Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Cost of the Call

Hello all!

I am so, so sorry for my long hiatus from writing. The past few months in Rome have been BUSY! And I've found it hard to write about some of the experiences I have had here.

I promise I will be writing more in the weeks to come. Today, however, I will only be posting the sermon I preached at St. Paul's Within the Walls at the end of January. It was my first time preaching at St. Paul's, and the gospel readings touched on a theme that I find very important: the call to service for the church and for the world.

You can hear the actual sermon by clicking here. I hope you enjoy!

“What were you thinking???”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“Will, you have really done it this time.”
These were the questions I asked myself on the first night in my new
strange home in Hong Kong two summers ago. It was unbearably hot, miserably
humid and the city smelled so foreign to me. Raised in a town of 2,500
people, I now found myself in a bustling metropolis of nearly 7 million.
Not to mention I was nearly 8,000 miles away from home.
Will, you have really done it this time.
That first night, while terrifying at the time, is something I look back
upon and smile about. It was the first night of my mission as a member of
the the Young Adult Service Corps – the missionary program of The Episcopal
Church. It was the start of a mission which would begin in Hong Kong and
eventually bring me here to work as the intern at St. Paul’s Within the
Walls Episcopal Church.
It was also the start of a mission in which many of my friends and family
would question my sanity.
Why do you need to go, they asked me?
You have a job here.
A family.
A community.
The answer was not an easy one – I felt called to go.
Each of the readings in today’s service are, at their core, about a call.
A call to go to a great city and proclaim the word of God in the case of
A call to change from violence to love in the case of Paul.
A call to drop the current work at hand, and follow Jesus in the case of
the disciples.
Have you been called to do something? And if you have, are you listening to
that call?
Perhaps you’ve been called to teach, to sculpt, to be a doctor, to be a
parent or perhaps to be a priest. If you have then you know that there is
little sense in trying to explain to friends and family what that call
feels like.
Calls cannot be measured empirically.
They cannot be explained in charts and graphs.
And for those who are close to us, the lack of this evidence can drive them
It isn’t always about us though. Sometimes it is difficult watching someone
else, someone close to us,  answer their own call.
In today’s gospel lesson we see James and John drop their nets and follow
Jesus. They were clearly answering a call. “Follow me and I will make you
fish for people,” Jesus exclaims. “Immediately he called them and they left
their father Zebedee in the boat.
“Immediately he called them and they left their father Zebedee in the boat.”
Now I have to wonder – what did Zebedee, father of James and John, think
about all of this?! My North Carolina country roots makes me think of an
angry old man standing up in his John boat, yelling “Boys, y’all get back
What is going on?
It is easy to romanticize this story by looking at it from the point of
view of James and John. But let’s think about the anger and fear that
Zebedee had for his children at their dropping their nets and abandoning
him to follow some stranger and “fish for people.”
“Fish for people?”
I doubt that James and John even knew what that meant when they heard the
words themselves that first time in a boat on the Sea of Galilee.
Nevertheless, they felt something. They didn’t know what it was. They
didn’t know who it was that was calling them. But they felt something. And
it didn’t matter that it was irrational, or was dangerous.
They dropped their nets.
They jumped out of the boat.
They left their family and they followed Jesus.
They followed what they could not prove to be right but what they knew in
their hearts to be true. They followed their calling, and Zebedee didn’t
stop them.
But I’m sure that Zebedee was worried. I’m sure that it’s part of the bible
that was left out. The part about the grieving father – unable to sleep for
fear of what has happened to his sons.
I can imagine him and his wife pacing around their house waiting for their
boys day after day to come home and pick up their nets again. But that day
never comes.
We never hear about Zebedee again in the bible – so who knows what really
happened to him. But we do know this : that his wife – Salome – was present
at the crucifixion of Jesus which says to me that Zebedee eventually comes
to understand the call – the call that drove his sons to drop their nets
that day.
To jump out of the boat.
To go and fish for people.
Callings can be painful and inconvenient not only to those who hear the
call but to the loved ones close to them as well. Zebedee is proof of this.
Callings can also be completely irrational – changing everything about a
person seemingly overnight. Perhaps it is then fitting that today’s gospel
reading about callings comes on the same day that we celebrate the
conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus.
Part of my job as an intern here at St. Paul’s is to do thanksgiving
blessings for newly-wedded Japanese couples coming to Rome. And in our
speech to these couples I always tell them about St. Paul. Specifically,  I
tell them about St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
“ Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is
not proud … And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the
greatest of these is love.”
St. Paul, I tell them, was an expert on God’s love, and the love that we
should have for one another.
But I don’t tell them the whole story. I don’t tell them about the dark
side of the Paul.
But Paul wasn’t always about love.
Oh, no.
Paul was at was one time, a bad, bad man.
And as our Rector, Father Rios put it to our youth group last year, Paul
was like the Darth Vader of the Roman Empire. He was the one guy you didn’t
want to run into if you were a Christian back in those days. And he was
definitely the last person in the empire that you would find writing about
Jesus and the power of love.
Think about it.
Can you imagine Darth Vader writing poetry? I don’t think so.
But something happened. And in the blink of an eye, Paul was one day thrown
from his horse, blinded and converted to the very thing he had been trying
to stamp out.
He heard a call, and like James and John who came before him, he dropped
his nets.
He jumped out of the boat.
He heard the call and he followed it.
I would like to ask you today to listen.
Listen. And not to the sounds of the city, the ringing of cell phones or
the rattling of windows.
Much like Jonah, James, John and Paul, we have all been called in some way
to serve God’s will on this Earth. Of this there is no question.
The question is, how have you answered that call? And how are you helping
other people around you answer their call as well?
Jesus said “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent and believe in the good news.”
Well, my friends, the time is fulfilled. So I ask you:
Go into that great city.
Jump out of the boat.
Fall off of the horse.
Your call is waiting for you.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

