"Standing by to assist" families of the SS El Faro

Feb 17, 2017

by the Rev. Kempton D. Baldridge

JACKSONVILLE, FL – Recently, I attended the hearings on the loss of the SS El Faro on October 1, 2015, held by the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). While there, a reporter in the press section made her way to where I was seated with family members of the ship’s crew.

She introduced herself, presented her business card, and inquired, “If you don’t mind my asking, what is it that brings you here? What’s your role?”

I introduced myself and gave her my SCI business card in return, but this only led to further questioning.

I explained to her that just hours after SS El Faro went missing, the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) began to mobilize its resources in response to this latest crisis at sea, just as it has since 1834. “Since that day, I’ve been tasked with overseeing SCI’s pastoral care for those affected by the SS El Faro sinking,” I explained.

“And…so, just what is it that you do…?”

“I’m pretty much here as an empty vessel. Last month a family member invited me to join the families during the hearings. SCI encouraged my attendance to provide a ministry of presence. I had no idea what to expect or what I’d be doing but I knew I’d figure it out once I got here,” I explained.

On Monday, February 6, I arrived at the site of the hearings, a few minutes before 9am. I sat next to Gina Lightfoot of Seafarer’s International Union (SIU), sister of El Faro Boatswain Roan R. Lightfoot.

A week earlier, Doug Stevenson (Director of SCI’s Center for Seafarers’ Rights) emailed the El Faro families to alert them of my presence and availability during the first week of the hearings. I told those seated near me that I was happy to pray with them, lead a Bible study, conduct counseling, make airport runs, give rides to or from hotels, or whatever they or the other families might need. One of the simplest ways I served over the course of the hearings was to compile and distribute a “glossary of terms”, an aid for those unaccustomed to the acronyms, technical terms, or maritime industry jargon that frequently formed a part of the discourse taking place.

SCI encourages its chaplains to utilize the rich variety of pastoral, clinical and practical skills they bring with them to address the many needs and opportunities with which they are presented through their work. At various points during my time with SCI, a chaplain’s role has involved serving as a parenting educator, marriage/family counselor, career counselor, guidance counselor, grief companion, unlicensed social worker, and unofficial labor ombudsman, along with many other iterations.

As the week progressed and my rapport with El Faro families grew, the needs I was able to serve expanded considerably. The most substantive need a chaplain could address involved that key pastoral ability: listening.

It’s not easy to remain fully present with someone whose story involves the pain of such loss. Many people won’t speak of their paralyzing fears, secret loneliness, smoldering anger or deep sadness because they think no one will listen. I believe the ability to do just that – listen, and listen well – embodies the essence of pastoral ministry.

Through listening, for example, I learned from the mother of one El Faro crewmember how she met and fell in love with her son’s father in the unlikeliest of places - at Navy bootcamp. Her husband was the love of her life, but he died one month before the El Faro tragedy claimed the life of their much-loved only son. Her family now consists of a grown daughter and the other loved ones of the El Faro 33.

Together, we listened to nine hours of testimony each day. The witnesses included former El Faro crewmembers and officers, expert witnesses, current and former TOTE company officials, Coast Guard inspectors, and ABS representatives among others.

As a ‘focused listener’ I happily joined family members for coffee, lunches or dinner. During one of these informal times, the father of an El Faro crewmember, a pastor at a Jacksonville church, sought my help in planning a maritime-themed summer camp for middle-schoolers as a memorial to his late son. He was so excited by our dinner together he said he’s sure God put us together. I’ve kept the message he left on my voicemail.

Besides strengthening my existing friendship with three of the El Faro families, my days at the hearings allowed me to connect with nine additional El Faro family members. When I left the hearings at the end of Day 4, my heart sank as I said my good byes, but I was buoyed by the new bonds of affection that had formed.