As members of the team of first responders on the Mississippi River system and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, SCI’s Ministry on the River (MOR) chaplains take their responsibilities in a crisis very seriously. MOR ministers the only network of pastoral care on the American inland waterway, and it operates around the clock, every single day of the year.
Because of SCI's expertise and personal experience, our chaplains are particularly adept in facilitating the healing process for those employed on the river. We know firsthand the stresses that accompany record-breaking high water or isolation from family during the holidays. The mariners’ frequent assertion that “the whole fleet is affected” when an incident occurs is echoed by SCI Senior River Chaplain, the Rev. Kempton D. Baldridge. “People may assume if there were no fatalities, harm was averted. Survivors ought to be able to bounce back, return to work, and go back to normal life. That’s simply not the way it works. Even in the absence of fatalities or serious injuries, mariners can be profoundly affected by such an existential event as a vessel sinking, burning, or capsizing. It’s every sailor’s worst nightmare, mine included.”
Helping mariners cope and recover after tragedy is the headline-grabbing element of SCI’s pastoral care — the service that typically springs to mind at mention of our Ministry on the River program. However, while dramatic and vital, crisis response represents only a small sliver of our chaplaincy’s capabilities. MOR places a full array of services and resources at the mariner’s disposal. We perform pre-marital counseling, wedding ceremonies, funerals, and baptisms. We are trained in suicide intervention, career counseling, and parental education. We christen towboats, drydocks, and dredges. We connect mariners to mentors and peers. Chaplains even offer a network of attorneys willing to work with mariners pro bono to prepare wills and powers-of-attorney.† If the U.S. waterways were a college campus, MOR might be a combination Faith and Service/Health and Counseling/Career Advisement/Admissions and Financial Aid/Campus Events Office.
Perhaps most importantly, our ministers stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the mariner on a daily basis. Turn Services Crewboat Captain Cristina Del Castillo provides a case in point. SCI’s Chaplain Thomas Rhoades’ initial acquaintance with Captain Del Castillo occurred during a RiverWorks Discovery’s Who Works the River Career Education event held in New Orleans. Moved by her presentation to students, and recognizing that they shared a common interest in educating young people on the value of a maritime career, Chaplain Rhoades introduced himself to the Captain. The two increased their involvement with RiverWorks both through big picture planning in committee work, and as industry representatives in the interactive career days designed for high school juniors and seniors. RiverWorks Discovery’s Career Education events currently take place in 15 cities, and a member of SCI’s ministry team provides coverage for each one. “We are so appreciative of the relationship that RiverWorks has with SCI,” says RiverWorks Discovery Program Director Errin Howard. “From the moment Tom stepped into the role, he has been a credit to the program. He and Kempton share an exceptional viewpoint and a valuable network within the industry.”
In addition to active participation in organizations like RiverWorks, Chaplain Rhoades furnishes support to Captain Del Castillo that is tailored to her specific needs. As a female in the industry who is transitioning from blue to brown water, the Captain faces unique challenges. Chaplain Rhoades connected Captain Del Castillo to her mentor Chaplain Associate Joy Manthey, the first female river pilot on the Lower Mississippi. “Chaplain Rhoades calls to check on me and helps me with my career. I don’t like to admit it, but we cannot always get home for everything important. We miss out on a lot of life,” says Captain Del Castillo. “But I can have private conversations about it with him, and know that he understands what I am going through because he has worked as a deckhand and cook on a towboat.”
For SCI Chaplains, “going wherever the river flows” means overcoming obstacles alongside our mariners, and attending to their interests, large and small. (Just before Thanksgiving last year, Senior Chaplain Baldridge hand- delivered a jar of pumpkin spice and a bottle of almond extract to a towboat passing through Paducah after an “urgent request” by the cook!)
“Ministry on the River sends a message to mariners: ’You are not alone out there,'" says Errin.
MOR initiates this messaging to mariners as early as possible. This summer, SCI Chaplain Associate Karen Sherrill attended Carlisle & Bray’s new hire training at the invitation of C&B’s Safety, Training & Compliance Manager, Larry Cox at the company's Hebron, KY facility. Last July, SCI Chaplain Baldridge and Chaplain Associate Bill Alford paired up to provide pastoral outreach for the 280 newly-arrived plebe candidates at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY during “Plebe Indoc,” 18 long days of intensive orientation. Chaplain Rhoades’ ongoing attention to RiverWorks events demonstrates MOR’s commitment to the mariner from the start of their professional career.
Just as they would in leading a brick-and-mortar church congregation, SCI Chaplains thoughtfully cultivate relationships with mariners and management. Those relationships, developed through frequent on-board visits, are central to SCI's mission. “No one is going to confide in you if they don’t feel comfortable around you,” says Chaplain Rhoades. “And the boat owners will not even call you during a crisis if they don’t trust you. You won’t step foot on that boat without their trust.”
Dawn Lopez, Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations at Associated Terminals and Turn Services, speaks to the heart of what is to be gained with a comprehensive understanding of SCI services. “Someone like Chaplain Rhoades brings a different perspective. He is thinking holistically about the mariner. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate what an asset he is to the team, and how much Ministry on the River offers in prevention. SCI’s initiatives, like the ASIST training for example, provide proactive programming.”
Founded in 1996, SCI’s river chaplaincy established the first of its kind on the Inland Waterways. Two decades later, SCI still maintains the only “deckplate ministry” on the Western Rivers with its two full-time Chaplains and forty Chaplain Associates doing what they do, afloat and ashore, every day. “People think of church as a building that you attend. They don’t think about the church coming to you,” says Chaplain Rhoades.
†Mariners receive pro bono legal services from Ohio Navy Judge Advocate General (JAG) officers. Though Chaplain Baldridge retired from the Navy Reserve in 1998, he drills monthly with the Ohio Navy at Camp Perry Joint Training Base on Lake Erie.