One Month Arrived, a Lifetime of Growth

I arrived in Rome, Italy, to start my second year of YASC on Sept. 13, 2014. I arrived at Fiumicino Airport on a big jet plane - a plane where I sat in a comfortable chair, was given yummy food and drink, and watched as many movies as the time would allow in a 12-hour flight.  I even put my seat back for most of the flight without having a drink poured all over me!

Myself, Rev. Austin Rios and last year's YASC intern, Jared Grant.
These roots run deep! 

In the past three and half weeks that I have spent in Rome, I have met a lot of refugees at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center (JNRC) who have also recently arrived in the Eternal City - but by a much more horrific and traumatic route. Forget about the free in-flight meals and the beverage service. Forget about the short 12-hour flight. Instead, imagine (if you can) buying a spot on a tiny fishing vessel packed with 200 people or more. There is little food and little water. There is even less space to move or sit down. There is no bathroom.

These trips are supposed to only last a day or two, but most of them go catastrophically wrong. Thousands are drowning as they try to make their way to Europe from places like Libya, Syria and Mali. Sadly, all of this is becoming normal to people in Europe.

This is one of the many anti-immigration signs being put up in my neighborhood.

Yet, while many ships are capsizing, some of them actually make it to Europe. And this is the point where refugees then begin the long, arduous and bureaucratic nightmare that is the process of gaining asylum in a European country. It is also the point at which (if they find themselves in Italy, which most of them do) that they come in to contact with the radical hospitality that is St. Paul's within the Walls Episcopal Church and its refugee center. Our center is on the front lines of the immigration crisis that is sweeping Europe - and I'm not trying to sensationalize the situation. What is going on is a definitely a crisis. But what are we doing to help it?

Here at the refugee center, we aren't saving the world. We aren't fixing the problem but we are definitely making a difference simply by being present to the hundreds of refugees that come through our doors. Here at the JNRC we offer them a simple breakfast, clothes and basic toiletries. We even offer them free psychotherapy sessions and language classes. However the most important thing I think we do is allow the refugees a place to go and stay for a while. We are present with them.

