in port the Mission team is given a list of the sailors’ wants or needs and they busily shop for everything from ear buds to OMO, and hair clippers to pizza or Krispy Kreme doughnuts. 

“Many of them describe their situation as being prisoners on board the vessel,” Mr Tay says. “It’s been that way since the lockdown in March. And that’s where we come in for them.

“Pray... that in this time of lockdown they would understand the true meaning of peace by coming to know Jesus Christ.”

Chaplains at the Mission are dealing with three categories of need. Sailors can be stuck on ships in the port, outside the port (thanks to a union go-slow) or in hotels. If it’s the latter, they have been “signed off” their vessel in Sydney and have to spend a fortnight in quarantine before returning to their home country.

So, in addition to countless sailors unable to leave their ships, Mr Tay and his team have supported more than 30 men who have been signed off and then struggled to get home because of border closures and red tape.

One South Asian seafarer was stranded here for 12 weeks: lonely and desperate to get home, but with very limited English and no control over his flight arrangements. On one occasion, Mr Tay says, this man fronted up at the airport only to have airline staff request a COVID-free certificate and tell him he couldn’t board the plane without travel insurance worth $US100,000. 

After the man’s flights were postponed a third time, Mr Tay stepped in... and got him on a plane five days later. 

He is happy to have provided this practical support, but says “the highlight of caring for this seafarer was that I shared the gospel with him, and he committed his life to Jesus. I linked him up with a church [in his home country]... he’s now faithfully attending the local church and our Zoom service on Sunday. And that was the best outcome, I would say!”

How you can help 

  • The seafarers need our ongoing prayers as their situation generates (or worsens) a range of mental health problems. Says Mr Tay: “Pray for their wellbeing, that’s very important. That in this time of lockdown they would understand the true meaning of peace by coming to know Jesus Christ”.
  • People can donate funds towards Christmas care packs the Mission hopes to give out to 500 seafarers this month, plus shared gifts for the vessels such as jigsaw puzzles.
  • You can also contribute small, practical items for seafarers and their families (second hand, but in good condition) such as a belt, handbag or watch – even clothes, shoes or little souvenirs.

To keep up with news about the Mission to Seafarers in Sydney see www.missiontoseafarers.org or link up with the Facebook page.