Christmas Just In Time

By Bro. Anthony T. Pizarro CICM

Brother Anthony Pizarro is a missionary intern based in the Parish of Saint Abraham in Dakar,Senegal, a society with 95% Muslim population.  Below, Bro.  Anthony shares with us the ordeal of the whole crew (all Filipinos) of a ship stranded in Senegal and how he and his fellow missionaries came together to offer support.

September 2001, Dakar, capital of Senegal. Fr. Fred Pinuela, my fellow CICM, received a phone call from the captain of a cargo ship which docked in the port of the city.  He was requesting for a Mass for the crew.  After giving his consent, Fr. Fred arranged that I deliver the homily.  The following Sunday we drove to the port and were received by the crew.  The captain, an elderly, fine gentleman, led the crew in the traditional mano po.  Then we were given a briefing by the chiefs of the vessel regarding their problem:  the crew were technically arrested and the ship detained for already a month after their ship rammed into a fishing vessel. A court trial was to start in a few days; their employer and the insurance agency have literally abandoned them and the crew have not received their salaries for several months already.  Their personal finances were already in the red and consequently their families back home in the Philippines are already in financial predicament.

In trying times we pray

After the briefing, we proceeded to the control room for the Mass.  We prayed, sang and celebrated the Eucharist. I gave a personal sharing about not losing hope, of holding on to God firmly in spite of the problems.  It was a sharing aimed to boost the morale of the group facing a cruel storm in a foreign land.  The Mass was followed by counseling and sharing among the members of the crew who enthusiastically opened up and shared with us their stories, troubles and cares.  Then we feasted on a meal specially prepared by the group, a barrio fiesta style with Filipino dishes.  There was drinking, singing with the karaoke, joking and exchanging of stories.  The night came to a happy close.  With the problem that they were facing we made our promise to be always and able for whatever assistance they might need.

When the going gets tougher

The court trial started with much delay and, of course, dragged to months – no thanks to the complicated bureaucracy and the corruption of the judicial system of the country.  Day in and day out the captain and some of the men were either in the court, in the lawyer’s office, or communicating with their agencies in Manila or in London.  In the meantime, the failing health of the team, their security problem and worsening financial problems took their toll.  A few were detained in the port, the goods on the ship stolen by the brigands, credits were high and some met serious health problems that required hospitalization.  Having been abandoned by their employer and their insurer, the International Maritime Trade Union (IMTU) tried to mediate between the two parties. It took months and several initial court orders to somehow settle the worsening problems.

You can count on us, your kababayans

I, with Fr. Fred, Sr. Yolanda Cunanan FMM and Mrs. Marilyn Marchand, the Honorary Filipino consul, formed a support group.  Sr. Yolanda visited the crew once in a while to give spiritual direction and counseling.  She even assured the hospitalization of a member who turned seriously ill. Mrs. Marchand was always available for paperworks and diplomatic mediations. Fr. Fred and I continued our regular visits and masses for the group, each visit which usually lasted for several hours was spent mostly in listening and counseling, of just being with and for them.  Our support group also found the pooling of our meager financial resources to somehow help the crew in their daily needs.  On their fourth month in the dock, 16 of the crew were given the signal to go home – without salaries.  The six chiefs of the ship were requested to stay while waiting for the final decision of the court and the eventual arrival of the relief.  Everybody had the same prayer:  Sana makauw na kami bago mag-Pasko. Sana.”  The court trial continued in an agonizing pace.

Goodbye, dear Captain

Then a strange twist in the story of the remaining six happened.  One morning, the captain was found lying in the dock, just beside the ship, bathed in blood. Initial theory pointed to a case of robbery and murder.  Meticulous investigations by the police later showed that nothing was stolen and it was a clear case of suicide; the captain jumped to his death.  The remaining five, and we the support group, were shocked upon learning of his death.  The captain, a prayerful, respectful, dignified, fine and just man committed suicide.  The big question was of course why?  Pressures from the ship company, the toll of the trial of their case, desperation, and personal and health problems could have been the probable causes.  Shocked and terrified, the five remaining members still had to undergo procedural investigations that lasted for almost a week.  It was an exhausting and draining investigation.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Weeks later the police clearance for the five was released.  The court came out with a clear decision favoring the liberation of the crew from their contracts and the auctioning of the ship and its content for the indemnity of the workers.  The meeting between the representative of the IMTU, the relief group and the Filipino crew took place.  In the meeting I served as the translator from French to English and Filipino and vice-versa.  An agreement was finalized, the green light for their departure for home was finally given.

Life is beautiful

The night before their final flight, we held a simple farewell party for them and offered a prayer for the soul of the captain.  One of them shared his realization: “Life, in spite of all its trials and pains, is still beautiful!  Hope keeps it going.”  It was a remark that illustrated the very essence of our missionary life, I thought.  The theology of hope profoundly summarized after a concrete experience.

It was a prayerful and sad parting.  We shared some food, drinks and we even managed to sing out some tune for their late dear captain.  They were very thankful for the help, support, company and specially the inspiration we shared with them.  Their unhappy saga in Senegal came to an end.  They went home a few days before Christmas, filled with new hope.