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Find the courage of Thomas

On this, the1st Sunday after Easter, Chaplain. Rev. David Reid asked us to wear yellow for our online Church service. We didn't know why, but during his homily, he revealed the reason. We must, like Thomas, be brave enough to challenge things that seem wrong to us. We must not be complacent.

HOMILY 19/04/2020

Three hundred and four persons died on the morning of April 16th, 2014.

Who were they?

On the evening of April 15th, 476 passengers and crew departed the port of Incheon in South Korea for a routine overnight ferry ride to the resort island of Jinju located off the South Korean Coast.

Their ship was a ferry that had been built in Japan and operated safely for many years. Two years earlier the ferry had been sold to new owners who set about converting the ferry in order to carry more passengers and cargo. We now know that these conversions created latent defects or pathogens that would directly contribute to the sinking of the ferry on the morning of April 16th in calm seas.

Latent defects are known in the medical world as pathogens – as we experience another week of confinement due to Covid-19 we are witnessing the result of a pathogen that has gone rogue amongst human kind. There have been and always will be pathogens on the prowl looking to disrupt, that is the very business of a virus. It seeks to find a host where it can replicate and expand. Throughout the history of human-kind we know of the Bubonic plague known as the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the mid 14th century, this pathogen caused the loss of some 25 million lives. Unlike today, there was no daily data published on the internet by Johns Hopkins University, so in that time people only knew of what was happening in their immediate area and it would take some years before the scope of the pandemic would be revealed. After WW1 the Spanish Flu pandemic resulted in 2.7 million people in Europe dying and this came on the back of the huge losses during the great war. Many more died globally, and estimates range from 17 million upwards. The Spanish Flu was an HINI type and it would be 2009 before another HINI pathogen “Swine flu” would create another pandemic. Fortunately, in 2009 the loss of life was much lower, perhaps we missed the message and became complacent to the risks.

Professor James Reason of the University of Manchester created a theory about the reason why latent defects or pathogens sometimes create havoc and sometimes not. He called it the Swiss Cheese paradigm. James opined that in order for an accident, disaster or a pandemic to occur – the holes in the swiss cheese have to align in such a way that the pathogen can pass straight through. As we all know when we look at a piece of swiss fromage there are lots of holes, but they rarely align. Professor Reason put forward the concept that each of the holes represent the obstacles or challenges that would prevent a pathogen from proceeding. For example, in the case of Covid-19; we are now social distancing, avoiding close contact. By doing this we are creating a blocking move that prevents the pathogen from going on its merry way. As we know from our rules of confinement, we have set in place our own barriers to halt Covid-19.

Professor Reason has spent the majority of his academic career researching and writing about the role of latent defects and pathogens, his work has covered the world of health and industry. I came across his work while researching the background for my own book “Eight Down” which detailed the loss of eight ships over the span of 42 years. All eight held some resonance with my own experiences in the Merchant Navy and in my professional career. The principal reason why I decided to write my book had to do with the 304 people who lost their lives on the morning of April 16th, six years ago. In 2017, I was serving as a chaplain with the Philadelphia seafarer mission. In January of that year, we were approached by the South Korean community in Philadelphia – they wanted to know if our chapel could be used for a memorial service on April 16. One of their members had listened to my sermon at our seafarer Christmas service and they asked me if I could pull something together to mark the 3rd anniversary of the loss of the ferry SEWOL and the 304. For me, this was an immediate affirmative, the loss resonated with me. I first traveled to Incheon in 1969 and have been back to Korea many times since. I also have a family roots in Korea, my youngest daughter was born in Seoul and we adopted her at 4 years old after she arrived in New York in the Winter of 1984. My daughter has since blessed me with two beautiful grand-children, and they are now the same age as many of the children that died on the SEWOL. You see, onboard the SEWOL on April 16th there was a very large group of high school students from Danwon High School. They were on a field trip organized by their school. Sadly 250 of those innocent children were lost on the morning of April 16th.

As you can now realize – the story of the 304 galvanized me into action. In 2017, Easter Sunday fell on April 16th and that was the same day that the SEWOL had been lost. To accommodate everyone’s schedule we planned the memorial service to take place at 4:30 in the afternoon followed by a fellowship buffet with traditional Korean food. The group were part of a worldwide network known as SESAMO which stands for; The People in Solidarity with the families of the Sewol Ferry Victims. I was really moved to tears when they decorated the chapel with 304 yellow ribbons each with the name of a victim. At the service we said the Lord’s Prayer in Korean and everyone lit candles in a special moment of reflection. A commemorative ships bell was rung to remember the 304.