The refugees here aren't exactly homeless, as they have a place to stay. But they definitely don't have a home. Not in the sense that most Westerners would think of as being a home. Instead, the refugees live in immigration centers where they live with 200 other people, sleep in rooms of 12, and are given one meal a day. There is nothing "homey" about the situation except for the fact that there is a cot for them to sleep on every night. So where do they go when they are not sleeping? Without places like the JNRC they would be left to wander the streets of Rome. However, here with us they find a place to just sit and watch a movie, or play chess with one of our volunteers. They can also just find a nice corner of the center and sleep.

In a world where they often have no control over the most basic parts of their lives, we offer these refugees options and choices. We offer them the basic courtesies that most Westerners (including myself) have always taken for granted. It is truly meaningful work.

Inside of the recently renovated JNRC. 

I know I have only been here a few weeks but I truly feel like I have aged a year. There is something so humbling about working here, and I guess it really revolves around circumstances - the circumstances of my life and the circumstances of most of the people I see every day.

The questions I ask myself: Why was I born into such a safe, loving community? Why was I born into such a supportive, healthy family? Why wasn't I born in Somalia or Mali? Why am I not a product of a war-torn country? Is life just some huge, messed up lottery?

A lot of people I see every day are just like me. They are like me in the sense that they have a heart beat. A soul. A spirit that yearns to be happy, busy and satisfied. However, one of us was lucky enough to be born into a life that provides all of those things - and one of us was born into a life that is deprived of all these things. What did I do to deserve this life? Am I making the most of what I was blessed with? I don't know how to justify it. I don't know how to even really process it. But I will work to make it better for the people that I meet.

All in all, my life here in Rome is far different than what you would expect. This is not a Euro-trip, nor is it a romantic stroll among ancient ruins and olive trees. I have found here one of the darkest parts of man - the victims of war, human trafficking and religious persecution. I have found a desperation that I have never before witnessedand a sadness that I hardly know how to confront. Yet while all of those elements are present here, these people continue to go on. They continue to live and struggle for the dream that they dreamed before setting off on this crazy journey. That resilience is so beautiful to me and I draw a lot of inspiration from it.

The Colosseum. 

To me, St. Paul's seems to be surrounded by a huge paradox. Here I am in Rome - at one time the center of the world. There are works by Carvaggio and Michaelangelo only a few blocks away! Yet amidst all of it is a growing mass of people running away from the worst experiences that a life could ever offer, and a European population that wants nothing to do it. In short, the best and worst of humanity is all here - just outside my window.

What is one to do? I choose to pray.

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference."


Friday, September 12, 2014

Preparing for the Unknown

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published this article about the incoming flood of immigrants to the country of Italy. The timing could not be more appropriate as today, Sept. 12, I set off for Rome to begin my second year with the Episcopal Church's Young Adult Service Corps.

While these graphs below come directly from the Washington Post article mentioned above, I will post them again here on this blog just to give you an idea of what Italy is facing as a country. Not only that, I hope these graphs will give you a better understanding in what I will be assisting the Episcopal church of Saint Paul's within the Walls and the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center with throughout the course of the year. Italy, and indeed all of Europe, is in the midst of an immigration crisis. During my time in Rome, I will be on the front lines of this crisis helping those in search of asylum and a fresh start.

Mediterranean Refugee Migration Routes.

Just hours before my flight, I find myself feeling somewhat unprepared for the work that lies ahead of me. In my work as a chaplain for the Mission to Seafarers I was working with people who were lonely and depressed. While the plight of the seafarer is definitely one that should be taken seriously, I think I will encounter people in more dire conditions mentally, physically and emotionally over the course of this year in Rome. These migrants coming to Italy have lost family members, homes and community. How will I help them? What can you say to console someone who gone through such hell? I am not yet sure.

