by Joe McKeever
Forty-five years ago John Vandercook saw a need in New Orleans no one was addressing. Here we had one of the busiest ports in America, with hundreds of ships arriving each year from all over the world, bringing thousands of foreign workers who would spend a few hours in this country and leave without ever knowing the first thing about us. What an opportunity if someone were to meet them, befriend them, show them some hospitality, and if possible, tell them about the Savior. Many seafarers live in countries hostile to the Christian faith, nations that not only bar Christian missionaries but forbid their own people from converting to Christianity.
This could be an opportunity staring us in the faith, John thought.* If someone had the faith-and gumption-to begin the process. First, he would have to find out how to board the ships. He would have to be credentialed as a chaplain. Figure out a means to bridge the language gap. Secure a vehicle for driving the crewmembers into town or to a church service. Line up volunteers to help. Find the time for this. And the energy. And of course, the finances. (*That really was a typo. I meant to say "staring us in the face." But "staring us in the faith" really says it, doesn't it?)
The sheer scope of beginning such a ministry would have frightened away many a lesser person. But in 1963, Vandercook organized the New Orleans Baptist Seamen's Service in the downstairs of his home and began visiting ships' crews on a regular basis. One year later, John went full-time in this ministry, a tremendous step of faith for a one-armed preacher with a wife and a full set of children.
When I arrived on campus at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1964 I heard stories of this man and his ministry. You'd have thought the work had been around for years. Seminary students spoke of driving church buses to pick up seamen at the docks and take to their worship services. Churches would welcome them and provide lunch. At times, the student volunteers would drive the visitors to a mall or a grocery store just so they could see how blessed Americans are. As far as they were available, they gave Christian literature and sometimes Bibles in the person's language. Occasionally, they engaged them in conversations about Jesus and even led some of the seafarers to know Jesus Christ.
In 1976, the center moved out of Brother John's home into an empty church building in East New Orleans. That was better, but it was still miles from the docks. John retired in 1991 and the executive board asked his son, Philip, to succeed him. In 1999, the name of the ministry was officially changed to Global Maritime Ministries to reflect the changes in its scope: both men and women, both shipworkers and dockworkers, foreign and local.
A second center was opened upriver in LaPlace in 1994. Later it moved a few miles further up to Reserve, Louisiana, and a wonderful building has been purchased, within walking distance of where many ships dock.
In May of 2000, GMM sold the ministry center in New Orleans East and began looking for a site for a new port ministry center close to the docks. The board purchased a large lot at 3635 Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans, directly across the street from the busiest part of the port. Ground was broken on January 24, 2004, for the building, projected to cost a million dollars. A little storm named Katrina interrupted the process, but soon leaders and volunteer workers moved back in and resumed work on the center. Church workers from all over America have labored on the construction of this building.
The port ministry center-officially named The Rev. John P. Vandercook Center for Maritime Ministry and Education-was dedicated January 13, 2007.
That's the bare bones of the story. But it doesn't begin to tell the wonderful truth about this incredible ministry. Imagine a poor family in the Philippines missing their father for a year or more at a time. He works on a ship because the money is better than he could make at home. He's lonely and he worries about his wife and children. His ship docks in America and he meets a friendly face inviting him to visit a center where he can phone his family or email them. Inside the center, he finds a warm atmosphere and a comfortable room where he can relax and a kitchen where he can eat some American food. Bookcases line the walls offering Bibles and Christian literature in his language, all free of charge. No pressures, no gimmicks, nothing but kindness and hospitality.
The new center will be providing group Bible studies and prayer times during lunch breaks for port workers. It will make counselors available. Philip says the great need now is for volunteers, Christians from local churches who will just come and hang out, visit with the guests, chat with them, make them comfortable.
These workers may be the best representatives the United States of America has. I guarantee you visitors to our port who spend a few hours in this center will go away with a high impression of this country. Many will carry with them new insights into the Christian faith and literature and videos so they may learn more.
The world is flowing past our doorsteps. I'm so glad God has built a lighthouse here.
For more information: Global Maritime Ministries, Inc. P.O. Box 750787 New Orleans, LA 70175-0787 Phone: 504/895-2028 Toll Free: 800/413-4762 Fax: 504/895-2028.
Joe McKeever is director of missions of the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.