Pastor to the Port

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

Father Rivers Patout is cruising his domain, but he's nowhere near a church or a school. Instead, the slightly pudgy Catholic priest is driving his late model Honda Accord across the uneven pavement of Wharf 14 along the Houston Ship Channel, providing an unsolicited narrated tour to a blue jumpsuited German chief engineer who had earlier requested a ride back to his ship.

"Those are molasses tanks on the other side; they're not full of oil," Patout points out to the bearded German, who doesn't bother to feign interest. The chief engineer's ship, the Brocken, is headed out to Lake Charles tomorrow, then England, then the Black Sea, then Turkey, then back to Houston. "This one is the oldest grain dock in the port," Patout continues as he navigates his way around the potholes along the city docks. "The conveyor belt is not used much anymore."

In broken German, Patout (pronounced pa-too) tries to make conversation about his recent trip to Dresden and Poland, though his passenger, who's from what was formerly East Germany, barely responds. When the car stops, the engineer quickly steams up the steps of the gangway to the ship, not bothering to wait for the 56-year-old priest, who will follow him aboard to do what he has been doing for the last 26 years as chaplain of the Houston port's Barbours Cut Seafarers' Center.

Since 1968, Rivers Patout has covered the waterfront, although in Houston that means something far different than the Hollywood version of longshoremen and loading docks epitomized in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront. Patout is no Karl Malden, no tough guy priest ready to confront any evil "Johnny Friendly" out to rule the docks. The affable and upbeat Patout has a different mission, one that is a mix of greeter, counselor and advocate for the 50,000 or more seafarers who pass through the Port of Houston, the nation's third largest. His demeanor is not unlike that of an irrepressible salesman, not put off by language barriers, cultural differences or disinterest. The priest with the reddish-gray hair and mustache is not about to take no for an answer when he greets captains or their crews.

But in recent years, Patout's job has grown more problematic. On one level, he fits the bill of a traditional Catholic cleric: a Notre Dame-educated priest doing the Lord's work among those in need of comfort and aid. Now, though, he is also an American First Worlder dealing with a growing number of Second and Third World seamen with whom he has little in common. Patout is fluent in Spanish and familiar with the Hispanic community he has worked in for years in the East End, but that no longer serves him as well as it once did. The majority of seamen who now set anchor in Houston are Filipino, Asian or Eastern European, and they're all foreign turf for Patout.

Still, Patout works his rounds, often finding success in unexpected places. In the case of the seemingly gruff German chief engineer, Patout's patter and free ride at first glance appeared unappreciated. But that night the engineer showed up at the Seafarers' Center, where he sat at the bar writing postcards, drinking beer and occasionally glancing up as the Broncos and Bills clashed on Monday Night Football.

The German engineer may have been at the center for solace, but Patout knows it's just as likely he was there because it was the only place to go. Though photos of Houston's skyline behind the Ship Channel's turning basin often make it appear that downtown is a short stroll from the port, it's actually more than four miles as the crow flies, and barely accessible for sailors whose sole mode of transportation may be their feet. For many of the sailors who float into the Ship Channel, "Houston" is basically the port. Some may make a foray to the nearest strip mall in Pasadena, but more likely the city is seen as little more than a piece of solid ground on which to stretch their sea legs. That, and the Seafarers' Center run by Rivers Patout.

Whether Houston's chief Catholic cleric, Bishop John Morkovsky, knew it or not in 1968, he picked the right man to start the Seafarers' Center. Even Patout's name seemed predestined for the job, since "rivers" usually end up linked to the sea. Actually, the priest is Rivers Patout III, named after his father and grandfather. "Rivers" was likely a surname of someone the family knew when they were in Louisiana. However aquatic his name, Patout certainly had little clue when he left Navasota to attend Notre Dame that his destiny would be bound up with the Port of Houston. Instead, he had a vague plan to become a lawyer.

After graduating from Notre Dame, Patout returned to Houston and St. Mary's Seminary on Memorial Drive. As he entered the seminary, Mass was still being said in Latin. When he graduated, his class was the first to say it in English. Just a year out of the seminary and flush with the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II, a young Patout was assigned to Blessed Sacrament Parish on Sherman Street, where he helped form a group of East End Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist and Lutheran ministers to coordinate social and church services in the East End, near the Ship Channel. Then the interfaith group was approached by a sailor who asked why Houston didn't have a seafarers center like other ports. A lay group was already interested in such a place, but had no money. So the ministers started visiting the ships and Patout approached Bishop Morkovsky for funds. He was given $50,000; the Port Authority then donated some land.

