calendar January 4, 2010 in Advocacy, News

Seafarer’s Ministry arranges Christmas reunion

It was a Christmas at Seamen’s Church Institute that all involved will remember forever.

As always, this 166-year old vital-to-commerce ecumenical ministry practiced the Golden Rule with seafarers from around the world, even bringing a father together with his long-lost daughter.

The ministry’s routine year-round work of visiting ships and tending to the social and spiritual needs of seafarers is always worth talking about. “But this Christmas was special on several fronts,” said the Rev. James D. Von Dreele, the veteran Episcopal priest who serves as executive director and chaplain to the port. For example, the ministry stepped up to:

  • Deliver ditty bags filled with gifts, many of them donated or made by members of local churches, to seafarers.
  • Persuade a sea captain to pay his crew in time for them to wire money home so families could shop for Christmas.
  • Wire money home for a seafarer who had just been paid after 42 days at sea, so his wife could buy Christmas presents. His duties prevented him from personally coming ashore in time.
  • Arrange a joyous reunion between a seafarer and the daughter he has been unable to see since she was an infant 13 years ago. The father shed tears of joy when an SCI volunteer cut red-tape and plans for the reunion began to come together.

The Lutheran Seafarers & International House has, over the last year, become an important part of this ministry. Pastor William Rex, of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Ferndale, is now a part-time chaplain at Seamen’s Church Institute.

The story of the reunion — between seafarer Antonio Cruz and his long-lost daughter, Jessica Perez — began the Wednesday before Christmas. A Seamen’s Church ship visitor made a routine visit to the MV Heron, where Cruz is second officer. Mr. Cruz talked to him about how he hadn’t seen his daughter, now age 13, since she was an infant.

She’s in Pennsylvania now, he said.

Mr. Cruz couldn’t leave the ship.  He hadn’t paid the stiff fee for a U.S. visa because he didn’t know his vessel would be coming here.  Is there any way, he pleaded, that Jessica could come to see him? Jessica’s family had had tried once before to bring her to see him, when his ship docked in Baltimore. But were turned away because they lacked required homeland security credentials — the rules have become extremely tight since 9/11.

Seamen’s Church Institute was willing and able to help.

Its ship visitors have submitted to Department of Homeland Security background investigation and obtained the credentials to escort people on maritime terminals. The ministry also has strong relationships with port executives. So, even though it was a holiday, it knew how to get in touch with Joseph Balzano, chief executive of the South Jersey Port Corp. and get permission to bring Jessica and five relatives to the ship.

The emotional reunion started at the top of the gangway where Mr. Cruz waited eagerly while his daughter and family cleared security below and continued all afternoon in one of the ship’s mess halls.

The story of how Mr. Cruz lost contact with his daughter Jessica is long, sad and thought-provoking.

Jessica was born while Mr. Cruz was in the United States doing risky asbestos-removal under a temporary work visa. When his visa expired he hired a lawyer to seek an extension, his employer at the time said. That effort failed and he was deported to his home in Manilla, the Philippines. Jessica’s mother, an American citizen, stayed here and fell on hard times, and Cruz lost all contact with her. She eventually give her child to her sister, who adopted her and is now raising her in South Central Pennsylvania.

After years of searching for Jessica’s mother, a frustrated Mr. Cruz found an old phone number for her sister in his billfold. He called and, to his joy, learned that  Jessica’s aunt had adopted his daughter.

After hearing this story on the Wednesday before Christmas, the Seamen’s Church ship visitor reached out to the aunt. She said she was eager to bring Jessica to see her father but wary. She recounted the previous failed effort to get inside a terminal where Mr. Cruz’s ship was docked. She described how Jessica cried after that experience.

But she agreed to try again, assured that we had a real chance of making it happen this time. Jessica was beaming with joy when she boarded the SCI van for the last part of the journey!

“I will remember this forever,” Mr. Cruz said, with tears in his eyes, when the plans finally came together.

“This is the best Christmas present I’ve ever had,” Jessica said, hugging the SCI volunteer who helped make it happen.

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Henry J. Holcomb, a retired writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, is a volunteer ship visitor and board member at Seamen’s Church Institute of Philadelphia and South Jersey, which visits 1,700 ships annually at 31 maritime terminals on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.