For 6 months when I first joined the MV Logos my work was in the deck department as an AB (‘able-bodied’) seaman. Then for almost a year I was a member of two consecutive training programmes each lasting 5-6 months. Long before the widespread use of computers the programme was known as IT (‘intensive training’). The idea was that a group of men (women in later programmes) would be stretched in a variety of spiritual, mental and physical ways. It involved committing to a variety of goals. Most of the time it meant for very full days trying to achieve these targets. The philosophy was that the experience would stretch us like elastic bands. Hopefully then when the course was over our capacity for all kinds of things would be enlarged as a result. Whether this proved to be so is open to discussion. A few faltered under the stress, as if the elastic had been stretched one time too many.
So it was in April 1978 whilst vessel was in Singapore I began this course that would dominate my life for coming months.
An ingredient in the make up of the group was to make them as culturally challenging as possible. Plenty opportunity for misunderstandings and the need for frequent forgiveness! We were 10 young men from 10 countries and 4 continents. We had an older, more experienced and mature leader who graciously led this diverse group. The final ingredient in the mix was our accommodation. We were together in the bow (foc’sle) of the ship. Tiers of bunks fitted to the keel in a small triangular shaped cabin that came to a point at the bow. Each bunk had a curtain to provide some privacy. The confined area was made more claustrophobic with the ship’s anchor chain locker housed in the middle. Enclosed in a large box like structure most of the time the chains were a quiet but ominous presence that dominated our living space. Whenever the heavy anchor was dropped these large chains flew making a huge noise with bone jarring vibrations. Perhaps it was a misperception but it often seemed to me the ship arrived at anchor in ports early in the morning. Our dramatic living environment was further enhanced by being at the bow of a ship designed to slice through icy water. With its sharp bow the ship pitched severely in rough seas. You could literally be thrown in the air from your bed. The MV Logos had been designed to travel from Denmark to Greenland. She was originally known as the ‘Umanak’, after a town in Greenland.
Days usually began about 6:00 am with morning exercises – a port run if in port or aerobics on the aft deck at sea. Whilst the rest of the crew might have time off in the evenings we were taking meetings, studying or doing jobs that no one else would do. Anytime our team could be called on to do whatever was needing done practically. The 15 hours / week goal of practical work were usually spent doing jobs unpopular with the rest of the crew. They included manually moving many tons of books around the cargo hold or setting up or taking down the on board book exhibition ‘tent’ on the foredeck. We were also employed using rags to remove grease from the engine room machinery. I remember once having to crawl into the water tanks to clean them. The tanks were located in the ship’s keel. Feeling that I could not back out was a fearful experience. To this day I have no interest in caving!
Once a week we had to report ‘progress’ to our team leader on almost 30 different tasks. Long days were filled with trying to achieve these goals. This suited some temperaments more than others. I found it for the most part quite fulfilling. A few goals were only possible due to the unique opportunity a floating bookship afforded. We often had many thousands visit on board every week we were in a port.
We’d usually sleep relatively early at 10:30 -11:00 pm but once a week there was an extended time of prayer with the rest of the ship’s company. This went from 7pm till sometimes 2 or 3am or even later. It was mandatory for ‘IT’ people to always attend and stay to the end (one of our goals). The rest of the crew were more or less free to leave when they wished. Follow that with 1 or maybe 2 hours sleep before exercises and another long day. The training certainly lived up to its ‘intensive’ description. We did have to work as a team but there was also a lot of goals to be achieved individually. I suppose this led inevitably to competition between us. Despite our differing cultural and personality types we did form a bond between us and remain in touch with several to this day.
A sad memory during this time of training was to lose one of our number. Abel, a Mexican, had gone swimming whilst we were in Taiwan and tragically drowned. I had just a few days before been talking with him. He in retrospect had seemed strangely at peace talking about the future in comparison to my uncertainty. In an amazing way several years later in 1985 I was again on board the LOGOS. This time it was in Abel’s homeland Mexico. His family visited the ship and sought me out as one of the few people that had known Abel just before he died. It was an honour to share with them my memories of Abel.
In September 1978 in Kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia we completed the course. I was then ‘rewarded’ with an invite to lead the next group of volunteers in IT. I was honoured but also felt weary and a bit bruised by my own recent experience. My immediate future was uncertain and initially thought I should leave the ship and work with the mission in India. However, after some weeks break I agreed to take on this task. This time I was asked to lead 7 Indian men. If I wasn’t going to leave the ship and live in India, India was coming to me! Again this was thought to make for a challenging cultural mix – and that it certainly was. India is like a continent in itself and my companions came from a variety of urban and rural backgrounds speaking several languages of which English was only one. Six were from south India and one from the north. What we all had in common was our sense of calling as Christians to serve each other as well as reach out to the world around. The programme would try each of us in our commitment to this in the ensuing months. So we began the course in the beginning of Nov’ 1978 in Tuticorin, South India. We set sail with the rest of the ship’s crew on a 9 day voyage to the Middle East.
One of the ongoing challenges from early on was the aforementioned weekly extended prayer meeting nights. We were supposed to stay till the end. Occasionally I would do a midnight round up in our dormitory to waken those who had succumbed to sleep back to prayer. It is not something I am proud to recall and it certainly reflected my inexperience and immaturity. My hope is team members have forgiven me for these and other instances of poor leadership. Suffice to say I was out of my depth.
One of our number before he became a Christian had been in the habit of taking cold baths at 3:30 am. Thankfully he stopped the bathing. However he did not see any need to stop rising at that time, switch on his light and read his Bible for 2 – 3 hours. This had some considerable effect on the sleep patterns of the rest of the team. Once again addressing this issue challenged my leadership abilities or lack thereof! Nonetheless I had great respect for him and his deep hunger for the Bible. I remain in touch to this day.
Intense learning experiences I suppose have the potential to reap both positive and negative effects. To me the positives are the discipline and some habits that have been helpful in subsequent years. The negatives were a legalistic approach to goal orientation and time management. Trying to achieve things which may or may not be important. Nowadays you might call it a tickbox or checklist mentality. It took many years to return to a more normal and phlegmatic way of life. When restless and feeling guilt for no particular reason I need to remind myself God is not standing over me with a clipboard ticking off a ‘to do’ list.
It might sound that this was a year to forget. Yes it was not easy and some things were very tough. Yet it was also an experience for which I am thankful. Those I learned with became companions and brothers. We also laughed, we celebrated and we enjoyed each other’s company.
I also know that in God’s plan broken elastic bands can be tied together and reused. In fact that is His business…
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.Isaiah 42:3a NIVUK