Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Mission Accomplish(ing) in Bergen, Norway

Along the dock, not far from the old Hanseatic heart of Bergen, Norway’s harbor front, I was hailed by a young man passing out leaflets. “Come to our mission! We have coffee and free Internet access!” Now usually, in a situation like this, I would just smile, take the flyer, and keep walking (often in the opposite direction). Besides, I’m not a coffee drinker. But I admit-- there was something about the “free Internet access” that got my attention. So, I followed his directions along the road, through the pedestrian tunnel, up the hillside to the white house with balloons and a wonderful blooming lilac bush in front. Here I am: Bergen Seaman’s Mission: The Harbourlight…. And here I go. Inside, I found a large open room—probably once the sanctuary of this small, former church building—with long tables and chairs filled with mostly Filipino and Indonesian crew members from the various cruise and container ships texting, googling, and skyping away. I was warmly greeted by one of the volunteers-- Roeli Elbers—a gracious older woman from Holland. “Just find a place and help yourself to the wi-fi connection,” she told me. “There’ll be coffee and cookies downstairs in just a few minutes if you’d like to hang around.” As we chatted a bit, Roeli told me that she had just finished working at a similar seaman’s mission in Seward, Alaska—a post she had held for nearly six years. “I love the work. We give these men and women a safe home ashore—a place where they can gather, contact their families, and have a snack without spending money or getting into trouble. People come in from everywhere. Yesterday I counted 137 visitors. All by word of mouth.” The inviting twin flavors of freshly brewed coffee and newly baked pepparkakor (ginger cookies) wafted up the stairs from the kitchen below. I sank into one of the free chairs and buried myself in my own Internet business—checking and answering email from friends and family in the States. After a while, I wandered downstairs to see what was happening. At the foot of the staircase, a small group of young men were gathered in a circle offering prayers for family, for work, for a safe trip home. It ended as quickly, quietly and spontaneously as it began. “Hey, it’s you! You really came. I didn’t think you would show up here.” The voice was calling to me and belonged to Andy, the young man who handed me the leaflet dockside. “I didn’t think I’d show up, either” I told him. “But I’m glad I did.” I am glad that I showed up. Bergen’s Skolten passenger terminal welcomes about 250 (!) cruise ships every summer season. And each ship has an average of 800-1000 crew members, most of whom are on contracts averaging 10 months each for service onboard. Some companies provide regular chaplaincy services. The Catholic community, for example, is served by the Apostleship of the Sea, which provides volunteer priests serving both guests and crew members on many ships. Other liners will provide time and space for worship and Bible study organized by crew themselves. Some will even provide a mosque onboard for Muslim workers. A few employers will permit church members to come onboard to meet with crew, but that effort is made difficult because of time and security concerns. The Harbourlight folks will visit when permitted, but more often will provide free, rainy day shuttle service to their site. (Believe me, there are plenty of rainy days in Bergen!). Founded in 2010 Bergen’s Harbourlight is a nondenominational volunteer effort organized in cooperation with the Seaman’s Christian Friend Society (SCFS) in the UK and supported by donations. Bibles, booklets, CDs, etc. are available, but the primary focus I observed at The Harbourlight is on open-ended and low-key hospitality. It provides a space for human contact and connection and the ever-important “small talk” that enables people to connect through a faith community. This expression of church outreach—low key, drop in, and open-handed—appears to be quite appropriate to the needs of the people it is meant to serve. The real follow up, of course, will depend upon the kinds of support opportunities available to crew personnel back onboard. But at least in Bergen, The Harbourlight’s door is open, the coffee is fresh, and the welcome, sincere. Contact: www.havenlicht.zending.nu//

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