Pastor to the Port

In the changing world of the Houston Ship Channel, one thing remains constant: Father Rivers Patout.

At the time, says Patout, he was caught off guard by the notion that a man of the sea would want a quiet, safe place to hang out. "We said, 'What? Why would any sailor in his right mind want a priest or preacher coming down interfering with his drinking and womanizing?'" he recalls. "That was the stereotype."

Since then, Patout has witnessed the changing demographics and economic status of the center's clientele, two factors that have toned the waterfront down. The energy crunch of the '70s, the oil bust of the '80s and the growing use of containers for freight accelerated the process of ship owners turning to smaller crews and cheaper labor to cut costs. As the changes occurred, Patout has dealt with the fallout. Providing religious counsel may be his primary duty, but his work has also grown to include social justice in the material world. Delinquent pay, abusive captains, unsanitary conditions and broken promises are as much his bailiwick as confessions and communion.

Although he says he uses the term advisedly, the phrase "new slave labor" routinely pops up in his conversations when he is talking about the shift to lower paid sailors eager to do just about anything to get work. The nature of ownership also has changed, becoming increasingly international in scope with many companies using "flags of convenience," in which owners choose to operate under the flag of a country that has loose labor and safety regulations and low taxes. That concept began in 1933, but lately its growth has quickened and has made it more important than ever that Patout be able to adapt to changing times. Over the years, he's done what he has to do to keep his center's doors open. The schmoozing skills needed now to solicit largesse from the monied and the powerful didn't appear as necessary when the Seamen's Center opened. (The term "seamen" was changed to "seafarers" a few years ago to be more inclusive to the few female seafarers who pass through "and we were tired of the jokes about being a sperm bank," Patout says.)

Due to the new dynamics of the shipping industry, the length of stay for sailors is shorter, but certain aspects of Houston as a port of call remain the same. Little beyond the Seafarers' Center is within easy walking distance of docked ships. All that public transit offers is a solitary bus line that enters the port gates only a few times a day. Nearby Pasadena has no bus service, and the nearest mall of consequence is often a $20 cab ride away. Couple this with ships' increasingly brief stays in port, and it becomes clear why many seamen don't bother to stray too far away from the Ship Channel.

Patout's concern for the land-based logistics of visiting seafarers may frequently be his focus, but an important part of his work involves dealing with complaints about working conditions onboard ships. Each seaman who visits the port has a story, and lately some Patout has heard of are less than pleasant. One day last May, five Sikhs from India came to Patout with some basic complaints. The toilets on their ship were stopped up, every wash basin was broken, air conditioning worked only in the officers' quarters and the shipping company owed them several months back pay. They were scared, but determined not to take it anymore. They wanted the money owed them and they wanted to go home. Complaining, though, could cause them even more problems. "They were frightened, because it's a pretty big gamble," says Patout. "You can be blackballed and never get to work again in a livelihood you're counting on." So the Sikhs wondered if the priest could somehow help.

Such a situation is not without risk for Patout and his fellow chaplains, who are allowed by the owners to board ships to talk to seamen and offer the services of the center. If they are labeled as troublemakers, that access could be curtailed. "Seamens centers all over the world are known to be sympathetic listeners, that's no secret in the maritime industry. But some centers are more sympathetic than others," Patout says. "Some will say 'that's a terrible problem,' and just listen to them."

But Patout is more inclined to action. He listened to the Sikhs "in good detail before I went out and saw how horrible the conditions were," he says. Since the toilets were broken, he discovered, the crew was using buckets as portable outhouses. The priest decided to serve as a go-between, contacting the International Transport Federation's local representative to help address the Sikhs' protest. A lawyer was summoned. At first, the shipping company said the protesting seamen would have to pay their own way home. After much haggling, the company agreed to buy tickets to fly the protesting Sikhs back to India. They also agreed to give them back pay. Replacements were flown in quickly so the ship could depart. Patout says most of them were Romanians, and they were glad to get the work.

"The sad part," he adds, "is when the new people were sent out, I said, 'What about you, will you work in these conditions?' They said 'We have no choice. This is our only chance to make money.'"

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