Last Sunday I was driving home on Mendenhall Loop Road after visiting some parishioners. In the course of my journey, I needed to pull over a couple of times due to the number of emergency vehicles responding to a call. It was the next day that I learned, with the rest of the Juneau community, of the tragic drowning death at Mendenhall Lake of a visitor from Texas who was kayaking with family members. I was grateful to find out that our deacon from the Cathedral was among those ministering to the family and the caregivers that night. While holding in confidence the identities and experiences of all who were involved, he shared with me his deep sympathy for the family in their tragic loss and expressed his admiration for the sensitive and compassionate care provided by the doctors, nurses and hospital staff at the emergency room of Bartlett Regional Hospital. It was during those tragic hours that he also witnessed the thorough and professional work of the police, firefighters and EMT’s. Although in Southeast Alaska for only a few short days, the family members of the man who died were welcomed, albeit in the most tragic of circumstances, into the caring heart of our community.
They were among the many visitors who come to our region. Some travel here by air but the majority arrive on one of the many cruise ships that tie up along the docks or anchor up in our harbor. We are all familiar with days in the summer when 10,000 or 12,000 visitors arrive in our community. For many this is the trip of a lifetime and it is such a sad occasion when a visit is cut short by an accident, illness or a tragic event.
Amid the thousands of cruise ship passengers we see each summer in Juneau, we should not fail to notice the many sailors and other maritime workers whose labor makes the cruise ship industry possible. They are less visible to us, being here to work rather than to sightsee, but many become seasonal members of our Juneau community, for three or four months they make their regular stops here.
On July 8th the Catholic Church around the world celebrated “Sea Sunday” a day set aside on the Church calendar to remember the 1.2 million maritime workers who transport more than 95 percent of the food and goods that we use every day.
It is easy to overlook these workers and the oftentimes difficult lives they lead. International seafarers, including cruise ship workers, are away from families, friends and homes for many months at a time. They work long hours and they sail in some of the world’s most dangerous waters. While work as a seafarer can be a boost up from poverty for many of those who work in this industry, it can also be a difficult, lonely and hazardous job. As with every employee, maritime workers deserve fair treatment, just compensation and safe working conditions.
While cruise ships visit Southeast communities during the summer visitor season, this region relies on the work of seafarers year round. Just about everything needed for daily life and commerce comes to Juneau in a container that has been loaded onto a barge (or a string of barges) or in the hold of one of the ships of the Alaska Marine Highway system. Fishing vessels and tenders not only provide food and income for Alaskans but are an important part of this community and communities throughout our region.
I am particularly grateful for the dedication and hard work of the men and women of our Coast Guard. This past week the crews of six Coast Guard buoy tenders, (five American and one Canadian) who oversee and maintain the navigational aids throughout the Inside Passage, participated in the “Buoy Tender Olympics” in a series of competitions based on real-life deck and line-handling skills. Although the “Olympics” competitions were done in a spirit of camaraderie, the real purpose of the five day event is to improve the readiness and efficiency of the crew members.
For it is the mission of the Coast Guard, either on the high seas or in the relatively protected waters of Southeast Alaska, to respond in every kind of weather and at all hazard to those who find themselves in distress on the water.
While my faith tradition may set aside some time to focus on prayer and support for those who work on the waters, I am grateful to live in a community that continually recognizes the pleasure, livelihood and risks of being on the water. Through it all, I pray that the men and women who put their lives in jeopardy to save others know the appreciation of a grateful community.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.