About 2,000 ships that can be as long as four football fields each, and carry 9,000 or more 40-foot containers, enter the Port of Long Beach every year, each vessel with fewer than 25 crew members.
Sung J Lee
The crew, who have been 15 to 20 days crossing the Pacific from Asia, are in port less than 24 hours, and without visas or a chaperone trusted by the government, they must stay aboard ship.
While their families fend for themselves in the Philippines, India, East Asia or Ukraine, the crews bounce from port to port without ever touching dry land or seeing their families for nine months or more at a time. It can get lonely, and working relationships – and families – can fray.
However, Sung Lee and his team from the Pacific Seafarers Mission (PSM) manage to get aboard about 250 of the container ships each year. Lee, a member of Seafarers Church in Pasadena, is the Port’s self-appointed chaplain, a ministry he’s been doing for 13 of the 20 years he’s been in America; he was a pastor the other seven years. Lee focuses on container ships because, he says, they return regularly to Long Beach and he can build relationships over time.
“Visiting foreign ships is like visiting their country and visiting their homes,” Lee told the California Southern Baptist. “But when I visit them many times, they know me well and … wait for me to visit.”
Attesting to the difficulty of the ministry, Southern Baptists at present have no other formalized seafarer’s ministry at the other six container-size ports on the West Coast. Long Beach is the nation’s second-largest container port, after Los Angeles.
“Reverend Lee’s ministry serves the men (and a very few women) who bring to our country the goods that every one of us use in our homes, businesses and organizations,” said Richard Graham, director of missions for Long Beach Harbor Southern Baptist Association. “Everything from cars, refrigerators, TVs, clothes, fuels, grain, other foods, etc.
“These crew members work 6-18 months onboard, 20-25 crew members per ship, and are often not allowed to get off their ships at all during their sign-up periods,” Graham continued. “They also have very little contact with their families back wherever home is. Many send their pay back to their families, and at times have then discovered that family members have been unfaithful to their trust.
“It is an amazing story that most Americans have no clue is happening.”
Sung J Lee proclaims the gospel to crews of foreign vessels docked at the Port of Long Beach.
Six Chinese, two East Indians and two Koreans work with Lee – who was born in Korea – through Pacific Seafarers Mission. One East Indian and Lee are the only full-time employees; the others are volunteers. They gather with the crew in the Day Room of the ship for lunch and conversation; 15 minutes of music comes next, followed by prayer and a short message.
“All crew members are officially speaking English on board,” Lee said. “If we encounter sailors who do not speak English, we will obtain and deliver Christian books or Bibles in their native language.”
Favorite songs (with Lee accompanying on guitar) include “Amazing Grace,” “God is so Good,” “Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart” and “You Are My Sunshine.”
Favorite Bible stories? “The Creator God, Genesis 1:1 and Hebrews 3:4; Jesus Christ who fulfilled the ministry of atonement on the cross; Jonah story; Rich man and Lazarus; Jesus walking on the water; Jesus who healed the paralytic are some themes,” Lee said.
“There are currently 27 piers in Long Beach Harbor,” he continued. “Only about 20 of them can be reached by missionaries, but if we train 20 missionaries and send them to visit the ship … the gospel from Long Beach will spread to the ports of the world.”
The Ultra Lascar is a case in point.
Lee visited the ship on Aug. 7, where 15 crew members participated in what Lee calls a gospel meeting.
“They all enjoyed the gospel songs and pop songs,” Lee wrote on his Facebook page. “My gospel preaching shake their mind and all accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. Hallelujah!”
Not all the decisions bear fruit, Lee acknowledged, but it gives the crew something to think about – and someone to pray to – as seven days a week each week they tighten container holds, battle the weather, monitor, fix or repaint everything that touches the corrosive salt air, and drill for potential emergencies.
“At the ships’ gospel meeting I led … approximately 1,200 crew members through the ‘acceptance prayer’ last year,” Lee said. “But I am not saying that they are all saved. However, many sailors met with the Lord through the acceptance prayer and were saved.”
He gives new converts Christian materials – books, CDs, DVDs – to read during their voyages.
“Because I have not been able to fellowship with them for long I try to grow their faith through faith books. So we need a lot of faith books in PSM,” Lee said.
Among those who over time exhibit a genuine Christian faith are men Lee has trained as “ship shepherds.”
He appoints those “who identify with the faithful, who will be able to preach the gospel on the ship in the future,” Lee explained. He uses e-mail and Facebook to stay in touch with the ship shepherds, though Internet access isn’t always available during trans-Pacific crossings.
“But more important than all of this, I think, is to support them in prayer,” Lee said. “I have all the photos when they received the ship’s shepherd appointment, and I often pray while watching their pictures.”
He also prays for more volunteers to minister on board ships, for 100 men to be trained in time as shepherds, and for a ministry center and vehicle in Long Beach, where he can take men for a few hours so they can feel solid ground under their feet, relax, check the Internet or do some shopping.
People donate to PSM, not just money for Lee’s income, but also gifts for the crews – everything from knit or crocheted caps to toiletries to Bibles.
“Please remember there are many foreign sailors coming into the Port of Long Beach,” Lee stressed. “They are the lost souls who need to hear the gospel and be saved. The harbor mission is a golden fishery.”
For more information about Pacific Seafarers Mission or to help, see facebook.com/lsjinjc, e-mail [email protected], call 323-383-1715 or write to 1164 N. Lake Avenue, Pasadena 91104.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This article appeared in the California Southern Baptist, news journal of the California Southern Baptist Convention, csbc.com. Karen L. Willoughby is a writer in Utah. Reprinted from Baptist Press, baptistpress.com, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)