Ketchikan, Alaska

Thirteen years ago Mike Cooke was asked to help conduct church services for cruise ship passengers sailing southeast Alaska’s famed Inside Passage. Always quick to respond to a need, Cooke readily consented. In the process he discovered the great need of Christian crew for support and fellowship. Today this ministry has evolved into a Seaman’s Mission, set in the unlikely location of a Harley Davidson Tour shop and ministering to seamen from over 70 countries. 

REACHING ACROSS THE OCEAN: Mike Cooke outside the doorway to the Seaman's Mission in Ketchikan, Alaska. 

 

“What I tend to do is just to go onto the dock and pray and say, ‘Lord, you know, You’ve got to show me now who’s on this ship, or bring the right person.’ I love to start the season and see God do something to open the door.”

- Mike Cooke 

Cooke, originally from Yorkshire in England, is outreach pastor at Clover Pass Community Church in Ketchikan, Alaska. Having a vision to see people brought to Christ, he steadily meets with inmates at the city jail, assists small church plants in nearby communities and hosts visiting ministry teams. This new opportunity to operate aboard the cruise liners fed his desire to reach still further with the Gospel.

“In 1994 we came into contact with a young guy who had obtained permission from the cruise lines to do services for guests on two ships, the Regent Sea and the Sun Viking,” says Cooke when asked about the ministry’s beginnings. “So we continued with the work through 1994 on those two ships.”

“On the Sun Viking we met a young guy from the Philippines, a crew member on that ship...and I realised then that the potential for the cruise ship ministry was really with the crew because they were hungry for input. They missed their home churches and they were looking for a church that they could relate to. And that turned out to be us.”

When the luxury vessels returned for the summer season in 1995, Cooke became more intentional about connecting with crew. He sought renewed contact with seamen he had met the previous year and looked for ways of making acquaintance with others.

"During that time, too, Pastor Kevin and Sheila [Gould] went on a Noordam cruise,” Cooke explains. “They met two young guys on a Holland America ship. So when that ship came to Ketchikan we tried to find those guys. And as we tried to walk onto the ship and asked for the guys who they knew, a young man who was right on the gangway there said that he knew those people, and he went and got them.

“It’s been really interesting over the years how the right person has been in the right place for that kind of a ship, year after year. It’s just been really amazing.”

Cooke and others from the church looked for the best way to benefit men and women working on the ships. Boarding a vessel, they would make their way to the crew mess where they would sing, preach and pray. “And people would get saved,” he says.

Practical needs were met as well. Cooke helped bridge the communication gap between crewmen and their faraway family members. Christian books and CDs were obtained for those desiring them. Friendships were forged, bringing encouragement to individuals who worked long, difficult hours and were missing their families and homes.

An interesting aspect of the work has been its lack of overt formal structure. In the early days Cooke seldom knew how he would gain access onto the huge liners. His methods, which he uses today, were simple.

“Every year when the ships start to come, it’s difficult to find out who’s on which ship,” he says. “Often crew members change, like on one of the ships this year I think the whole crew’s changed.

“What I tend to do is just to go onto the dock and pray and say, ‘Lord, you know, You’ve got to show me now who’s on this ship, or bring the right person.’ I love to start the season and see God do something to open the door.”

The endeavor expanded in the next few years until Cooke and others were boarding18 to 20 vessels during the tourist season. Fellowship groups were more firmly established on many ships, helping Christian crew to meet together regularly and build each other’s faith.

In 2001 the ministry shifted significantly.

“Things changed in a dramatic way after 9/11,” Cooke explains. “Obviously the news got around really quickly, and all of the ships that were in that day would be ships that I would normally get onto. I went to each ship and they wouldn’t allow me on.


“Since that time the security on the ships has...gotten more and more stringent and it’s very difficult to get on board a ship now. What I find is that if I know people on that ship or if I know the security people, they will arrange a pass or make some arrangements to get me on. But I probably get onto six or seven, perhaps eight ships now.”

