The Rev. Joshua Messick, executive director, and the Rev. Mary Davisson, retiring director, Baltimore International Seafarers’ Center.
One of the best parts about working for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland is the opportunity to learn about all the projects, services and care that are provided by our many ministries. Over the past few months, your development team has had the opportunity to interview our exceptional staff and volunteers to learn about their service and life as leaders in our ministries. One such interview was with the Rev. Mary Davisson about her time as director of the Baltimore International Seafarers’ Center (BISC), Mary retires this summer after 18 years of ministry with BISC. We really enjoyed the conversation, and I think you will too!
Mark Talcott – Director of Development
Episcopal Diocese of Maryland
Ministry to Seafarers at the Port of Baltimore
Interview with the Rev. Mary Davisson, outgoing director
At the Baltimore International Seafarers’ Center (BISC), the Rev. Mary Davisson is part of our community of love. For the past 18 years, Mary has shared God’s love by caring for the physical and spiritual needs of countless seafarers that have made their way to the Port of Baltimore. Mary has gotten to share in the happy moments when people are being reconnected and has provided spiritual care for those in troubling times. Your Diocesan Development team recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mary and have a conversation about her time with our seafarers’ ministry. We enjoyed the conversation greatly and I think you will too. We asked Mary to begin by telling us what she has been up to recently.
Mary: Yesterday I went to visit a coal ship. To get to the ship, you must get off of the solid dock and jump down to a little… They call it a “barge”, it’s a floating platform maybe 10-15 feet long. Then you need to walk a few feet and go up a very steep gangway, that is 68 rungs tall! The hard part is the barge, depending on the tides, it can be a few feet lower than the dock and it makes it very hard to climb back after the visit! As I got to the vessel, the snow was blowing sideways. It must have been the peak of that little snowstorm we had. For only the third time in 18 years I walked away and didn’t board, because the barge was slippery and I just had no idea how I’d get back to the dock again, and the crew could not have come down and helped me.
We were a bit surprised by the gymnastics that are required to get on board one of these ships. Mary said, “it’s a very physical job with lots of jumping and moving around.” She expressed she would much rather be doing that, than sitting at a desk most of the day. Mary then went on to tell us a bit about herself and her background.
Mary: I grew up here in Baltimore, attending Saint David’s Church in Roland Park with my parents. I think there was an unspoken assumption growing up that we would all do volunteer work or give back to the community in some way, and that assumption is true for me. In high school I got involved in programs at Guardian Angel and Mount Calvary’s summer camp for the local kids. I went to Brown for my undergraduate degree and Berkeley for my graduate degree and while studying I continued with volunteering by tutoring. I finished my studies by getting a degree in classics and taught at Charlottesville UVA for a couple of years.
I married when I was at Berkeley. When I was teaching in Charlottesville, we discovered that our daughter had severe multiple disabilities. We wanted to be near either of our parents and when a job opened for my husband, we moved to Baltimore so he could work, and I could manage my daughter’s care. We had two more kids, both boys, and I taught part-time at Loyola in the classics department.
Through a retreat at Loyola–ironically, since the Roman Catholics don’t ordain women, I wound up in the ordination process. There were many more steps than that, but that was kind of the trigger that started my journey to ordination. I did some internships and events at Guardian Angel, Holy Nativity and Good Shepherd while in the ordination process. Overall, I really love seminary. I loved both the people and the studies! Through seminary, I was expecting to wind up at an urban parish, but God has a way of changing our plans. In my senior year, I met Ed Munro, the founding director of the Seafarers’ Center. At that time, Ed was looking to retire after about 14 years of service, leaving the seafarers center with needing new leadership.
After several conversations, I found myself with Ed Monroe, visiting ships, and to my surprise I liked the work and started to see myself serving at the Seafarers’ Center.
We asked Mary if there was there one moment that really solidified in your mind that seafarers’ ministry is what you are called to do?
Mary: There wasn’t one exact moment. I think it was a cumulation of ship visiting experiences. One of the more memorable moments started when Ed Monroe got a call from a ship’s agent.
The ship’s agent is the person who deals with the ship’s paperwork, legal documents, and other issues while they’re in port. Ed had worked with him before to deal with other seafarers trouble; like one who got wrongfully arrested while being the victim of a crime.
When the ship’s agent called and said, “we have a stowaway on this vessel”, Ed and I went down to that terminal to see if we could help.
Whether the stowaway was always this way, or whether it was because he was dehydrated from hiding on the vessel for days, he did not have it altogether and he wasn’t making sense when he spoke. He was being kept in a locked cabin on the vessel, which is what international law requires. The ship’s crew were feeding him and giving him water and clothes; he was getting his basic humanitarian needs met even though every stowaway is a nightmare for captain and crew. It costs them a lot of time, and time is money… but still, the crew was treating him well.
He had somehow gotten onto the dock and started to run away. The crew was not guarding him very closely because he seemed so weak. But once that happened, they took him back on the vessel and had him locked up in a cabin and that is when I got to visit him. I was able to speak Spanish to him and ask him if he wanted a Bible, which he did, and we brought him some clean underwear and other needed essentials. Ed went on to say, “you know we might visit them day after day and chat about basketball and take them to Walmart, but then these things happen where we know we’re really needed.”
I think the other turning-point was after I had accepted this position and worked for a few months and was still wondering, “is this really how I want to spend my ordained life?” in 2004 while nearing the end of my training with my priestly ordination two weeks away. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s. For seafarers it can be a dismal time of year. It really hits seafarers hard, and they may be thinking, “Oh my god, I’ve just spent another Christmas away from my family”, which could be seven or eight Christmases in a row. Furthermore, most of my volunteers were taking the week off because they wanted to be with their families.
