river chaplains

River Chaplains Serve Mariners In Need

There are many reasons men and women choose to enter a life of ministry. Some felt compelled at a young age, while others were called into service well into adulthood.

Many of the river chaplains who contributed to this story were introduced to river work through the non-profit Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) in Paducah, Ky.

Founded in 1834 and affiliated with the Episcopal Church—though non-denominational in terms of its trustees, staff and service to mariners—SCI is the largest, most comprehensive mariners’ service agency in North America.

As part of its round-the-clock ministry, SCI maintains a staff of professional chaplains with interfaith and cross-cultural backgrounds. Chaplains and volunteers assist thousands of mariners each year, offering a hand of friendship and pastoral care.

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For international seafarers calling at Port Newark (N.J.), chaplains bring with them practical services like wire transfer forms, calling cards and cell phones to allow mariners to connect with loved ones back home. Additionally, SCI provides a wide spectrum of support services—chaplaincy, legal aid and continuing maritime education, serving both international seafarers and mariners on America’s inland waterways.

Today, SCI boasts 19 river chaplains, of whom four are still undergoing training. These chaplains cover an area encompassing 14 states, two time zones and more than 2,600 miles of inland rivers. They are trained in critical incident stress management, enabling them to help mariners in the aftermath of potentially traumatizing events. SCI runs an emergency hotline (800-708-1998) to request this service.

Being a chaplain is more than a job. It’s not the money or grandeur of the work that attracts these men and women to a field of ministry, but the call in their hearts to serve others in good times and bad.

Chaplain Recruiter

“It’s often a struggle—both emotionally and spiritually—to draw a line between one’s personal and professional life,” said Chaplain Kempton Baldridge, who has been a full-time SCI river chaplain since 2010. He has many more years of marine service under his belt, however.

In 1986, Baldridge was appointed a chaplain candidate in the U.S. Navy, where he served onboard ships and boats for several years. For Baldridge, a life on the water was something he had been after since childhood.

“I wanted to be a mariner for as far back as I can remember,” he said. “Even in kindergarten, my interests, energies and focus were almost exclusively nautical, naval or maritime-related.”

At 15, Baldridge landed his first paying job on the water at his uncle’s nautical supply company in Kemah, Texas, where he delivered parts and groceries from a dinghy. “I swaged miles of cable and wire rope into lifelines or standing rigging on everything from shrimpers to sailing yachts.”

A few years later, Baldridge would enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve and earn his petty officer as a navigator’s assistant. Eventually, he worked his way through the Coast Guard and Navy, and found a home with SCI, where he occasionally recruits others into a life—volunteer, part- or full-time—of river ministry, while also serving the spiritual needs of mariners on and off the rivers.

Chaplain John Fritschner, priest associate with the Church of Advent in Louisville, Ky., and an SCI river chaplain associate, said he was at a church in Paducah when Baldridge invited him to become a chaplain with SCI. He said yes immediately.

Like Fritschner, Chaplain Donald Reusch, who currently works for SCI out of Metropolis, Ill., said he too was introduced to SCI and river ministry through Baldridge. “I met him at the Grace Episcopal Church in Paducah, and when he found out that I had a clergy background, he recruited me right away,” said Reusch.

Baldridge also recruited Chaplains David Guilfoyle, chaplain for the Port of Cincinnati; and Bob Coulson, pastoral associate for Lone Oak UMC in Paducah. “I had never heard of the river ministry chaplains, nor had my denomination’s chaplain endorsing agency,” said Coulson. “But by happenstance, I noticed a red ‘Chaplain’s Corner’ sign posted outside the Seamen’s Church Institute in Paducah and met the legendary Kempton Baldridge. I was hooked by his passion and enthusiasm.”

The Call

Chaplains Joy Manthey and Jay Geisler felt a calling to the river for other reasons. When she was in fifth grade, Manthey announced that she wanted to be a riverboat pilot. To her dismay, her teacher admonished her and told her she should be a teacher or nurse instead. Unmoved, Manthey continued her quest to become a river captain and has been one for more than 40 years.

In 1999, she got into river ministry when she took vows as a Sister of Saint Joseph. “Before I had heard anything about SCI, I decided I wanted to go to each brown-water company and talk to them about ministering and providing pastoral care to their crew members and families,” said Manthey. “SCI was just starting out in Paducah, and I had read an article in The Waterways Journal about the SCI simulators. I went to see them and Rev. Jean Smith happened to be there at the time. She offered me a position as a chaplain on the Lower Mississippi River and Gulf areas that day.” Manthey departed SCI in April 2007 and began working for Kirby as both a captain and chaplain, continuing her work on the river to this day.

Geisler’s draw to the river was a bit different. His father and father-in-law had both worked as sailors during World War II. Being in Pittsburgh, Pa., and working near one of the busiest ports, he said he came to appreciate those who work the river. He left the steel business and became an ordained priest with the Catholic church, where he focused his ministry on addiction and mental health. As is the case with the other chaplains, he became aware of SCI and works as a river chaplain associate out of the Pittsburgh area.