So the work took on a new dimension. Clover Pass Church was given the use of a building where internet and phone service was offered. Bibles and Gospel tracts in various languages were made available, as well as other literature and CDs. Mike made particular effort to look after the fellowship leaders from the various vessels, seeking to support them and provide whatever was needed for each shipboard ministry.

Later the building was sold. A new site along the dock, affording closer access, was sought.

“The people who run the Harley Davidson Tour actually approached us...to ask if we would like to use space in their office,” continues Cooke. “They were interested in supporting the ministry, being involved in it. And I think, too, they had a vision to see people come to know the Lord on the premises. So they’ve really helped us a lot.

DOCKING AT KETCHIKAN: Some of the many cruise ships that dock at the Alaskan port. 

 

“When it came to the end of the season, when we counted up the different types of crew that were spoken to, we witnessed to over 70 different nationalities. I don’t know any other place in the world where you can witness to over seventy different nationalities in such an easy way.”

- Mike Cooke

"This is the third year that we’ve operated now from the Harley Davidson Tour place, and it’s been very successful. It’s very small, but it’s good.”

In recent years a shuttle van from the dock area has begun transporting seamen to the Wal-Mart shopping center. The ride is offered gratis but donations are accepted. The generous contributions have completely covered fuel expenses.

“During 2005 we...ran the van out to the store and back just continually throughout the day, maybe a dozen trips per day,” says Cooke. “And it’s about three miles out to the store, and during that time [the workers] would talk to the crew and find out where they were all from...While they were driving from the dock up to the store they would offer them tracts or Bibles and witness to them. People would get saved.

“When it came to the end of the season, when we counted up the different types of crew that were spoken to, we witnessed to over 70 different nationalities. I don’t know any other place in the world where you can witness to over seventy different nationalities in such an easy way.”

Workers at the Seaman’s Mission come from a variety of places besides Clover Pass Church. Couples from Ohio and Arizona have spent considerable time volunteering and short-term teams have come from a range of states. Others have originated from as far abroad as Holland and France.

Exposure to ministry among cruise ship employees has birthed new vision in some of these volunteers. Seaman’s missions in the cruise liner ports of Miami and Fort Lauderdale have been effectively planted. A similar mission is intended for San Diego. Fellowship and aid are increasingly accessible to crew as their vessels cycle through diverse parts of the world.

Cooke counts it a blessing to see changed lives as a result of interacting with these men and women. He has been privileged to baptize numbers of new Christians and has received financial donations from grateful crew who want to support the work. On many ships the fellowship groups have grown, strengthening the believers.

In the future Cooke desires to see the work expand.

“I would love a bigger building where we could provide the services we would like to have here: nicer computers, a few more phones, maybe a library and maybe a kitchen to provide simple snacks and food. We’d like a better van and we are hoping to get one soon. We’ve always got needs for Bibles and books.

“More workers would be nice, more helpers. I think it’s difficult for people to see the potential that the cruise ship ministry has. But these crew members can take the Gospel all over the world, and many of them do.”

Several have returned home with a burden to share God’s Word in their own countries. A pastor in Jamaica, an evangelist in Trinidad’s public schools, laymen in the United States and in the Philippines are former crewmen who have been motivated to carry on the work of Christ.

An even bigger dream of Cooke’s is to see a church planted by individuals like these.

“I believe that could be done,” he states confidently. “I don’t think it’d be easy, but they’re in a location long enough to plant a church, so really I would love to see that happen.”

Through this simple ministry relationships have been built with people from all over the world. The focal vision for the work has been to produce ministry; in Cooke ’s words, “to encourage the fellowship leaders, to reach out to crew who are unbelievers.

“There are probably between 17,000 and 18,000 crew that come to Ketchikan...it’s a mission field that comes to us.” Serving that mission field is resulting in untold harvest as the Gospel is taken to the furthest parts of the world. 

This article was first published on ASSIST News Service.