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Touching seafarers' lives with pastoral care

Touching seafarers' lives with pastoral care
Yashika F. Torib August 3, 2022

IT has become a common notion that seafarers are hardy people. They are accustomed to a life of physical, mental and emotional difficulties, and as these come with the job, people expect that seafarers would easily come out of their struggles.

Behind the façade of burly and jolly seafarers, however, are lonely and oftentimes, confused men who are lost in a wave of life's questions.

Reverend Martin Otto is a witness to all the struggles seafarers endure while at sea.

As a missionary with the Seamen's Christian Friend Society, Otto spends his days visiting ships docked in the port of Hamburg, Germany. For over 32 years of serving the seafarers, he was able to visit more than 20,000 ships.

It was this constant connection with seafarers that led Otto to the reality of a seafarer's life after their working hours.

"There are concerns that have not changed since I started helping seafarers in 1987. Concerns about family needs, loneliness, sickness, internet availability and problems with their superiors. Fatigue, especially, has been a huge problem on many ships during the past 10 years. I visited a ship where the company sent five seafarers home to save costs, so the crew was reduced from 21 to 16. The Filipino chief mate complained that it is not human anymore to work on that ship since the seafarers have to do so much overtime and that they are all suffering from fatigue," Otto shared.

His decades of experience led him to write six books, five of which were translated into Filipino and all relating to a seaman's life.

"The book The Seafarer's Mind was a result of having studied seamen's lives for a long time. Many seafarers have questions on their minds that can trouble them while they are away from home for longer periods. Questions like: How can I be a good husband when I am seldom home? Or how can I be a good father to my children? There are many more questions that I have tried to answer in this book. I have included a lot of interviews with the seafarers to make it very practical and have given some advice from the Bible and my long experience with seamen," he said.

Otto's passion for the seafarers started when he worked for a shipping agency in Hamburg and saw the hard work of seafarers. Later, when he left the company, he studied theology in Switzerland and the United States and eventually returned to sea to help uplift the souls of these seaborne professionals.

"A good number of seafarers that I've met are Filipinos. They sacrifice so much of their lives and a significant time away for their family just so those who are left at the shore can have a better life. In fact, without their tremendous job and sacrifices, there would be no shipping and world trade. I motivate them by reading from the Bible that Jesus sacrificed his life as well for us, that he spent more than 30 years away from his Father in heaven to save us."

As Otto inspires the seafarers to stay strong, he also offers other assistance such as providing SIM cards so they could call their loved ones at home, inviting them to his home or taking them on a tour.

"They just love to see new things! One time during their shore leave, I brought them to an apple orchard and a Filipino chief cook said, 'It is like heaven on earth here.' It is important to be there for them, just to listen to them talk, take them to shops and places, have fellowship, and pray or read the Bible for them.

"Many times, I have experienced that seafarers were so happy even with just a short prayer. They often do not know where to go with their sorrows, difficulties or challenges. A word of encouragement and prayer often helps them a great deal. During the last 20 years, I have given seafarers my books, and many have written to me as to how they enjoyed it because it inspired them," Otto shared.

True enough, the maritime chaplain's charisma not only appeals to the often-sad seafarers. He is known among his family, friends and colleagues as a person who is easy to talk to.

"I always try to be on the same level as the person I am talking to. I never try to put myself above the other person, and I also try to learn from the people I meet," he said.

Otto is currently based in the United Kingdom with his wife who shares his pastoral mission with the seafarers. His free time is spent with loved ones or playing and watching sports as well as collecting stamps and coins.

"One of my biggest hobbies is traveling, especially in the Philippines, I have been there nine times! It is a beautiful country with wonderful people," he exclaimed.