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Maritime chaplain offers support to crew stuck on cargo ships due to shipping delays

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Imagine being stuck aboard a cargo ship for months, unable to leave. That is the reality for hundreds of thousands of sailors all around the world who are cooped up on cargo ships due to COVID restrictions and shipping delays. Many unvaccinated sailors from foreign countries haven't been allowed to disembark here in the U.S. And according to our next guest, Reverend Samson Shekhar Chauhan, many of them are desperate. Chauhan is with Lutheran Maritime Ministry, and he goes from cargo ship to cargo ship at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., which are struggling with backlogs. He's there to provide support to sailors and crew members.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Reverend.

SAMSON SHEKHAR CHAUHAN: Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure being with you.

CHANG: When you board these boats, can you just tell me what do you see? Like, what are the conditions like on board? What are you noticing?

CHAUHAN: Yeah, it looks like kind of cubicles. And when we go visit them, we don't necessarily go straight to their small cabins. But many a time, we have seen those cabins. And to begin with, it's like a moving jail. And then their condition in the vessel sometimes - they don't have the provisions, the supplies, the food. You know, in a COVID situation, the food condition was really minimal. So they were preserving their food. They had to preserve their water, and they only feed those 22 people. There's no one else to feed. Sometimes they feel tension.

CHANG: Well, what are these sailors telling you? Why do they seek your counsel personally? What are they sharing with you?

CHAUHAN: They have very basic trauma and family needs and very common concerns. But they still open up to us, and they tell us that they are not able to see their children, they are not able to see their wives. Some of them have ailing parents at home, and they are not able to care for them. So they feel devastated, lonely and alone that because of COVID, they are not able to disembark. And because they are in the waters all the time, then are not able to even send money home to support their families. So they open up about all this trauma that it causes.

CHANG: Is there one person's story that has especially stayed with you?

CHAUHAN: Yeah, one person told me that because of the long absence, his wife was divorcing him and that the person was devastated. And he almost cried in front of me. So that briefly says the traumatic condition which the sailors go through.

CHANG: What did you say to him when he told you that?

CHAUHAN: I just listened to him, and I felt his pain. And then I offered a prayer to him. I read something encouraging to him from the Bible, and I assured him that have faith in God, in the gospel truth, in the scripture, and God will take care of it. I hope to see him again. I want to know about his condition. But that was one very striking or touching story that I came across...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHAUHAN: ...That a person was going through a divorce because of the long absence.

CHANG: And have you seen anything quite like this - sailors being stuck at sea for as long as 11, maybe even 13 months, struggling with mental health issues? Have you seen anything even remotely close to what you're seeing now?

CHAUHAN: Not before COVID. Not much. Of course, they were struck on the - because of the nature of their work, they were always in the vessel and away from the family. So that was a challenge to begin with. But because of COVID, it was intensified and they were away for a longer period.

CHANG: Right now, what message do you want to send to sailors who are struggling mightily as they're still waiting to go home?

CHAUHAN: The worst is behind us. We are seeing a new dawn. Hold on. Have faith because good days are coming. I have personally taken a few people out in the last three weeks. So my message to all the sailors is that the worst part is behind us. (Unintelligible) safe, healthy days are coming. Have faith. Keep on praying. And we are with them. We are praying along with them. So good days are coming.

CHANG: That is Reverend Samson Shekhar Chauhan of the Lutheran Maritime Ministry.

Thank you so much for being with us, Reverend.

CHAUHAN: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN MAYER SONG, "PAPER DOLL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.