"Together in God's Service"
By Erik Noriega
GALVESTON, TX -- Karen Lai could easily boast that she serves a world-wide ministry. However, the humility and compassion she carries herself with would prevent her from making such a claim. Instead, Ms. Lai simply goes about her daily work serving the largely ignored "church at sea," helping as many people as she can.
Ms. Lai is a lay port chaplain in the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, and she uniquely understands the sacrifices that are made to satiate the needs of the consumer based society prevalent in this country.
"People don't realize that most products are brought to the United States by ship, and it takes many sacrifices to make those ships come and go," Ms. Lai explained.
Most of the sacrifices are made by the seafarers on board, who are underpaid, away from home for months at a time and often face treacherous seas.
Ms. Lai began her career as a volunteer at the seaman's center in Detroit in 1985. By 1987, she was coordinating a training program for lay port ministry. She came to the Galveston Seaman's Center in 1993 when shipping in the Great Lakes began to decline. Rather than find work in the secular world, she chose to find a full-time port ministry job.
"I never dreamed of asking my family to relocate," she explained. However, her husband David suggested she search for work elsewhere. "He asked, ‘Why should you give up what you've been specially trained to do, just because it's not here anymore?'"
The "special training" included courses and seminars on improving communication skills, honing listening skills, and becoming familiar with the maritime industry. Today, Ms. Lai assists and counsels seafarers from all over the world who visit the port in Galveston, helping them sometimes find the spiritual base their lives often lack.
She also helps them perform simple errands such as mailing a letter or making a phone call. All of this is usually easier said than done due to time considerations.
"Our 'parish' moves about and we literally have hours to deal with their problems until their ships leave. We have to be able to pinpoint the most pressing need for that crew and solve it as best we can; not just put a Band-Aid on the problem," she explained.
A Eucharistic minister, Ms. Lai must depend on local clergy for the sacramental needs of the seafarers. "They are wonderful as far as helping us out. Sometimes it's difficult to plug into their schedules, but they remain very supportive."
In fact, Ms. Lai says that the support she receives from the diocese has been vital to the success of her work. "The diocese is behind us 100 percent and Bishop (Joseph) Fiorenza has been wonderful. He truly cares about what we do here and we appreciate that very much."
Ms. Lai maintains that the foundation for her work can be found in Scripture. "Some of the Scriptures just jump off the page," she says. You walk into a situation on a ship and you can actually hear the words of Sunday's Gospel walking with you."
She recounted a story about a Burmese seafarer who arrived in Detroit one winter without a coat.
"I knew that we needed to get that man a coat before the evening was over," she explained. Unable to procure a coat for the seafarer, she took off her own and handed it to the man, minutes before his ship left. The next day at Mass, the Gospel (Luke 3:10 - 11) affirmed she had made the right decision the night before.
"...And the crowds asked him 'What then should we do?' He said to them in reply, 'Whoever has two coats should share with the person who has none.'"
"My three children learned something that day and so did I," she said. "It's been a good thing for them to learn that there are people less fortunate than them, not only in our own community but all over the world."
As for her own work, Ms. Lai remains humble about the importance of what she does.
"I think all that God really looks for us to do, is to bring at least one more soul with us," she said. "If I've been successful in bringing just one individual closer to God, then it has all been worth it, and that's true of any ministry."
Erik Noriega is editor of The Texas Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas.