The holiday season can be an especially lonely time for the crews of the many ships that visit Charleston SPA Ports throughout the year. As one of the top 10 largest international ports in the country, Charleston’s loading docks are bustling with activity as ships hailing from places like India, China, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines and other countries stop by our ports, serving as the often-invisible hands and feet of international commerce.
Crews visiting Charleston’s port during the weeks leading up to Christmas will receive a special surprise, thanks to the Charleston Port and Seafarers Society. For the past 20 years, the Christmas at Sea program has provided thousands of giftwrapped boxes filled with much needed toiletry items, fun games, books, candy and other surprises. Many also include a handwritten Christmas card filled with encouragement that lingers long after the holiday season ends.
Clark Cromwell, administrator of the Charleston Port and Seafarers Society, is passionate about the impact these gifts can have on the men and women working at sea. “For a lot of these guys, they wouldn’t have anything on Christmas Day,” he said. On many ships, the gifts are often embargoed in the captain’s quarters until Christmas. “Come Christmas Eve, I start getting pictures of decorated dining areas on the ships with a fake christmas tree and a roast pig with all the fixings… and there will be the men standing there with their boxes with big smiles.”
The average crew has about 25 members, and Clark and his team of more than 50 volunteers work together to deliver the gift boxes to the bottom of the gangway when the ships arrive in port. There’s some enthusiasm there, shared Clark. “The guys know they’ll be getting these gifts.” Even international crew members who don’t celebrate Christmas are often profoundly impacted by the organization’s kindness. “They are all happy to get the boxes,” reflected Clark. “I think we deliver just as many boxes to members of the Hindu or Muslim faith, but we’re a Christian organization so we’re happy to just love everybody.” There were over 3,600 gift boxes distributed at the ports last year, and the organization anticipates exceeding those numbers this Christmas.
Grace Church Cathedral and the International Transport Workers Federation along with NAMMA (North American Maritime Ministry Association) will provide the 3,600 empty boxes. The boxes are then distributed to many area churches, local businesses and charitable organizations. Clark has witnessed the impact the Christmas at Sea program has, not only for the recipients of the gifts, but also for those who take the time to fill the boxes. “I think there’s a real value in a family activity where you go out and shop for somebody you don’t even know, and might never hear from, but you still do it,” asserted Clark. “It is part of the Christmas spirit we always talk about. It is a big return to the families that do this, and it’s a special event for them to do every year.”
The Charleston Port and Seafarers Society has been around for more than 200 years, initially providing housing to seafarers and opportunities to attend church. The organization’s original hostel still stands on the corner of Market and East Bay streets in downtown Charleston, though the organization no longer owns it. “You can see the anchor and cross on the side of the red brick building,” said Clark. Today, they have four locations on the port, offering a number of important services, including transportation to stores and doctor’s offices, essential supplies, hospitality centers with free Wi-Fi where crew members can connect with their families abroad, and chaplains and ordained ministers who provide spiritual support to those who request it.
“We change as the times change,” explained Clark. During the COVID-19 pandemic, crew members weren’t allowed to leave the ships, so the Charleston Port and Seafarers Society partnered with MUSC to open mobile vaccination clinics where seafarers from all over the world, working in close conditions, could receive care. Whether they are delivering Christmas gifts, providing transportation for much-needed medical care or simply a safe and welcoming place to have a Zoom call with faraway family members, the Charleston Port and Seafarers Society is a beacon of light where Christian values and Southern hospitality make seafarers from all over the world feel right at home.
Visit charlestonseafarers.org to learn more about the Charleston Port and Seafarers Society.
By Heather Rose Artushin