by Kristin Saylor
Itís two oíclock on a Tuesday afternoon. Iíve been up since six, and already Iíve taken three forms of public transit to get to my workplace in Port Newark, New Jersey, climbed the gangways of four container ships, had coffee and philosophical discussion with an Indian sea captain, driven a group of Filipino engineers to the mall, and sold countless telephone cards and international money transfers. If you had told me a year ago that this is what life as a college graduate would look like, I never would have believed you.
For the past three months, I have been a member of the New York Intern Program (NYIP), combining a year of intensive service learning with intentional community life. Through NYIP, I am interning with the Seamenís Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, an organization dedicated to caring for the personal, professional, and spiritual needs of mariners around the world. On a daily basis, my coworkers and I climb aboard container ships, bulk ships, car ships, and tankers. We visit the crews, make sure they have access to shore leave, help them contact their families, and give them an opportunity to engage in meaningful human interactions in what can be a harsh and often dehumanizing world of commerce.
Itís simultaneously rewarding and exhausting work. On the plus side, my days are never dull or monotonous Ė because every seafarer has unique needs, every ship visit is a new experience. My daily interactions with seafarers from around the world give me tremendous perspective on the glorious diversity of humanity and, at the same time, remind me how much we all have in common. The downside of an immersive experience in the shipping economy is being constantly confronted with the harshness of seafarersí lives. The men and women I work with spend up to twelve months at a time away from their families, work unbelievably long hours, and rarely have a chance to set foot on shore. Itís not an easy reality to grapple with and, after a while, it can start to wear you down.
Thatís exactly why I decided to undertake this year of social service in the context of an intentional, faith-based community. I knew I couldnít do it without a well-developed support structure. In fact, NYIPís deep commitment to caring for the spiritual and emotional well-being of its interns was one of the things that first attracted me to the program. As part of a community with a shared commitment to working for justice and caring for all members of the human family, I am sustained by the efforts of my peers even on the days when Iím totally drained and on the verge of cynicism. Because we are, in many ways, all in the same boat, the five of us interns are able to support and relate to each other through both the good and the bad. On a broader level, we all benefit from the dedication and compassion of our program directors and the St. Maryís parish community, of which we are part.
Ultimately, what community life is teaching me is the importance of reciprocity. The temptation of an intensive service year is to pour out all my energies into helping others without stopping to let others reach out to me in turn. In all aspects of my life here in New York, I am constantly reminded that itís impossible to separate serving another and being served. In the workplace, that reminder comes through the extraordinary hospitality of the seafarers Iím supposedly serving. They invite me into their home, make sure Iím comfortable, and offer me coffee, cookies, and sometimes three course meals. Many days, I feel like they give me more than Iím able to give them. That same pattern applies within the intern apartment: through small acts of kindness, all five of us constantly serve and are served by each other, whether itís by providing a listening ear, offering a plate of food, or doing someone elseís dishes.
I knew when I signed up for this program that I was committing myself to a year of profound personal growth and transformation, but I have been surprised and delighted by the ways in which that inner change has come about. I think itís safe to say that I am no longer the person I was three months ago Ė Iím a lot less complacent about the worldís injustice and, at the same time, Iím humbled by smallness of what I, as an individual, can do to combat it. As I look ahead at the next nine months, Iím curious and excited to continue this journey of self-discovery and self-transcendence on which NYIP is leading me, knowing that, no matter what happens, I am always walking in good company.