A Calling Well Worth It

Just about any job comes with its rewards. Not all jobs, however, can be life changing for someone else. When asked what the most rewarding aspect of their calling to ministry is, most of the chaplains echoed a similar sentiment: being invited into a mariner’s life when they are the most vulnerable.

“Being trusted to share in personal moments that are difficult has its rewards,” said Fritschner. Coulson said it’s simply rewarding to make a positive difference in serving the small, and therefore big, picture in the lives of rivermen. “No certificate, plaque nor trophy outweighs the reward of the simple ‘thank you’ from a mariner,” he said.

For Baldridge, the most rewarding thing about his job is knowing that each day, he will be with some of the most astounding people he has ever met. “At my stage in life, to get out of bed every day and to know my best years of ministry are still ahead of me is a circumstance that is both rare and wonderful,” he said.

Manthey said she agrees that getting to know mariners and their families during personal moments in their lives can be a fulfilling aspect of the job. “I read a sign once that said, ‘People may forget what you said to them, they may forget what you did for them, but they will never forget how you made them feel,’” she said. “As a chaplain, I try to bring Christ’s love and compassion to those who are hurting and in need of understanding, love or healing.”

For Guilfoyle, it’s not just being present in someone’s life during their time of need that brings him joy in his career, it’s knowing that someone finds comfort and support in your presence. “Being considered someone they can trust and becoming part of a crew on a boat is an unbelievable privilege,” said Guilfoyle, who once worked as a deckhand for Morehead Marine. “And I love the river. What could be better than being on deck and watching a crew put a tow together on a warm summer afternoon?”

A Challenging Position

As rewarding as a life of ministry can be, it doesn’t come without its challenges.

“We were taught in seminary the importance of setting good boundaries and how to avoid becoming entangled or emotionally involved with the people we serve,” said Baldridge. “That’s sound advice for clergy in a ‘normal’ church, but a challenge for chaplains working with mariners and their families. Chaplains, by definition, work amidst their ‘flock’ onboard or ashore, underway or in the yards, summer or winter, front watch or back, and on the worst or the best days.”

Baldridge said pastoral presence and personal availability are the heart and soul of “deckplate ministry” as river chaplains practice it. “In short, we try to be seen as good shipmates,” he added. “Our qualifications and responsibilities differ from the rest of the crew, but few seem to doubt a chaplain’s ability to contribute to the health, wellbeing and morale of a crew. That’s a source of some satisfaction.”

For Coulson, who volunteers his time as a river chaplain associate, he said he often meets people with whom he has had no prior relationship and they are often in times of need. “The challenge is to quickly build rapport, trust and a pastoral relationship with the new person and their family,” he said. “I try to be present, unhurried and undistracted while carefully listening to each person’s conversation, so that I may provide the pastoral caregiving needed at the moment.”

Unsurprisingly, it is challenging to see people going through difficult times. Fritschner said that while it’s an honor and privilege to work with people during hard times, it can be difficult. “I think the hardest part of circumstance of my job is when a crew finds a body in the river. I have been through about four of these situations. We have a protocol we use by way of our training that we take the crews through when this happens. I never cease to be amazed about how compassionate the crews are toward the deceased, the deceased’s family and each other.”

The river is no doubt a tough place to work. According to Guilfoyle, there are always accidents, deaths and the fact that crews are away from their families. “It is an important and dangerous job in all kinds of conditions,” he said. “When one crewmember experiences some incident, it can deeply affect everyone on board. They all feel it. If you are seen as an outsider, it can be tough to be effective in your work. To overcome the challenge, you have to be with them in good times, too, and become part of their family.”

In addition to emotional challenges the job presents, there is a physical aspect to the job that can be difficult to overcome. “It can be hard just getting to the crew,” said Reusch. “Mariners are home for 28 days and then onboard for 28 days, which is an unusual dynamic compared to most people’s jobs. This can create a crisis point for people, so we make it a point to visit vessels so people on the river have a name and a face that they’ve seen and have met.”

Supporting Our Mariners

While the chaplains do a good job of supporting towboaters both emotionally and spiritually, they all agreed that those not in river ministry can find ways to help mariners, too.

Coulson said that with mariners being so mobile due to work schedules, land-based faith communities can connect with programs, such as Christmas on the River and Christmas at Sea. Information on both programs can be found on SCI’s website (www.seamenschurch.org).

“If you belong to a church, think about becoming a mariner-friendly church,” added Guilfoyle. “Invite us in to talk to your congregation about our work. Organize the congregation to knit scarves or put gift boxes together for crews on Christmas.”

Guilfoyle added that for those in the industry, simply keeping towboat crews and chaplains in your thoughts and prayers is appreciated. “Invite us onboard, not just when there is a crisis, but anytime you can,” he said. “We are much more helpful if the crews know who we are before we are needed. If you operate a terminal or harbor facility and want a chaplain to bring doughnuts and spend a few hours with your crew, let us know.”

To contact SCI and arrange a chaplain’s visit to your vessel, email Baldridge at kbaldridge@seamenschurch.org.

Caption for photo: From left to right: Chaplains Don Reusch, Kempton Baldridge, Chris Jerrell (warehouse supervisor, ACBL), Chaplains John Fritschner and Dave Guilfoyle. (Photo courtesy of Seamen’s Church Institute)