Parish priest spends sabbatical on the river

Sep 18, 2018

What on earth would prompt a 62-year-old rector of an upper-middle-class suburban Chicago parish, with no experience in either the merchant marine industry or the armed forces, not only to sign on as a River Chaplain Associate with Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI), but to spend her sabbatical intentionally learning her craft?

“There have been two recurring motifs in the course of my 25 years of ordained ministry,” Chaplain Susan Sommer explained. “One has been a phone call or email literally out of the blue that has led to a new ministry which has been life-changing.”

It happened again just over a year ago when Sommer’s former colleague and now Bishop of Kentucky, the Rt. Rev. Terry White, emailed her with contact information on SCI Senior River Chaplain Kempton Baldridge. “Terry knew that my husband Rick and I were ‘boat nerds’ who spend our vacations on Minnesota’s Lake Superior shore following Great Lakes freighters. He thought I might be interested in another aspect of the inland waterways.” White sent a similar email to Baldridge with Sommer’s contact info.

“And so of course we both let it slip off our radar. But a few months later, I met SCI River Chaplain Associate John Fritschner at a conference. In the course of casual conversation about hobbies, he said, ‘You know, you should get to know Kempton Baldridge.’

“One introduction is an introduction. But two introductions just might be the Holy Spirit. John immediately picked up his cell, called Kempton, and handed me the phone. We arranged to talk more, and then in November of 2017, I spent three days shadowing him and photographer Gregory Thorpe on the Ohio River near Cincinnati. We were on and off six boats in that time, interacting with pilots, engineers, and deckhands. It was a fascinating, compelling - a whole other world to me. I was hooked.”

In the months that followed, Chaplain Sommer underwent CISM training, and carried out crisis response for a vessel on the Upper Illinois Waterway. That experience cemented for her the congruence of this kind of ministry. A six-week summer sabbatical from her parish, St David’s Episcopal Church in Glenview, IL, gave Sommer the opportunity to experience life as an SCI River Chaplain Associate more fully. She conducted a funeral for a young mariner on her first day. She made onboard chaplain calls on the Upper Illinois Waterway. She spent two weeks as relief chaplain in Paducah, interacting with mariners and instructors at the Center for Maritime Education, as well as making onboard chaplain calls on the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, and even conducting a boat christening for Paducah Barge. “Mostly, my job this summer was to get up, suit up, show up, and shut up (and listen). I was blown away by what was shared with me and what I was entrusted with.”

Sommer acknowledges her ongoing steep learning curve. “Just familiarizing myself with the industry, the hierarchy on the boats and shoreside, and the tasks that mariners perform has been nearly overwhelming, and I have so much more to learn. I have gained enormous respect for inland mariners and the work they do. They, in turn, have enormous respect for the Seamen’s Church Institute.

“My last chaplain call at the end of my sabbatical was at the IMT Shipyard in Lemont, IL. John Sicinski, the Superintendent, shook my hand and thanked me (me!) for the ministry that SCI does. He said, ‘Years ago, when I was portside in Asia over Christmas and I was missing my family so much, that Christmas care package meant the world to me and to the guys I worked with. You guys do amazing work. Seamen’s Church rocks!’”

For his part, Chaplain Baldridge was more than happy with Sue’s introduction to River Ministry: “Sue Sommer came to SCI highly recommended, and it’s safe to say that in no time whatsoever Sue eclipsed all of those high expectations and then proceeded to raise the bar for the way river ministry is done. And she did it not by being a clone of me, or any other river chaplain for that matter, but by being the chaplain only Sue could be. In a number of ways, Sue’s experiences this past summer reflect the increasing importance of the River Chaplain Associate program to our mission... It goes without saying Sue did a fantastic job.”

What’s next for Chaplain Sommer? As the full-time rector of a busy parish that is anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours away from the Port of Lemont on the Upper Illinois Waterway, Sommer expects to continue to exercise her ministry as a River Chaplain Associate as time permits, and is available for crisis calls on the Upper Illinois. She also hopes to spread the good word about SCI with her diocesan clergy colleagues along the waterway from Lockport to Peoria.

And so what about that second “recurring motif” for Sommer during her years of ministry? Over a decade of regularly recurring dream imagery of a river. “The river in my dreams is not dangerous or a barrier or even a problem to be solved,” she said. “It’s just a regularly recurring feature – an image of rapidly moving water which, in my dream, I journey alongside and keep moving toward.”