As you know from Covid-19, South Korea has been one of the few countries that has been able to tackle the pandemic aggressively with tracking and tracing, they have literally hunted down Covid-19. They have done incredible volumes of testing and when you see the quality of their PPE it is truly first class. Why has South Korea responded so well when on April 16, 2014 the nation failed to rescue the 304 on the SEWOL? In the aftermath of the SEWOL; the people of South Korea rose up in a Yellow Army and held vigils that were attended by millions. They demanded answers. The Korean Coast Guard was disbanded, the President of the country was impeached. The ferry was salvaged from the ocean floor and brought back to land, it remains at the port of Mokpo as a memorial, this week services were held to remember the loss. Some of you may know that at the Academy Award’s this year one of the documentary films nominated was “In the Absence,” the story of the SEWOL. The loss of the 304 and in particular the 250 Danwon High school students shook the conscience of the Korean people. They realized that their leaders, their government and those charged with keeping them safe from harm had all failed them. Sadly, we know from history that real change only comes when we experience a significant tragedy, some might call this a “Titanic” moment. The foreign minister of South Korea, Mme Kang Kyung-wha recognized Korea’s “Titanic” moment in an interview with France24 on April 14th , she said the following: “You may know that in 2014, we had a terrible ferry boat incident where we lost 304 lives in the midst of very inept response from the government at that time. And that has been a collective trauma for all Korean people.”

I asked that you wear something yellow today so that we can all join together on this day to remember the 304 and in particular the Danwon High School students.

In my book, I explain the technical reasons why the SEWOL capsized, the salient point is that many people knew the ferry was unstable, the conversion had made the ferry top heavy. As with Professor Reason’s swiss cheese theory – for 18 months there had always been one hole that blocked the path of the pathogen. Complacency had settled in comfortably. The ferry made the round trip 3 times each week and as each one was accomplished without incident it became harder for a voice to challenge. The Captain knew the ferry was dangerous, he was semi-retired and needed the work. He had given up trying to persuade the ferry owners.

In today’s Gospel reading we heard the story of Thomas. Thomas is often referred to as the disciple who doubted the news and is often singled out as the outlier. I know that when I first heard this scripture, I too looked upon Thomas in that way. Today, I have a different view, Jesus makes it clear in the Gospel of John that he had no resistance to Thomas’s challenge. “Do not doubt but believe.” President Ronald Reagan is attributed with the saying “Trust but Verify,” we all know the Carpenter’s proverb, measure twice but cut once. In the world of safety be it in healthcare or industry the concept of the right to challenge and to validate is extremely important to wellbeing. I really like Thomas because he shows us that he is not complacent, Thomas wants to be sure. I love this scripture because Jesus acknowledges Thomas’s question and he responded to Thomas with compassion. If all of those charged with the safety of the Korean ferry Sewol had not become complacent and had instead shown the courage to challenge as Thomas demonstrated, then the outcome would have been different.

The morning that the ship capsized came just after breakfast – most of the passengers were in their cabins – they would soon arrive at their destination. The ship made a routine course change but never came back upright and instead capsized – as the ship lay on her side, water seeped in through openings causing the ship to sink deeper in the water. It would take almost 3 hours before she sank below the surface. The first alarm was received by a text from one of the students on the national emergency line. The student could only say something is wrong, he had no idea what or where they were? The ships engineers evacuated the engine room and all the crew went to the bridge. The passengers were informed on the public address system to remain in their cabins. That was the last instruction they were to receive. There was no order to abandon ship. Meantime, fishermen had arrived on the scene, and the coast guard deployed rescue boats and helicopters. During these critical hours only 172 were rescued – no attempt was made to find the other 304. The inquiries and investigations followed, the ship owner ran away and committed suicide, the Captain was jailed along with many others, the thread of complacency reached very deep into the roots of the Korean maritime industry.

Today, we find ourselves in a battle against a pathogen, it would seem that we may also have allowed our guard to slip – to become complacent given that there is an ever and present danger when pathogens are on the loose. We have seen some nations taking aggressive early steps while others proclaim that it’s just the flu and it will pass by. We now know that if we allow Covid-19 in to our house it will happily take up residence.

As people of faith how do we respond to a pandemic? Some would have you believe that Covid-19 is the work of satanic forces. There is no doubt that a virus is very harmful but so are many other things. The salient issue is our mindfulness and our courage to always ensure that we conduct ourselves in a safe and healthy way. Jesus was frequently challenging those around him and those who were in authority, he preached and practiced what we now call continuous improvement or CI. When in our lives, our communities and our organizations allow pathogens to roam without challenge or safeguards we run the risk of aligning the holes in our own Swiss Cheese. This can be as simple as putting off dealing with a minor infection only to let it become Septic. Not replacing that bald tire on the car and running off the road in a rainstorm. People of faith need the courage to act, the willingness to challenge – we need to be like Thomas and ask the question!

The Roman Catholic church and other faith groups have been deeply scarred by the pathogen of pedophilia. Today vast sums of money are being paid to lawyers and in settlements that their congregations donated to support the pastoral work of the church. This is a perfect example of a pathogen at work inside a faith group. Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said; “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”

We need to find and be the light of the world; Now more than ever, as we experience the stillness of confinement, we must come together to protect and look after each other, otherwise we will always be at risk. We cannot allow complacency in our world, we must find the courage of Thomas. Our very survival depends on the Golden Rule; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Please let us take a minute of quiet reflection now to remember the 304 and all those around our world who have been lost to Covid-19.

Many Blessings

Chaplain. Rev. David Reid

If you would like to join us at our online service, please leave a comment here, and we will contact you, with further information. Alternatively, you can send a message to

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