That week I was told by a security guard that an officer had died on a vessel while they were crossing the Atlantic, so decided to go to that ship. I was told the Officer died of a heart attack as was removed from the ship earlier that day. The crew did not have US Visas; therefore, they couldn’t get off the ship. I boarded the vessel and greeted the Pilipino crew. I was met with a cheerful and hospitable, “how are you? Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Have some cookies!”, I let the good cheer go on for a while, and then I said “I heard that a man had died. Did I hear that correctly?” After asking the question, the seafarers began to tell their story.
While in conversation, I was asked to bless the vessel with holy water, so I went back to the center, got the holy water, prayer book and some other things, and I came back. This was a coal ship, so going up the gangway, your hands get dirty! When I got inside, I asked if I could wash my hands. They took me over to a little sink. As I was washing my hands, I looked to my side, and a Seafarer was standing there with a towel over his arm, which is exactly like the Lavabo in the Eucharist. (Preacher’s kid note: the ritual of handwashing during the communion involves an acolyte, deacon, or other assistant helping to wash the priest’s hands before they perform the sacred rituals around communion. Part of this includes pouring holy water over the priest’s hands and then offering a towel that’s draped over your arm out to them] That moment said to me “this is it, this is my calling.”
Mary explained that the mood in the room had changed when the man’s death was mentioned.
Mary: They were leading up to telling me about the man, because after being cheerful they started talking about the horrible weather coming across. Horrible weather at sea, is not equal to you or me complaining about a rainy day, it’s terrifying and even if their lives aren’t in danger, sometimes they can’t eat, cook, or sleep for days because of the terrible storms. The crew talked about the weather and how sad they were that they didn’t have US Visas to get off the ship for a few minutes.
At this time the seafarers really started to open up, and when I asked about the officer, I found out that a lot of the men were very distressed, especially the chief. The deceased, had been on board for days, and he had been stored in a refrigerator. The cook asked me to come and pray in the large refrigerator, and I did. Then a couple of people said they were having nightmares, and they wanted me to bless their cabins, so I blessed their cabins. I was so glad to be there that day.
Through Mary’s stories it had become clear to us that she is involved in many crisis situations and we asked how does she prepare for such moments.
Mary: You can’t prepare; the best way is for me to try to prepare with my whole life, because these things usually happen on very short notice. I try to lead a prayerful and trusting life. For example: One day, I was visiting a crew on their coffee break, and when the break was over, I had the opportunity to talk with the messman, after he was done facilitating the refreshments during the break. We start chatting and I asked if he has been to the US before this trip.
He told me about a recent time when his vessel had docked in a port south of us. It turns out he had relatives living in the area. He was able to get some shore leave, and they had a mini family reunion, which is just amazing! The timing of these events seem to never work out for seafarers. I said, “oh, that’s wonderful!” and he politely agreed with me, but then he said, “but we were not very lucky.” I have since learned “not very lucky” is often a euphemism for, something terrible happened.
Indeed, something very terrible had happened at the gathering. While someone was backing up their car out of a driveway, they ran over a child, and the child died. I knew he had to go back to work in ten minutes and I said “I’m very sorry, may I know her name? Would you like me to pray for her?” And he said, yes. We prayed together for a few minutes, and he went back to work. When I got back to the Seafarers’ Center, I called the chaplain at the next port for the ship and asked them to reach out and provide spiritual guidance.
One thing I am constantly trying to learn, is to really be in the moment and trust God to work in the moment, because I may only get one chance to share God’s love. One ministry moment, that helped me have more trust that we were doing good work was in my early career. There’s a little chapel in the Seafarers’ Center and I was walking by, and I saw a someone in the chapel, and he looked upset. I waited for a little while and eventually I went in and started a conversation. The man was very homesick. He had just started on a ship and was a few weeks in to his nine-month journey away from his family. He said, he was unsure how he was going to get through the time at sea. We talked a little bit and prayed a little bit. I don’t think I said anything particularly wise, but eight months later, his vessel came back to Baltimore! As he visited, he told me he was going home next week and how much our time in the chapel had helped him in his time of need.
That was a great moment for me. Most of the seafarers that we can help are never going to have the opportunity to thank us. So, every time a seafarer does thank me, I try to have that moment stand in for all the thanks we will not hear aloud.
Talking with Mary has been incredible! Her stories are wonderful, and I can tell she has a passion to serve people and care for their physical and spiritual needs. After 18 years and never being away from the Seafarers’ Center for more than 8 days at a time, Mary will be retiring to take a much-needed break. She plans to spend more time with family, hiking and traveling a bit. She said, “I am open to being surprised by God on what comes next.” After about an hour of chatting, it was time to finish up the interview and we asked Mary for any final remarks. Mary leaves us with this, “I hope that people will be aware of God’s invisible children, and I don’t only mean seafarers. Port ministry has helped me to think and care more about the people we don’t see but depend on daily.” Through the Bishop’s Annual Ministries Appeal we can work together to live our faith and care for the physical and spiritual needs of people in our neighborhood and around the world!
Mary has now began training her replacement at the Seafarers’ Center and we can’t wait to hear more stories from this remarkable ministry that is sharing God’s love with so many! We are so thankful for the many years of service Mary has given to God, the Seafarers’ Center and to the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. Thank you!
This amazing ministry is a critical part of our community of love in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and depends upon your generosity. To learn more about this ministry and our other collective ministries visit: https://episcopalmaryland.org/bishops-annual-appeal/
The Rev. Mary Davisson on the cover of Maryland Church News, Summer, 2005.