My time in Rome will be life-changing and intense, however I am feeling well rested and rejuvenated after spending the last month and a half at home. The past few weeks have really restored me both mentally and physically, and I'm looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead.

Thank you to all who have supported me this far in my journey as a missionary for the Episcopal Church. The next time I post, it will be from the historic confines of the Eternal City - Rome!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Goodbye, Hong Kong

Last week I was eating lunch with a seafarer aboard the Warnow Carp during one my trips out in the anchorage. We spoke of the usual things. "How long is your contract? Do you have a family? How many kids do you have? What is the next port of call?" It was just like every other conversation I'd ever had with a seafarer, but then he started talking to me about all of the ports he had traveled to during his many years at sea.

The weathered seafarer was a Greek captain, and had been at sea for nearly 45 years. 45 years! Over the course of his long career he had been everywhere. And, I mean everywhere. Every major port in North America, South America, Canada, Europe and Asia. This man claims to have been to hundreds of different ports in his travels. With a tone of amazement, I ask the obvious question:

"What is your favorite port?"

Automatically my mind begins to roll from one exotic harbor to the next. Rio de Janeiro? Bangkok? Dubai? Which will he say?

But the old captain takes hardly a second to respond: "Home. My favorite port is my home port," he smiles. The other seafarers around us eating lunch, all look up from their plates and begin to nod and smile. "This is true for every seafarer," said the captain. "There's no place like home."

I took this photo on my final day of ship visiting. That's the mission launch in the foreground.

On July 31, I will officially end my first year with the Young Adult Service Corps, and board my flight back to that refreshing pint of IPA I call home: Asheville, NC. While I am so happy to go home, I am also very sad to leave my friends and family in Hong Kong. During my time here I have made some great friends and had the most amazing experiences. 

I got the opportunity to live in the middle of one of the greatest and most advanced cities in the world. I was able to travel and experience life in different countries around Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Japan and Vietnam. I was able to spend most of my time on the water in Victoria Harbour and the South China Sea, helping seafarers from all over the world. I made friends with the most unlikely characters, ate the most interesting foods, and I feel like I truly made a difference to the thousands of seafarers that I came across.

Taking a seafarer selfie. 

Happy seafarers gather for a photo after a visit from the Mariner's Club.

This blog has been fun to look back on over the past few days. This morning I was looking back at this post from Aug. 19, 2013. It was the blog post I published just before arriving to start my mission here in Hong Kong. Take a look:

"One question I have been asked frequently over the past few days has been, 'What are you most excited about?' This has been a hard question to answer, and I think the answer has been different with every response. However, now that I have thought it over, I think I am most excited to grow.

What do I mean by growing? Culturally, mentally, spiritually - this mission is going change me. I've never lived in such a massive city. I've never been so far from home. I've never been in a better position to wrestle with my faith."

I certainly did a lot of growing up in Hong Kong. The type of growing that one can only do while living in a foreign country. I think the Will that came to Hong Kong last August, and the Will that leaves Hong Kong on July 31 are two completely different beings. Truthfully, I found what I was looking for in Hong Kong.

Culturally, I have gained invaluable insight into an ancient and fascinating way of life. Mentally, I have grown more confident about my own capabilities as a human being. Spiritually, I have come to recognize how important sharing and practicing my faith is to my own personal happiness.

I have also seen time and time again with seafarers how important faith and spirituality is to other people. After witnessing it over time and time again, I have come to this conclusion:

God, I think, in one way or another, whether you recognize it consciously or sub-consciously, is what holds us all together. This is a lesson that I learned not from reading the bible or going to church, but instead from just talking to seafarers every day out in the anchorage. Seafarers, much like missionaries out in the field, rely so much on their faith to see them through the rough weather, the long contracts and the pangs of homesickness that strike most every day. Perhaps its only through such difficult and uncomfortable lenses that you can see the true nature of God, and the importance of practicing faith. Maybe without these lenses, you can't see the ties that bind us.