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.'"

Once the situation seemed resolved, Patout and his colleagues stepped back. "They brought in a new crew and they sailed," says the priest. "I don't know if any of the toilets were fixed or if the wash basins ever worked. My guess is they didn't."

It's not just the easy availability of replacements that causes some ship owners to have little concern for their crews, says Patout. It's also the increased emphasis on profits and the lack of a true national identity for ships. "You don't have some one person to go to and say 'Look, you got lousy ships,'" he notes. "Ownership is often hidden by many titular companies. It's like 'who really owns this ship?'"

That, Patout admits, has made his job more complicated. But then, not all the alterations in maritime have led to oppressive conditions. One of the captains Patout visits is Odd Olsen, who, during his 35 or so years at sea, has seen a lot change. Olsen appears to have weathered it all fine, ending up nicely as the captain of Norwegian-flagged container ship. Patout meets Olsen, a gray-haired ruddy-faced Norwegian captaining the Star Evviva, as the priest makes one of his daily ship visits. The ship is docked ever so briefly at Barbours Cut, a sliver of water toward the east end of the Ship Channel. Aside from the Star Evviva's flag, only Olsen and one other seaman are Norwegian. The rest are Filipinos, the most dominant nationality among the sailors who drop anchor in Houston.

Despite Patout's visit to Olsen's ship, the Evviva's crew won't have any time to visit his center. The ship docked at 7:30 a.m. and will be leaving that night on an itinerary that includes Beaumont, Mobile, Panama City, Charleston and "then we go to Rotterdam," Olsen says. With containers, stops can be hours instead of days, and the crew can be less than half the size than what was needed 10 or 15 years ago.

This one day stopover is relatively new; crews used to stay in port for three to five days, says Olsen. He's not complaining, though, since he used to be gone from home for months at a time. Now his work shift is not unlike an offshore oil worker, seven weeks on, seven weeks off.

His Filipino crewmen are a different matter. Most Filipinos sign on for stints of six months or more and are paid significantly less than Western Europeans or Americans. Some can make up to $300 a month if they're on a ship that abides by the national union agreement. Those that aren't may get as little as $100 a month. Whatever their pay, 80 percent of their salary is sent home to the Philippines.

A colleague of Patout's, the Reverend Randy Albano, is a Filipino who works at the Seafarers' Center. A minister of the independent Catholic Church of the Philippines, he estimates there are 250,000 Filipinos now at sea.

The increase of seafarers from the lower end of the wage scale, Patout believes, has heightened the need for the kind of support provided by the Seafarers' Center. But though the need may be greater, getting the sailors to use the center has become harder. Visits to the center are now around 50,000 a year, a decline from a few years back, when larger crews and longer stays led to about 100,000 visits annually. The Seafarers' Center provides a variety of recreational pursuits and religious services every night, though Patout's aware that its big screen television and draft beer may be a more important draw, especially since the bars that used to crowd the other side of the port's chain link fence have all but disappeared, casualties of the changing dynamics of international shipping.

In older days, any maritime area would have had a proliferation of bars. But when the maritime economy bottomed out and sailors started earning cheaper wages, the bars began to close. "It wouldn't mean near as much for Europeans to spend $20 in a night of drinking, as it would for a seaman who might be getting paid $100 a month," says Patout. "They still drink, and prostitution is alive and well, but there's not as much."

Appetites remain, but in an era in which capitalism is being hailed as the victor in the fight for world economic dominance, it shouldn't be surprising that the type of consumption many seafarers want has more to do with K-mart than wine, women and song.

German officers visit Kroger to buy steaks while others hit the Boot Barn searching for jeans. Filipinos want Levi 501s. "They love their 501s," says Albano. "I try to tell them that Wrangler has thicker denim, but it's no use."

The closest shopping mall of any size to the port is the Pasadena Town Square. A cab ride, or a ride from one of the Seafarers' Center vans, are the only transportation options other than a good, long walk for foreign seamen who want to sample an air-conditioned American mall. But "they're used to walking," says Patout. "It's okay for them to walk five miles somewhere. The average American wouldn't consider it because he doesn't have a concept of what walking five miles would be."

Some salty dogs have simple ambitions. The Reverend Mike McGraw, a Methodist minister at the center, saw three seamen walking toward Pasadena a few weeks ago. They were Latvians, fresh off the ship and out for the day. "I asked where they were going," he says. "They said, 'Wal-Mart.' So I gave them a ride."

