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Sailors' Society - Inspire March 08

Revd David Potterton, Principal Chaplain of the Sailors’ Society reflects on its vision for developing ministry amongst seafarers in Brazil

When coffee first arrived in Venice from the Arab world in the late 16th Century, the Church taught that it was the ‘devil’s drink’. In contrast to wine, sanctified by Christ for Holy Communion, coffee was of the ‘Antichrist’ and drinking it meant certain damnation! That was until Pope Clement VIII had a cup. He enjoyed it so much that he blessed and baptised it on the spot! 

As an interdenominational Christian charity, the Sailors’ Society has been providing faith-based support for seafarers visiting ports in the UK and overseas for the past 190 years.  Amongst the varied cargoes reaching our shores in 1818 was coffee from Brazil, which was then and remains today, the world’s principal exporter, producing 40% of total world output. It’s true; there is an awful lot of coffee in Brazil!

I guess you have discussed many things over a ‘tall’ latte, a chocolate sprinkled cappuccino or an espresso, but when did you discuss how it is that coffee is so readily available to us today. 

It is estimated that 1,400 million cups of coffee are drunk worldwide every day in our ‘coffee bar culture’. As I sip my coffee I wonder if I am alone in recognising our dependence on the world’s 1.25 million seafarers whose labours ensure that I can enjoy this ‘devil’s brew’ – no longer fearing damnation even hotter and more bitter than my espresso. 

The Sailors’ Society exists to replace isolation with belonging for those seafarers we meet each day. Without this invisible work force, life, at least from a materialistic point of view, would be arguably much harder for us all.

The majority of the world’s seafarers will be away from their families for up to nine months each year working on a variety of ships transporting more types of cargo than most of us can imagine. Working and living on board ship for months at a time amongst other seafarers of different nationalities and cultures, speaking different languages and belonging to different faith groups is only one aspect of the challenges they face. They arrive in our ports as strangers, invisible to those who depend upon them, discharge their cargo and disappear over the horizon as quietly as they came. 

The Port Chaplain is known as the seafarer’s friend, someone they can trust, whose ministry is to do everything possible to meet their expressed needs. Accessing e-mails or getting to a telephone are typical  priorities expressed by seafarers eager to contact loved ones and friends. Sadly, not all news they receive is welcome and the Chaplain is alongside to provide advice or comfort. Good news brings celebration and laughter which is shared with the Chaplain who hears all about it first.

In Brazil recently I met a Christian seafarer who hadn’t attended a church service or enjoyed fellowship with another Christian for many months. Sharing and praying with the Port Chaplain was an unexpected joy expressed in tears.

There is no doubt a pressing need for more Port Chaplains in Brazil as so many major ports have no Chaplains or communication facilities for visiting seafarers. I hope to return to Brazil soon for more prayerful discussions with the Brazilian Baptist Convention towards meeting this need.

Like me, there may have been times when you have been be heard to sigh, ‘I need a coffee’, but seafarers visiting Brazil have needs too. Thank God for showing us what these are and for giving us the vision to meet them. Seafarers need the physical presence of a Port Chaplain who will befriend them irrespective of their faith, ethnicity or nationality. 

Sailors’ Society Chaplains visit more than 20,000 ships each year and whilst the ships will differ in many ways, those seafarers they meet on board welcome our Port Chaplains because of their compassionate spirit, non-judgmental attitude and sacrificial dedication to meeting their needs, however small or great they may be. 

Whilst coffee is no longer considered to be the ‘devil’s brew’, thanks in part to the Pope’s blessing, seafarers bringing it from Brazil may not always feel so blessed themselves. That is until they meet Port Chaplains like Rivelino in Paranagua, Bahman in Rio de Janeiro and Ailton in Vitoria. They are a blessing, and seafarers welcome them on board their ships and usually exchange a cup of coffee for a listening ear.

So, next time you reach for the coffee jar and flick the switch on the kettle at home, go to your morning service or before you start your meeting, pause for a second and thank God for those strangers who deliver it to our shores. And thank God too for Sailors’ Society Port Chaplains who provide the kind of companionship that turns strangers into friends.

  • For more information about the Sailors’ Society, or to discuss a presentation to your church or group, contact, call 023 8051 5967 or visit
  • The Sailors’ Society was formerly the British & International Sailors’ Society


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