The Hong Kong missionaries of YASC on a sailing trip in the fall. 

It's easy to look back at my year of mission work and be proud of what I have accomplished. To think however that I did it alone would be a massive blunder. I was only able to be successful here because of the people I work with and the friends I have made along the way. To all my friends and co-workers in Hong Kong who may be reading this, thank you so much.

Equally as important are all of the people back in the USA that donated money to help bring me here. And I can't forget the people that wrote me letters and sent me packages. None of this would have been possible without you. Thank you!

Amazing friends and co-workers at my farewell dinner.

Hong Kong friends gathered to say goodbye. I will miss these people! 

My Hong Kong family. They were so welcoming! 

My mentor and great friend, the Rev. Stephen Miller. I learned so much from him. 

So where do I go from here? My flight to Rome, where I will begin my next year of mission work with the Young Adult Service Corps, leaves Asheville on Sept. 12. But Before I leave, I've got nearly a month and a half to spend catching up with my family and friends.

The world is full of beautiful and exotic places. No doubt, Hong Kong is right up there with the best of them. However it is time to go. There is meaningful and urgent work calling me elsewhere across the globe. But first it is time to lower the ladder and drop anchor in the most welcoming of ports. The port that seafarers and missionaries the world 'round would agree is without equal.


Thanks for reading,

Will Bryant 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sea Sunday

July 13, 2014, churches all over the world will celebrate Sea Sunday - a day of worship dedicated to men and women who work on the sea. Two weeks ago, a few of us at the Mariners' Club were invited to do a radio broadcast service for Seafarer Sunday at RTHK (a local radio station here in Hong Kong).

For this radio service, I was asked to write a small five minute presentation about the arduous life of seafarers, and also about the work of the Mission to Seafarers in Hong Kong and around the world. Below is the script for my speech, as well as a few photos I've taken during my mission.

***Update*** You can listen to the radio broadcast by clicking here. Enjoy!  

Good morning!

My name is Will Bryant and I am a young adult volunteer currently serving with the Mission to Seafarers here in Hong Kong. The mission here does a lot of good work but before I get into that I want to ask you a very, very important question:

What are you wearing?

Now I know what you’re thinking. What kind of radio show is this? Isn’t that a very personal question to be asking a complete stranger? You’re right, so let me ask you another question.

How are you listening to this broadcast? Are you with us on your computer? On your phone? Perhaps you’re driving in the car on your way to a meeting.

Well I’ve got some news for you: All of the items I just mentioned - your clothes, your computer, your phone, your car - have made it into your possession because of the crucial work of seafarers around the world.

"Welcome aboard!"

Today, human beings are blessed with a standard of living that has never before been achieved by mankind.

Grocery stores in the arctic regions of the world stock shelves with fresh bananas and oranges.

Red wine from Italy can be tasted in every corner of the globe.
Japanese-made cars rule the roads in the countries around the world.

How is this quality of life possible? The answer is simple: shipping.  

According to the International Maritime Organization, 90 percent of the the world’s trade is carried out at sea. Think about the things we use in everyday life that is shipped!

It extends far beyond food, clothes and technology. It is the raw materials for roads and houses; the minerals for microchips and processors; the fuel for our cars and airplanes.

Can you imagine your life without these things? Shipping makes it all possible.

This modern phenomenon isn’t just a matter of coincidence. This way of life didn’t just happen by chance.

There are over 1.5 million seafarers in the world that work months on end to make this way of life a reality. They are easily the most important work force in our world today, yet we rarely ever think of them. And we rarely ever see them. Why? Because this shadow workforce is always at sea.

My friend Fernando and I aboard the TS China.

I love telling people about seafarers. Quite simply because their way of life is so different from every other person that you or I know. What do I mean? Let me tell you about the life of a seafarer.