It's not exactly a repeat of the tale of the Good Samaritan, but it's close enough for many of the port's visitors. Meanwhile, Patout's time is not entirely spent boarding ships, greeting captains and interceding for sailors. To keep the Seafarers' Center afloat he also has to glad-hand politicians and business moguls along the Ship Channel. He golfs with members of the Propeller Club, a shipping industry group, and keeps in touch with the necessary politicians. On a recent Tuesday, Patout visited ships along Barbours Cut near Morgans Point before hurrying to Brady's Landing for the monthly meeting of yet another industry group, the Transportation Club, where he was scheduled to give the pre-lunch blessing. After scarfing down lunch, he went to Harris County Commissioner Jim Fonteno's office, since he was to give the opening blessing at the weekly meeting of Commissioners Court.

Fonteno and Patout are old acquaintances dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Fonteno was a port commissioner. They shoot the breeze before the meeting, an exchange that includes a Patout joke involving a stutterer and a man with prostate cancer (the punch line: "I pee like you talk."), a discussion of the proposed dredging and widening of the Ship Channel and an update on the new bridge to replace the Baytown-La Porte Tunnel.

But the main topic is the old days. Patout tells a surprised Fonteno that Kirby McDowell, longtime leader of the National Maritime Union, recently died. "I buried him last week," Patout says, adding that the funeral should have been attended by county officials and received more than the minimal publicity it did. Fonteno mentions another old-time union leader, Paul Drozak of the Seafarers International, who died more than 10 years ago. "I buried him, too," Patout says.

Later, Patout recalls how McDowell and Drozak had "their horror stories" about union struggles in the '50s and '60s. "Then they were negotiating from a tough point of view, whereas now the unions have almost no strength to negotiate from," he says. "The owners feel pretty much like they can do what they want and get away with it." After considering his comments, Patout qualifies his interpretation. "I think there's a real need for unions and I think there's a real abuse of power by unions," he says. "It's a cyclical thing."

Once through with his powwow with Fonteno, Patout heads out to bless the opening of commissioners court. County Judge Jon Lindsay introduces Patout and glibly plugs an upcoming fundraising gala for the Seafarers' Center. "Tell us about what's coming up next Saturday," Lindsay primes Patout as the priest stands at the speaker's podium. Patout mentions the gala and turns to the standing-room-only audience, which is waiting to hear the tax hike debated. "We'd love to have you come," he tells the crowd. "It's only a hundred and a quarter. That's cheaper than taxes." The remark triggers a burst of laughter that barely dies down as Patout begins his prayer.

The laughter aside, the gala is important to Patout. Though his salary and the salary of the other chaplains who work out of the Seafarers' Center are paid by their denominations, the fundraising is needed to make sure the rest of the center's costs are covered.

On a recent Monday night, Patout circulates through the more than 50 seafarers, ringing bells to announce an 8 p.m. Mass in the adjoining chapel. He gets seven takers, the other 50 or so preferring to drink beer, smoke cigarettes or watch television. Some nights nobody shows, and he has to cancel Mass. "It doesn't bother me at all," Patout says of the no-shows. "When I got into the priesthood I had no idea what I was going find, but I did want to serve people. I see that as not necessarily teaching them the Our Father or giving them communion."

In those early days, serving others was of such importance to Patout that he says he would have joined the Peace Corps, had it existed in 1960 when he graduated from Notre Dame. But it didn't, so now he lives to serve the seafarers, and appears to be as comfortable on his car phone driving down to Barbours Cut as he is saying mass or hearing confession. Jesus had a list of corporal works of mercy to go along with the spiritual works of mercy, so Patout feels servicing the worldly needs of the needy is fulfilling his calling.

"Taking people shopping, driving buses, helping them make phone calls are all corporal works of mercy, but I don't distinguish that from the spiritual motivation to do it," he says. And sometimes the activities are not mutually exclusive. Just last week Patout was leaving to run errands when he offered to drive a Filipino sailor downtown to the post office so he could mail a package to his sister for Christmas. That saved the sailor money over a special delivery service and led to the sailor discussing his trip to Fatima and asking Patout questions about his religious doubts. "I had started to do something with no suspicion it had a spiritual side and ended up having quite a deep conversation with this Filipino about his faith," says Patout.

It's not exactly missionary work, but even though driving Latvians to Wal-Mart and Filipinos to the Boot Barn isn't included in the Beatitudes, Rivers Patout still see himself as doing the Lord's work. He'll simply continue on, and as to what reaction those he serves may have, well, that, he says, is just something "we'll let God worry about.

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