America’s First River Chaplain

Mar 22, 2010

River ministry pioneer Wilkinson retires at end of April

Being the ‘first’ to do something brings with it some positives and negatives. Without any predecessors, a new adventurer defines the way in which he or she carries out new responsibilities, establishing new protocol. As the first on a job in a new location, however, he or she must also build a new infrastructure … sometimes from scratch. “Fortunately for us,” says the Rev. David M. Rider, President and Executive Director of SCI, “Jim blazed a new trail with self-confidence, launching a ministry like none ever seen before.” 

The Rev. James (Jim) R. Wilkinson retires this year in April after over 11 years of service to the nation’s inland waterways community as their first full-time, fully-dedicated chaplain. Up until 1998, SCI only directly offered pastoral care to mariners in the Port of New York and New Jersey. Then, expanding its ministry, SCI called Wilkinson to head up a new initiative, Ministry on the River, some 700-800 miles west of its headquarters—a first-of-its-kind endeavor to river mariners and their families in the United States. 
Prior to coming to SCI, Wilkinson served as a chaplain in the US Army. After retiring from the Army, Wilkinson’s bishop at that time recommended him for the newly created river chaplain position at SCI. His first ‘congregation’ of mariners spanned from Pittsburgh, PA, where the Ohio River begins, to Greenville, MS. Before too long, however, other cities and rivers augmented his dossier, which meant quite of bit of traveling.
Two main directives fueled his travels. Wilkinson visited churches, networking with River Friendly Churches (and potential participants in the program), who partner with SCI to provide ministry to mariners. He also spent his time visiting those mariners, traveling to meet them and traveling with them as their vessels navigated the waters. 
Wilkinson describes this unique process:
“The working boats on the inland waterways do not come to port or shore. One needs to get to them by another boat or catch them when they pass through locks. Sometimes the only way to get there is for the towboat to launch its own lifeboat or skiff to fetch me from the shore. Then, I ride until there is another boat that can take me back the other way, until eventually (never sure when that may be) I can get home again.”
While away from home—or perhaps more accurately put, on his second home—on a boat, Wilkinson says he practiced a “ministry of presence,” meeting people “where they are and as they are.” At its initial stages, some met this new ministry—which meant inviting a stranger onboard a proverbial secluded island—with skepticism. Some companies had reservations about the motives of these new visitors. Now, according to Wilkinson, companies call SCI straight away when an emergency occurs. “I believe this is because they know we are not pushing any agenda of our own,” discloses Wilkinson, “but are first and most of all concerned for their welfare and come as servants of God.”
In his ministry as a chaplain with SCI, Wilkinson reminisces of both difficult times (like every time a crewmember was killed) and grand occasions (like the christening of a new vessel). Voyaging through significant life experiences, Wilkinson says that he received many rewards. “I will never forget the many mariners I have met and will always have as friends.”
His retirement also comes with some rewards. His wife, Kay, will get to see a bit more of her well-traveled husband, and Wilkinson says he may make some new starts of new adventures. Like mature salmon, they have some new waters to explore he says.
Wilkinson’s shoes will be difficult to fill, according to SCI’s Executive Director, who looks for his successor. This challenging work requires the right combination of personality and skill, says Rider. Wilkinson leaves an inheritance, however. Rider adds, “The inheritance—Ministry on the River’s infrastructure and its well-built reputation—empowers this original ministry for wonderful things to come.”