From left: The Rev. Kempton Baldridge, the Rev. David Shirk and the Rev. Tom Rhoades. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)
Features

Blessing Ceremony Marks SCI River Chaplain Transition

The tools of the trade the Rev. David Shirk received as the new Upper Mississippi and Ohio River chaplain for Seamen’s Church Institute may not have been what he expected.

In a short ceremony February 28 at SCI’s Center for Maritime Education in Paducah, Ky., retiring chaplain the Rev. Kempton Baldridge presented him with several items and explained their significance. The ceremony was also broadcast using videoconferencing technology.

The Rev. Tom Rhoades served as master of ceremonies. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)
The Rev. Tom Rhoades served as master of ceremonies. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)

First, Baldridge gave Shirk a floating two-way radio that includes a built-in weather radio, reminding him of the importance of communicating with mariners and being mindful of the storms of life, whether physical, emotional, mental or spiritual.

Next came the passing of the road atlas and maps, to help Shirk find his way as mariners look to Shirk for guidance and direction. In talking about the many places on the river that a chaplain responds, he also poked fun at himself, saying, “Please don’t make the mistake I did. When they tell you river miles, don’t forget to ask which river.”

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The third gift was a shofar, a horn typically made from a ram’s horn that is a Jewish religious object. After blowing it, loudly, Baldridge said it was a clarion call to be “a place of inclusion and recognition of those who often feel invisible.”

The Rev. Kempton Baldridge, outgoing SCI river chaplain, presents the Rev. David Shirk, the new river chaplain, with a bell. It was one of several “tools of the trade” with which Baldridge presented Shirk in a ceremony February 28 at the Seamen’s Church Institute’s Center for Maritime Education in Paducah, Ky. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)
The Rev. Kempton Baldridge, outgoing SCI river chaplain, presents the Rev. David Shirk, the new river chaplain, with a bell. It was one of several “tools of the trade” with which Baldridge presented Shirk in a ceremony February 28 at the Seamen’s Church Institute’s Center for Maritime Education in Paducah, Ky. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)

Finally came a bell, a traditional maritime symbol, which Baldridge has rung at weddings, funerals and other important ceremonies. Ringing it, he announced, “Ohio River region chaplain arriving,” to conclude the transition.

Shirk, 58, retired as a Navy chaplain in November 2020. He most recently served as the chaplain for Acts Retirement-Life Communities in Boca Raton, Fla. Shirk grew up all over the Midwest, following the career of his father, an executive of the Boy Scouts of America. He and his wife, Bonny, have an 18-year-old son, Evan, and 16-year-old twin girls, Audrey and Clare.

Shirk enlisted in 1982 and served his first six years as a cryptologist for the National Security Agency. He then re-enlisted as a chaplain and served from 1992 to 2020. One unique aspect of his service is that he served alongside all the military branches. About half of his career was providing chaplain services to the Marine Corps, but he also served on an Air Force base, deployed to Afghanistan with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and was a districtwide Coast Guard chaplain at his last duty station.

Shirk said he was glad to be back in a maritime-related position and use the skill set he honed through his Armed Forces career. Additionally, the move to Paducah brings him closer to family, as he has a sister who lives in St. Louis, Mo.

“David has the heart of the pastor and possesses a genuine ability to connect deeply with people of varied backgrounds,” SCI President and Executive Director the Rev. Mark Nestlehutt said in welcoming him. “We feel truly fortunate to have found him.”

The Rev. Tom Rhoades, SCI’s chaplain for the Lower Mississippi, Gulf and Houston Ship Channel, served as master of ceremonies for the event, which included a blessing both on Shirk and Baldridge and served as both a welcome for Shirk and a recognition of Baldridge’s years of service.

“The Lord bless and keep you, Kempton,” Rhoades said. “May God guide you, be in your feet, be in your heart, be in your head, be wherever you are to do whatever is next for you.”
He also asked God to guide Shirk and be with him as they work together, filling in each other’s gaps “and that we be a powerful ministry and continue this work.”

As Shirk and his family have been staying in an Air BnB as they consider longer-term housing options, Rhoades said he couldn’t give them a house-warming gift and settled for just warming gifts, including gloves and socks, to drive away the chill as they resettle from Florida.

The Rev. Tom Rhoades presents the Rev. Kempton Baldridge with his own merchant mariner flag. As river chaplain, Baldridge had presented the flags to crews upon vessel christenings many times over the years. Baldridge retired as the Seamen’s Church Institute’s senior river chaplain on February 28. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)
The Rev. Tom Rhoades presents the Rev. Kempton Baldridge with his own merchant mariner flag. As river chaplain, Baldridge had presented the flags to crews upon vessel christenings many times over the years. Baldridge retired as the Seamen’s Church Institute’s senior river chaplain on February 28. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)

Rhodes also presented Baldridge with the same gift he has given countless crews at christening ceremonies, a merchant mariner flag.

Following the ceremony, guests enjoyed a gumbo dinner that Rhoades prepared for them.

Caption for top photo: From left: The Rev. Kempton Baldridge, the Rev. David Shirk and the Rev. Tom Rhoades. (Photo by Shelley Byrne)