MANATEE -- At busy seaports all over the world, billions of dollars worth of goods are loaded and unloaded every day.
What's largely ignored, however, are the men and women who sail those ships, bringing food, cars, TVs and nearly every other commodity consumers use.
"Ninety percent of all the world's goods, whether it's raw goods or finished products, travel on a ship at some point. Without these people, [world] economies would stop," observed Tim Huppert, executive director and chaplain at Anchor House, the ministry for seafarers in the center of Port Manatee.
Huppert says most ships coming into Port Manatee, as well as other ports, are not registered in the United States but fly "flags of convenience" of countries such as Panama and Liberia, where labor laws are not as strict. Rules, such as how much time off crews are allowed during the life of their contracts, are often nonexistent.
The companies that ownthe ships, Huppert says, turn adeaf ear to the needs of theircrews. "They don't care," he said.
These days, he says, most crews are from the Philippines and eastern Europe. "They leave home for eight to 12 months without seeing their families," he said. Because of increased security at many locations, merchant sailors may not get the chance to leave their ship even when it is docked, he said.
"They're an isolated, forgotten group of people."
Anchor House provides seafarers a way to connect with home and loved ones with a bank of telephones and Internet-connected computers. "It's all about connecting with family and friends," he said.
The ministry also provides a place to get away from the ship for brief periods, with a large area for relaxing, playing table tennis or billiards, and watching TV.
In some extreme cases, they mobilize volunteers from area churches to do more. He remembered a case where a crew became stranded. "The company filed for bankruptcy. The ship is alongside the dock. There's 23 guys their visas had expired, they can't get off the ship because of security. So the seafarers' mission, along with a few churches, was bringing food and water to them," he said.
Trish Alligood, the other chaplain at Anchor House, also assumes the duties of general manager, keeping the ministry's small store stocked with toiletries and other personal items for sale.
They also have on hand shelves full of Bibles in various languages, including Arabic, Chinese and Tagalog, to give to the 5,000 or so seafarers who use the facility during the year. So far this year, Anchor House has interacted with 92 ships in port from 17 countries.
Alligood has been at Anchor House for 15 years. She enjoys the work, meeting people from all around the world without having to travel. "Here, the world comes to us," she said.
Neither Alligood or Huppert are ordained ministers. While they hold worship services on board ships and occasionally at Anchor House, the nondenominational ministry focuses on service, not a particular theology.
"We don't represent doctrine when we're on the docks," Huppert explained. "We just represent the center, the needs of the seafarer and the simple Gospel -- Jesus came, died, rose -- that's it. We don't have to cause controversy."
He remembers something one of the founders of Anchor House, chaplain and author Roald Kverndal, told him. "He said, 'Don't fracture the face of Christ on the waterfront.' Don't go there with your opinions and things that really divide us. Go there and represent Christ, and share the things that are common and bring us together."
And, Huppert, notes, the concept of aiding merchant sailors has gone virtually unnoticed by everyone except the religious community. "If the churches didn't do it, it wouldn't exist."
Anchor House, which celebrates its 20th year of operation next year, operates on about $150,000 a year, supported by more than 30 area congregations of various denominations. About 30-35 volunteers also give of their time, doing things such as running the store, driving seafarers to town, doing office work or visiting with seafarers.
If you would like to help the ministry of Anchor House, go to www.anchorhousemission.com or call 941-722-0764.