The Port Kembla office lonely sailors turn to

John Kewa and Garuda the cockatiel at the Mission to Seafarers Port Kembla office. Picture: ROBERT PEET
John Kewa and Garuda the cockatiel at the Mission to Seafarers Port Kembla office. Picture: ROBERT PEET

Mission to Seafarers pastoral carer John Kewa has helped sailors from around the world battle  loneliness, writes DOMINIC GEIGER.

The inside of the Mission to Seafarers Port Kembla office is like a technological timeline.

In a corner, surrounded by pool tables and mural covered walls, sit four international phone booths.

Once in hot demand, the booths are now mostly used for storage since Skype became popular.

Every now and then a more mature-aged sailor will make a call, but centre pastoral carer John Kewa says it's a rare occurrence.

Even the group of computers, arranged not far from a tweeting cockatiel named Garuda (so named because he doesn't fly well) are soon to become obsolete, with plans to completely kit the building out with free Wi-Fi.

'It is impossible to live the life we live without sailors and that's something I feel we should be appreciative for.'

As Kewa explains, every decision at the charity centre is made based on the needs of the sailors it was created to serve.

"Delete all the sailors in the world and you imagine life in Australia," he says.

"That's what drives me - that there's a special group of people we all depend on for our livelihood.

"It is impossible to live the life we live without the sailors and that's something I feel we should all be appreciative for."

It's an appreciation that goes both ways, with more than 7000 sailors using the centre's facilities each year.

At its peak, more than 80 sailors can pass through the centre each day, sometimes running the Mission's 26 volunteers off their feet.

All are offered the same services - free transport, access to computers, and, most importantly, someone to talk to if life at sea is becoming lonely.

While visiting Kewa in Port Kembla, he invites me to join him as he drives two Australian sailors from the port into town.

According to Kewa, Australians are the least likely to seek help from the mission, preferring instead to spend their own money on taxis.

But it's not a situation Kewa is prepared to accept, and he even reprimands the men when they offer a donation in return for the lift.

"That donation mentality has to stop," he tells them.

"We have to be vulnerable sometimes, wanting to receive," he says, and tells me the Mission mostly receives donations from a variety of religious and corporate sponsors.

Kewa is an expressive man - he speaks with his hands and has a contagious chuckle.

Originally from the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea, he also speaks "about 4½ languages" including the Filipino language Tagalog.

He recounts with a laugh the expression on the faces of Filipino sailors recently when "some Fuzzy Wuzzy" started speaking to them in their native tongue.

As the director of an Anglican organisation, it's no surprise Kewa is unashamedly Christian.

However, he says it's neither his desire nor the raison d'etre of the mission to preach.

"I am not afraid to say this is a Christian organisation and I am a Christian but ... it's not the same thing as standing at the door and saying 'are you being saved, I pray for you'," he says.

"That is a big no-no.

"My job is to offer them [sailors] a cup of coffee, offer them transportation, listen to their stories and the pains and struggles they go through."

Although not prepared to preach publicly now, Kewa's faith nearly took him in an entirely different direction.

For 16 years he studied to become a Catholic priest, before having a revolutionary change of heart.

Born in Mt Hagan in the Papua New Guinean highlands, Kewa faced incredible pressure from his family to enter the priesthood.

For them, it was a source of pride to be able to say a relative was to be ordained.

But Kewa turned his back on the seminary when he realised he was doing it for others, not himself.

"There was huge pressure, expectation, from my family and the people that financed my studies," he says.

"I felt in my heart I didn't want to be ordained ... it was a very tough decision."

In 2001, while undertaking post graduate studies in Melbourne, he finally made up his mind to leave.

"I decided 12 months earlier, but what was really killing me inside was how do I convey my decision to that big, big number of people," Kewa says.

"There was a huge expectation that oh, he's going to make a good priest."

In 2002, wondering what to do with himself, Kewa took the advice of a priest and began part time work with the maritime ministry.

"I sort of liked it ... I was doing it once a week as a volunteer - that's how I got hooked into this," he says.

In 2010, he left the Mission to Seafarers Melbourne office, and transferred to Port Kembla.

Since leaving the seminary, Kewa has married and now has a 10-month-old daughter named Matina. Although he was initially on rocky ground with his tribe at home in PNG after leaving the priesthood, Kewa says relations have improved, and his daughter was recently officially welcomed into the family.

Kewa's wife and daughter, who live with him at the mission, have also been welcomed by countless sailors.

Kewa says the sight of his own family makes many sailors think of their own back home, and can be comforting after they've spent long weeks at sea.

He says it's this ability to provide a comforting environment that gives him the energy to return to work, day in, day out.

He recounts a story of a Chinese sailor whose wife had given birth while he was at sea, and who was able to use Skype on the mission's computers to see his baby for the first time.

Kewa says the man came to him in tears.

"He went into my office and almost dragged me out," he says.

"Then I came to see on the screen this little kid jumping up and down moving around.

"Those were tears of joy and I knew I was part of creating an atmosphere for him to be able to celebrate the child and using the facilities for him to make that important contact."


Discuss "The Port Kembla office lonely sailors turn to"

Please note: All comments made or shown here are bound by the Online Discussion Terms & Conditions.