Most seafarers sign on to a ship by contract, and these contracts are often 10 to 12 months long. Imagine that! Imagine living on a massive container ship with a group of 20 guys, going from port to port, country to country without seeing your family or friends. There are no days off. There are no holidays - not even for Christmas. It is non-stop work for 10 to 12 months.

Think about where you have been for the past 10 to 12 months. Where have you travelled? What have you done? For most of us, the answer is meeting new people, getting new jobs, living new experiences. For seafarers, the answer is much more simple: they have been on a ship, doing the same thing over and over again.

Most people think that seafarers get to see the world in their time at sea. This may have been true 20 years ago, but the days of the seafarers sightseeing at cities around the globe are gone.

Container ships now spend as little as six hours in a port of call. Technology and efficiency have radically sped up the pace at which global shipping moves.

Because of their hectic schedules and isolating positions, seafarers are struggling with loneliness and depression. With contracts lasting 10 to 12 months, many seafarers only see their wives and children a month or two out of each year.

They miss birthdays and anniversaries. They miss first steps and first words.

Yet because of their hard work and sacrifice, they are able to provide for their families and send their children to school.

My friend, Vladimir, aboard the Mell Satumu. 
The worst time for seafarers is when tragedy strikes at home. In November of 2013, super-typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. Hundreds of thousands were hurt or killed. Communications for most of the country came crashing down. Filipino seafarers - stuck at sea - were left to sit in their ship cabins, unable to contact home.

Many would find out after days of worrying that their loved ones had been hurt or killed. Many would find out that their house had been destroyed. It could be weeks before they are able to sign off their ships and head back home. These are the worst times at sea.

Yet there is a bright spot in the midst of this massive and exhausting industry. Seaman’s missions around the world do their best to care for seafarers when few others do.

The seafarer window in St. John's Cathedral, Hong Kong.

Here at the Mariners’ Club in Hong Kong, our chaplains visit over 30 ships a day, bringing news, recent sporting events and telephone cards to crews on board. Often times we do much more than that.

We enable them to wire money to their families back home.

We visit them in the hospital if they become sick and need to leave their post in an emergency.

We contact the proper authorities if we find that they are not getting paid what is owed to them.

Why do we do this, you ask? We are merely trying to support them as much as they support all of us.

Today, July Thirteenth, we celebrate seafarers on this Sea Sunday. We celebrate and give thanks for those that sacrifice so much so that we may enjoy a more full way of life.

So please, as you bow your heads this morning and give thanks to God for all the blessings you receive, remember the seafarers - that shadow workforce - working hard to deliver some of those blessings to you each and everyday.

Sunday, June 29, 2014


Hello there!

Very sorry for my delay in updating the blog. The past few weeks have been crazy. Here is just one reason why! 

A few weeks ago my boss, Stephen, came into the office and told me I would have the week off. Great, right? The small boat that the Mission uses each day to go out and visit seafarers in the anchorage was going into the shop for repairs and a new paint job. The work would take a few days so Stephen told me I should go on a trip. So that's exactly what I did! Missionaries need vacation too, right? 

Since I arrived in Asia, almost a year ago, I have always wanted to make a trip to Cambodia to see the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. The temples, vestiges of an empire that once boasted a million people, always fascinated me. How were they built? What were they for? What did Lara Croft really find underneath all of them? I had to find out. 

Seeing as I started this journey on a whim, I couldn't find anyone to go with me. So I went solo! I spent four days in the city of Siem Reap, and I spent the majority of my time exploring the temples surrounding the town. Here are some photos: 

An extremely sweat yet happy Will in front of Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat sunrise the next morning.
Caught the reflection from the moat surrounding the temples. 

Faces from Bayon, another beautiful temple in the complex.
The temples were beautiful and covered in intricate carvings. It is hard to describe the calm and peace I found there. At the times I went - early in the morning or just before sunset - I often had some of the temples to myself. Those were some of my favorite moments. 

