THE new national director of the Catholic Church’s ministry to seafarers admits getting seasick the first time she boarded a ferry to make a short trip on a calm day across the English Channel.
“I was crossing from France to England and even before the ferry moved I was already seasick,” Roslyn Rajasingam said.
The experience, more than 20 years ago, gave Mrs Rajasingam an appreciation of life at sea – although nothing like the dangers faced by some seafarers who sign up for nine months on the oceans, and often face fierce weather conditions.
“They still have to work even if they are sick at sea. And of course, for crew members aboard a cargo ship or fishing vessel, life at sea can be a lonely existence far from family and friends,” she said.
“There is little wonder that feelings of isolation and depression are common.”
Most of the 1.5 million crew members on international vessels originate from developing countries.
They are often paid low wages, work long shifts in poor conditions, and still face the risk of pirates in some sea channels.
Their job is transporting almost nine per cent of the world’s goods.
“It’s not easy work and that is why the Catholic Church is there to support them,” Mrs Rajasingam said.
Born in the Philippines, Mrs Rajasingam spent her early married life in Malaysia with her Malaysian Indian husband, and worked for the national office for human development assisting exploited and downtrodden migrant workers.
The work gave her a unique foundation for a career with faith-based agencies in Australia for more than two decades.
Now, as the first lay woman to head the Apostleship of the Sea, Mrs Rajasingam hopes to draw on her experience to equip and assist centre managers, and chaplains and volunteers who minister to the spiritual, social and material welfare of tens of thousands of seafarers who visit Australian ports each year.
“Jesus himself had a special interest in and affection for his disciples, who were men who made their living as fishermen,” she said.
“The Church holds that up as our example in supporting workers who come to Australia on merchant, passenger, fishing or military vessels.”
With Catholic volunteers active at 13 Australian ports, including the Port of Brisbane, Mrs Rajasingam said she was “looking forward to climbing aboard those big ships” – joining Apostleship of the Sea volunteers listening to the crews, finding out about their needs and looking at the working conditions firsthand.
She intends moving quickly to maintain and enhance the partnerships the Catholic Church has with port managers, Christian churches, welfare associations and government agencies that support seafarers.
“The main challenge for us is to balance the business side of things and the ministry,” she said, referring to a recent review of seafarer operations nationally.
The review called for a more streamlined business model.
“You can’t have the ministry without the business,” Mrs Rajasingam said.
“The hope is we can work together (with other churches). It’s better for us to share resources. And that could mean working ecumenically using all the resources available.”
Mrs Rajasingam said she also hoped to build a greater public awareness and parish support for the Apostleship of the Sea, with a focus on Sea Sunday on July 8.
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