Underway Reflections from a River Chaplain

Apr 19, 2013

On Board the M/V AEP Future

by the Rev. Kempton D. Baldridge, Chaplain, Ministry on the Rivers and Gulf – Ohio River Region

Some people are surprised to discover that the Seamen’s Church Institute’s (SCI) river chaplains regularly get underway on towboats—that is, pull up anchor and join a voyage with a vessel—to provide pastoral support to crews. As a river chaplain, I often travel hundreds of miles in a single trip. Unlike the vessels we ride on, river chaplains don’t slow down in low visibility conditions—we push ahead to continue serving mariners.

Recalling that SCI founded its river chaplaincy only 16 years ago, it shouldn’t surprise me that the general public—or even many mariners—know little about the role and duties of a river chaplain. I keep a stack of Ministry on the Rivers and Gulf (MOR+G) brochures in my car to help explain what I do, and I answer plenty of questions from mariners and shoreside folks alike.

The number one question people ask me is, “What do you do out there? Hold church services?”

“Not if I want to be invited back I don’t,” I reply, eliciting laughs and curiosity.

Towboating has its own language, culture, traditions, routines, customs and courtesies, but “divine worship” does not count among them. Aboard 21st-century commercial workboats, small crews keep rigid watch schedules and squeeze in sleep where they can. Towboaters underway never have one time when everyone is awake, off-watch and free to gather. A well-meaning chaplain can come off foolish trying to insert a church service into an already-crammed routine.

Of course, occasionally chaplains get to perform liturgical duties. Once, a captain invited me to give a reflection and lead the crew in prayer to close a safety meeting. Another time, the captain brought the vessel pierside, tied off and asked me to gather the whole crew in prayer. Those are special but rare events. A chaplain underway leads with the pastoral, clinical and practical skills necessary to serve the needs and fit the opportunities at hand.

“If not worship, what do you do on board?”

Experience dictates that the chaplain go forth with no fixed agenda except for the crew’s own. Thus, I can honestly respond, “I’m wondering the same thing. I guess I’ll find out when I get there.”

Once I get on board, I ask the captain or the mate to help spread the word of my presence and availability to the crew for whatever they need: prayer, counsel, Bible study, etc. Sometimes I act as theologian-in-residence, but many times my function tends toward parenting educator, marriage/family counselor, career counselor, guidance counselor, Emergency Action Plan specialist, social worker or labor ombudsman. As time goes by and rapport builds, the various ways I can meet or serve a need start to emerge.

 “What skills or qualifications do chaplains need most for their work with towboat crews?”

Listening ranks as by far the most essential skill needed for “deckplate ministry” (if also the hardest to learn). Being “fully present” to hear someone’s personal story and recognize the underlying emotions lies at the heart of good pastoral ministry.

MV AEP FUTURE “Where do you sleep on those barges?”

That’s a bit of a trick question, since no one sleeps on the barges. Inland mariners work on barges for several hours a day, but they eat and sleep—and spend most of the day—on board the towboat. Chaplains spending nights on towboats stay in a stateroom during the trip. Most cabins have a bunk, a chair, a desk and a shared bathroom with shower. When recently riding on board the M/V AEP Future, my cabin was starboard side, second deck—the cabin window underneath the word “Future” in the vessel picture.

“How do you decide which towboats to get aboard?”

When not responding to a casualty or emergency, I go where invited (and avoid going where the “welcome mat” isn’t out). Geography and the logistics of getting to and back from a vessel also factor. I learned the hard way that being underway too close to another obligation on the calendar presents real problems, as schedules can vary out on the water depending on a variety of unpredictable factors.

“What do you take onboard with you? What’s in your ‘chaplain’s kit’?”

Certain items are what one would expect—a PFD (personal floatation device), a chaplain’s ball cap and handheld VHF radio. Other less obvious items reflect the variety of pastoral opportunities a chaplain may encounter. I carry two copies of a children’s storybook so a mariner can schedule regular bedtime stories with a child despite being on the river, leaving one at home and taking the other underway. I also bring colored pencils in my kit for drawing, which a mariner can mail home—often the very first piece of mail a child receives.

I also carry with me a publication entitled, “What My Family Should Know, ” a simple yet comprehensive format to record vital information for spouses and loved ones—very helpful in preparing a will. Finally, I bring aboard West Kentucky Community and Technical College Marine Technology leaflets, as many mariners don’t know about the college programs in marine technology created to meet their needs.