One of the things I love about religion and spirituality is that people have always needed it and searched for ways to express their love of it. Disregarding any one religion, humans have constructed beautiful and amazing things to honor a supreme being or power in the universe. Think about the Hagia Sophia, Salisbury Cathedral, Wrigley Field, etc. Angkor Wat is no exception. The temple complexes are an amazing offering to God (or rather, a group of Gods), and serve as a reminder that people have always placed an extremely high value on the buildings they use to worship God. This is as true today as it was a thousand years ago.

Aside from touring temples, I also went on a bike ride through the Cambodian Countryside. This was an unbelievable experience, as went nearly 40 miles through some of the prettiest landscape I have ever seen. Rice paddies, jungle, fishing villages. It was truly sensory overload. Thankfully, I was the only person on my tour so I got to ask the tour guide a lot of questions without worrying about sounding completely stupid. Praise!

Taking a water break. Phew! It was SWELTERING.

One of the many rice fields I passed on my tour.

Posing outside of Bang Mealea. One of the more remote and unpreserved temples. 

Bringing whole new meaning to "Jungle Gym."

Cambodia is an amazing place. It has beautiful temples, amazing food and very friendly people. But Cambodia also has a very dark history. On my last day in Siem Reap, I traveled to the Cambodia Land Mine Museum which was probably one of the more emotional and moving museums that I have ever visited.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Cambodia was rocked first by a genocide and then by a civil war. Millions of people died during those times and, to an extent, the country is still recovering from the fighting that occurred there. One of the weapons that was used during the civil war in Cambodia was the land mine. Millions were planted in the countryside, but no maps were made as to where the mines were planted. The result of this is that there are to this day still an estimated 5 million unexploded land mines in Cambodia. Thousands of people have already been killed or severely maimed by these deadly weapons.

During my time in Cambodia, it wasn't uncommon to come across a large stretch of jungle that was covered in signs saying "Do Not Enter - MINE FIELD!" It was a shock to see that living with land mines was an ordinary way of life for the people in Cambodia.

The Land mine Museum in Cambodia did a really excellent job of explaining the conflicts that plagued Cambodia in later half the of the 20th century. It also did a great job of showing the weapons that were used during that time. Aki Ra, a former child soldier runs the museum, and has spent his life disarming land mines and helping those who were afflicted. He was a CNN Hero in 2010 for the work he has done for his country.

Disarmed land mines and bombs from the Cambodian Civil War
Anti-tank mines on display at the Land mine Museum.

Different weapons and uniforms given to soldiers in the 70s & 80s.

Overall, my trip to Cambodia was perfect. I am so thankful that I was given the opportunity to travel to this amazing spiritual capital. It was nice to get away from the hectic crunch of Hong Kong to the peace and quiet of the jungle. It was also nice to have some time for reflection on my mission thus far and prepare myself for the last month ahead. I can't believe I have less than a month in this amazing city. I've got a few things left to do before I check out of the Mariners' Club. I'll be writing another update shortly.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Crimean Seafarer's Story

[The ideas expressed in this story are my own, not those of The Mission to Seafarers]

Unless you've been hiding under a rock the past few months then you have undoubtedly heard about a ruckus going down between Russia and Ukraine - especially surrounding the region of Crimea. This issue has had a large impact on the world but it has also affected me and my mission work here at the Mariners' Club.

Crimea, the breadbasket of Eastern Europe

Crimea is a relatively small peninsula on the Black Sea that used to belong to Russia and has a population that mostly speaks Russian. Crimea, being a peninsula, also has a very large seafaring population. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, nearly 20 percent of seafarers come from Eastern Europe, and a large part of them in my experience are Ukrainian or Russian.

I meet a lot of Ukrainian and Russian seafarers out on the waters of Hong Kong. I'd say nearly every other ship I visit has a Ukrainian/Russian set of engineers or officers. It's been fascinating talking to seafarers from these countries as this international controversy has hit a fever pitch, and I have been able to receive real citizens' perspectives on what is happening - not just the perspective of the western media.

