“I Didn’t Know You Were Here”: Pastoral Counseling at the Casa

So much of what we do at Seafarers’ House goes on at our beloved Casa.  Many mariners seek out our Casa for Internet, a phone or snacks while at port, but what they find there is often so much more than a place to sit.  This is a beautiful story shared by Chaplain Robyn Neville about what one mariner recently found at our Casa.


During one of my evening shifts as a duty chaplain at the Casa, a seafarer came to the door of the Chaplain’s Office. He hovered around the doorway, shifting nervously from one foot to the other, and then asked me if he could ask me a question. I offered him a fresh Florida orange from the basket of oranges I had brought in that evening  (I have found that offering a simple gesture of hospitality to our Casa visitors, like a fresh orange, helps them to feel welcome and appreciated). Then I asked him to sit down. 

He seemed agitated; he kept cracking his knuckles, and his eyes scanned the small office in quick movements. He didn’t say anything, so I began with a series of gentle questions (what’s your name? where are you from? how is everything going?). He was only too happy to respond. He described his struggles in careful detail, which included issues of religious identity, vocational aspirations, mental health issues related to anxiety and self-doubt, and concern over a sick family member. Throughout his narrative, I utilized the tools of my training in pastoral care to empathize with his experiences of pain and struggle, to affirm the instances in his story in which he demonstrated personal strength and good character, to gently bring awareness to areas of potential growth, and to provide concrete resources for creating comfort and supporting wellness.


One of the newest additions to our resources for seafarers at the Casa is a tract rack that we have filled exclusively with wellness literature. We opened a pamphlet about stress and read it together. Then we talked about the ways in which he might incorporate some of the stress-reduction exercises that the pamphlet articulated.


At the end of our conversation, the seafarer looked visibly relieved and much more calm and confident. I asked him what his experience of our conversation had been like, from his personal perspective.


“I didn’t know you were here,” he replied. “I mean, I knew that there were – what are you? A chaplain? Yeah, I knew there were chaplains here, but I didn’t know they could talk to people like this.


He continued, “I thought maybe you were a bunch of – don’t take this the wrong way – but I thought you were maybe kind of, like, too religious, you know? Like you couldn’t be normal, or understand anyone’s real life. But I feel like I’ve just talked to a therapist. Like maybe it’s going to be okay; like, I just feel – it’s not like I was going to do anything stupid, but I felt like there was this pressure, and it was expanding inside like a balloon, and I had nowhere to put it or do something with it. It just kept building, and I couldn’t fix it.”


He shook his head, as if chiding himself. “Why didn’t I come in to talk sooner? I didn’t know. I didn’t know you would be here, in this way. I didn’t know you were here for someone like me.”


“We’re always here,” I said. “Now you know. I hope I’ll see you again, the next time you’re in port.”


“Yeah,” he said. “Me, too. Thanks for the orange.”  He stood up to go, turned toward the door, and then turned back to me.


“So, like, you just do this sort of thing at the port?” he asked. “You just sit here and listen to people?”


“Well, we do other things, like ship visits and worship services,” I said. “But one of my favorite things to do is to listen to the people who come to visit us. I love their stories. I love hearing about their lives. I just really enjoy being around people, and I really like hearing from them, even when things are tough. Especially when things get tough.”


He paused to think about that.


“So,” he said slowly, “most of the people I know just want to criticize. Like they don’t know what’s going on, like they have no idea what I’m going through. All I do is work hard. All I do is sweat my ass off. But you just want to listen.”


“Yep,” I said. There was a pause as we both thought about that.


“Before you go,” I said, “let me share with you this quote that I came across this week in my reading. I believe it’s from Teddy Roosevelt, one of our presidents.”


It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.


“What do you think that last part means?” I asked.


“It means, you know – life isn’t going to be perfect,” he replied. “But you do it anyway. And you keep trying.”


“You keep trying, even when it’s stressful and painful?” I asked.


“Well, yeah, because that’s life,” he said, and he actually smiled. “But hopefully, it gets better. And maybe, if you’re lucky, there’s a lot more – what did it say? – more victory than defeat.” He turned to go, then turned back a second time.


“Thanks again for the orange,” he said, standing there in doorway. I smiled at him. He smiled again, too. Then he turned away one last time and walked out into the warm night.

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