Working Life is a monthly column in which Texans talk about their jobs.

Jeff Willard, who is 61, lives in Galveston. Since 2021 he has been the port chaplain at the Galveston Seafarers Center, a nondenominational ministry that serves those who work at sea.

I’ve been working full-time for the Catholic Church for around thirty years in different positions. When this job became available I jumped on it. 

Around 90 percent of the crew members who come through the doors are not Christian—they’re Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or something else. Whatever their religion is, I want to do anything that can draw them closer to their faith. Some seafarers centers are in your face about trying to convert people. I just don’t think that’s a proper thing to do.

Deacon Jeff Willard is the port chaplain at the Galveston Seafarers Center.
Willard outside the Galveston Seafarers Center.Photograph by Brian Goldman

The cruise industry has gotten huge down here. This year we will have around 23,000 ship workers come through the center, from around 83 nations. Their mail, their packages, anything they order comes here. We give them rides anywhere on the island they want to go. We have bicycles they can use. Internet on ships is expensive and spotty, so they love our free Wi-Fi. 

I’ve got a guy from Ukraine who comes every two months, and he likes these little cherry cigars. The only place I can find them is in Texas City, so I go and buy them for him every time he’s here. 

The crews have a lot of issues. Everything that happens in our lives happens to them, except they’re not home to do anything about it. Working on a ship is an extremely lonely job. There’s a lot of depression, a lot of suicide. I do anything I can to help them connect with home, connect with their faith. I don’t have to understand or believe in their faith—if it brings them peace, I’ll do it. If there’s a death on the ship, the crew can get superstitious about it. So I’ll sit and pray with them, and I will bless the room where the person lived before his death.

Willard dines on a ship with crew members.Photograph by Brian Goldman

When crew members aren’t here, I try to stay in communication through WhatsApp. Even when they finish their contract, I keep in touch and see how they’re doing. If I think a crew member needs attention, I will notify the chaplain in the port the ship is heading to next. 

I picked up some Indian guys recently from a bulk carrier, and they wanted to go to Walmart. One was the ship’s electrician, and he needed to get a capacitor for the clothes dryer. They were getting ready for a 24-day trip to Brazil, transporting paper pulp and soda ash. If you’ve got that much time ahead of you with no clean clothes, it’s a big deal. It’s not easy to find electrical equipment on the island. We went to three different shops before we found the capacitor. Those things really make me happy. The guy was Hindu. Did I convert him to Christianity? No. But he got to see Christ through me.

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Deacon Jeff Willard, Port Chaplain.” Subscribe today.