Contrary to what I hear on news outlets like CNN and BBC, Crimean/Western Ukrainian seafarers want their country to belong to Russia. Contrary to what we are told by western media, these citizens really like Vladimir Putin. It's come as a big shock to me, but it seems western media is telling us the exact opposite of what most Russian/Ukrainian want their country to look like. Regardless - whatever side of the issue you may take, I think everyone agrees that Russia should have gone about it in a much more diplomatic way. (BTW, Kramer might have been onto to something.)

Seinfeld aside, I can hardly imagine what it must be like to away from your home for months on end while your family, friends and countrymen weather a massive diplomatic crisis like the one occurring in Ukraine (one in which could cause the next big war).  I know I would be so worried and stressed about what is going on. Is my family all right? Is my home safe? Sadly, such is the case for the many of the guys I meet on the ships out in the water. I met one such character on the Mell Satumu, a German-owned container ship, last week. Here is his story.

Meet Vladimir, the electrical engineer of the Mell Satumu. A Crimean-born Ukrainian  Russian who has been living at sea for months, and doesn't know what kind of home he will return to. Vladimir is the only electrician on the Satumu and is currently in the middle of a 10-month contract.

My friend, Vladimir. 

Besides constantly reading on the news that his country is in political turmoil back home, he has also noticed a strange trend on his Facebook. His Western Ukrainian friends will no longer talk to him, and in some cases he gets messages of hate sent to him. The reason? Only because he is from the Eastern Ukraine. "Friends no longer talk to me," he says. "And for what? I haven't done anything. I haven't had anything to do with what is going on. I've only be here on this ship! People Think I am responsible because I am pro-Russian." 

Yet, that is really the least of Vlad's worries. Vlad tells me that because of the recent declaration of Crimea as an occupied territory, he will not be able to renew his US Visa (something that is very necessary for seafarers on ships doing business in the United States). The only way he would be able to renew his US Visa would be to travel to the country's capital city, Kiev. However, Vladimir cannot go to Kiev as he would face arrest and persecution by the Eastern Ukrainian government (because he is a Crimean resident and speaks easily-recognizable Russian; not Ukrainian). In other words, Vladimir is out of a job. 

The Mell Satumu in all her glory. 

What is in store for Vladimir? What will be waiting for him in Crimea when he signs off the Mell Satumu in a few months? I hope that the issue with Ukraine and Russia is resolved quickly and peacefully so that people like Vladimir can get on with their lives. We can only wait and see though. I do ask that you keep him in your thoughts and prayers.

While the outcome of the Russia/Ukraine issue is murky, one thing is for certain; we must always remember the humans that are being affected by these seismic events, and we must remember that that they are indeed humans - not Russians, not Ukrainians, not Communist, not Capitalist. Humans.

Sitting and talking with Vladimir, I realized that we had been spoon-fed nationalistic news from our respective countries all of our lives. Of course I am an American (and a proud one), however I had failed to see how these people from Russia and Ukraine were just like me. They want to work for a living, they want to see the world, they want to provide for their families. They are not an enemy. The only difference between us is the country in which we were born - we are both human and we both want to be happy. Working with the Mission to Seafarers is amazing because I get to meet people like Vladimir every day. People that remind me that I am not just an American or a Christian, but I am a human being. One of 7 billion on our island home.

On a happier note, I've had a great few weeks of ship visiting lately. Nearly three weeks ago, I was able to play basketball with a group of seafarers - on their container ship!

Ballin' on the Vega Gotland

The ship, the Vega Gotland, had been waiting out in the anchorage for a little over two weeks. The ship was empty of cargo, so the crew spent their time off duty playing pick up basketball. It was so fun playing and chatting with them. I made some great friends on the ship and I hope I can see them again when they return to Hong Kong.

Ollie and I after shooting around