Leading Seafarers to Christ

By Jerri Menges   •   September 30, 2008

The ship will sail in less than 24 hours, and while the longshoremen unload containers, Rob will catch up with four seafarers he talked with during their last visit to Sydney 28 days ago. Amer, 36, is a fourth engineer, married with a 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son; Dennis, 32, is an ordinary seaman, married with a 2-year-old son; Norman, 35, and Cornelio, 26, are married with no children. Amer and Dennis are Christians. Norman and Cornelio are not.

During the ship’s last visit to Sydney, Rob gave all four men a Bible study and left two Billy Graham films for them to share with their crewmates. Their assignment: complete one Bible study per week, including the multiple choice test questions at the end, and watch the movies.

Today, Rob will collect the movies and the Bible study questions. He’ll go home and mark the Bible study answers, then he’ll return to the ship. He’ll ask the men about the message they received from the movies and he’ll talk with each one about his Bible study.

“I try to help them understand any questions they have answered incorrectly. I can tell from their answers how they are doing spiritually and I know which study to give them next.”

Amer has completed six Bible studies; Dennis, three. Norman and Cornelio have assured Rob that they will complete their studies by the time they next return to Sydney.

Life for seafarers is hard, says Rob, a seafarer himself in the 1960s. They work 10 to 12 hours six or seven days a week on merchant ships, carrying cargo around the world. Ninety percent of all world trade is moved by sea, by a merchant fleet of about 85,000 ships. About 20 seafarers man each ship. Seafarers come from many countries and nationalities; about half of them are Filipino.

“The majority of seafarers are contracted to work aboard a ship for nine to 10 months,” Rob says. “They go home for two or three months, then they leave to join another ship. Many have small children and their wives have to fulfill the duties of both mom and dad.”

Every year, more than 500 die at sea, from fires, collisions, or ships that are old and not properly maintained. The public seldom hears about these deaths since they occur so far out on the ocean.

“Seafarers are unseen,” Rob says. “They are inaccessible to a large extent, and for both of those reasons, they are forgotten. They have actually been classified as one of the world’s unreached people groups.”

As a port missionary with the Seamen’s Christian Friend Society, Rob shares the Gospel with seafarers and encourages them in their faith–something nobody did for him during his seafarer days.

“I went to church regularly as a child,” Rob says, “but when I became a seafarer in 1957, I no longer had the opportunity to go. Occasionally, we’d pull into a port and we would be visited by a chaplain from a seafarer’s mission, but I have no recollection of those visits ever having any spiritual impact on me. I don’t recollect ever hearing the Gospel.”

When Rob left his seafarer job in 1971, he became a teacher of maritime studies at a technical college in Sydney–and he started back to church.

“My wife and I would listen to the sermon and sing the hymns,” he says. “One day when we had been doing that for about two years, the pastor asked me if I would consider leading the youth fellowship. I said, ‘Yes.’ The Youth fellowship group had a small committee of people who planned the activities. And one of the girls on that committee worked out very quickly that the newly appointed fellowship leader wasn’t in fact converted. And she politely suggested to me one day that it would be good if we had somebody come out and talk to the kids from what was called the department of evangelism.”

The speaker spoke from Isaiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray.” At the end of the message, he invited anyone interested in salvation to see him downstairs after the meeting.

“After the service, in my position of youth leader, I went downstairs,” Rob says. “I walked up to the man and asked, “Did anyone come to talk to you?” He said, “No.” I said, “I think I need to be the first.’

“So the only person converted that night was the youth leader. That was March 17, 1974. I went home and told my wife and she burst into tears. She had been struggling with the reality of the resurrection. About two weeks later she surrendered control of her life to Christ.”

Not long after his conversion, Rob attended a four-month Navigator seminar in Sydney, where he learned how to have a daily quiet time, had lessons on how to be sure you’re a Christian, and learned the importance of memorizing Scripture. Rob was so excited about what he learned that he enrolled in the course again. At the end of the second session, his group leader offered to meet with him weekly to help him grow in the faith.

“For a number of years after that I would go to his home one night a week and we would pray together. He wanted to hear the verses I’d memorized. He wanted to hear about my quiet time and my application from my quiet time. The things I learned at that time in my life have so much application now with what we do with the seafarers. Always I’m encouraging them to be consistent in reading the Bible and memorizing the Scriptures.”

When Rob retired from teaching in 1997, he and his wife became managers of a Seafarers’ Center in Northwest Australia. In 2000, he began his work with the Seamen’s Christian Friend Society, which is committed to “taking the message of life to seafarers.”

Every day, he meets seamen from places like the Philippines, China, India, Germany, Greece, Romania. “There are more ships coming into port every day than I’m able to visit,” he says.

Sometimes his meetings continue into the night, after his evening meal.

“There are lots of occasions when God gives me the strength that I need for the time that I need,” he says.
“When I’m with a seafarer, I really enjoy what I’m doing. I seldom realize I’m tired until it’s all over.”

When his head hits the pillow at night, his mind is often filled with thoughts of the men whose lives he has seen transformed through the years. Like Allan, the Filipino who grew up in the slums of Manila in an environment of prostitution, drugs and crime, and was cynical of Christians. Each time Rob saw Allan, he persuaded him to take a Bible study course. By the end of Allan’s shipping contract, he had acknowledged God and repented of his sins.

Michael, a second officer, became a strong Christian and started a Bible study onboard each ship he was assigned to. Rob gave Michael a copy of the Billy Graham movie A Vow to Cherish. Michael invited five couples to watch the film in his home in the Philippines and later loaned the movie to a neighbor for use in his home Bible study. One of the neighbor’s visitors accepted Christ.

“These last eight years have been the time of my life that I’ve been the most contented, the most fulfilled,” Rob says. “I have a very strong sense that the whole of my life has been in preparation for what I do now.”

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