You’re halfway through the second forward watch, with a warm bunk and six hours of sleep still three hours away. You’ve just made the mandatory check of the cables holding together 15 barges and 22,500 tons of wheat destined for New Orleans. Outside, where you’ve spent most of the watch, it’s below freezing.
As you head for the boat’s stern to check a marker light, you pass the galley and can’t resist stepping inside. The cook hands you a mug and points you toward a canister filled with a mixture of instant coffee and hot chocolate. As the beverage thaws you out, you pick up the handmade card beside the canister. It reads, “Merry Christmas from the Sunday School class at St. Peter’s.” Suddenly, it dawns on you: It’s Christmas Eve.
You don’t mind the cold so much when you head back out. Maybe it’s the new scarf that came with the drink mix. Or maybe it’s knowing that little kids in some place called Ladue are praying for you.
Boxes of cheer
For several years now, the Sunday school children at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in the St. Louis suburb of Ladue have warmed the hearts and bodies of the men and women who work on the nearby Mississippi and Missouri rivers as part of the Ministry on the River arm of the Seaman’s Church Institute. Each Christmas and Easter, the children and other volunteers at St. Peter’s pack boxes for the 55 or so towboats that work or pass through the port of St. Louis.
At Christmas, the boxes are filled with cookies, candies, a hot chocolate-coffee mix, scarves, gloves, stocking caps, books, videos, notes from the Sunday school classes, devotional tracts, Bibles and information about Ministry on the River. Sometimes there are packets of microwave popcorn and tubes of hand lotion and -- if a crew is really lucky – homemade fudge. At Easter, the boxes contain more candy, more devotionals and more good wishes. The boxes themselves are decorated with layers of brightly colored tempera paint.
The boxes go to three terminals on the Mississippi riverfront in St. Louis. Two serve barge lines with bases in St. Louis. The third is a supply terminal from which boats of fuel, water, groceries and other necessities are delivered to the towboats that barely stop to take on or drop off barges of grain, coal, steel and chemicals. The terminals distribute the boxes to the towboats as they call on the port.
“A lot of the deckhands tell me all sorts of great stories and tell me how grateful they are and how they really look forward to getting the boxes,” says Bud Wilson, who coordinates the program at St. Peter’s.
The boxes are supplied by the Ministry on the River office in Paducah, Ky., on the Ohio River. As the holidays approach, St. Peter’s volunteers collect books and videos, bake cookies and decorate the boxes. The church’s Evening Women’s Association supplies homemade fudge.
Support away from home
Ministry on the River also provides the devotionals and other literature and coordinates a collection of hand-knit scarves and stocking caps and donated gloves. Part of an ecumenical effort, the outerwear comes from churches of different denominations in the small towns that hug the riverbanks.
For years, the congregation at Christ Church in Cape Girardeau, Mo., just upstream on the Mississippi from its confluence with the Ohio, contributed scarves and hats. But last year the members shifted their outreach effort to a halfway house for women. Their neighbors at the United Methodist Church stepped up to take up the river project in their stead.
“Along with giving the crews a treat,” says Wilson, “we also want to send them the message that people are thinking about them and there is someone they can call if they need us – anytime, anywhere.”
A typical deckhand on a towboat, he says, works 30 days on and 15 days off. On the boat, he or she works 12-hour days in two six-hour shifts, seven days a week. Many deckhands tell Wilson that the river is in their blood, and they miss it when they’re not on the boat, but all of them can’t wait to get home and catch up with their spouses and children.
“A lot can happen back home while you’re out on the river and you can’t be there to help,” Wilson says. “There’s a joke among the deckhands that ‘nothing ever breaks at home until you leave.’ Your mates are like family, but sometimes you just need a chaplain to talk to or the help of a supporting congregation to act as a liaison, to be there when you can’t be with your family; sometimes to help you get home.”
Wilson says he often is mistaken for a clergyperson when delivering the boxes to boats docked in St. Louis or just upriver at Alton, Ill. His conversations with some of the deckhands make it obvious “they don’t spend all their downtime sleeping or watching TV, but a lot of time reading their Bibles,” he says.
It’s not all a one-way street. Each spring the River on the Ministry office in Paducah helps to arrange a visit by a towboat captain to the Sunday school classes at St. Peter’s. Wilson is working to expand the program in two ways. One is to reach out to the dockhands that service the barges and boats but don’t travel on the river.
“They work the same schedules as the crews on the boats because they never know when a tow will be coming through and need servicing, or barges taken off or added to the tow,” he explains. Wilson also wants to involve more congregations in the Diocese of Missouri. Ladue, located well inland from the rivers, has the only “river-friendly” ministry in the diocese, which is bordered by the Mississippi and traversed by the Missouri. Not including five inner-city congregations in St. Louis, 10 of the diocese’s congregations are in river towns.
Already one new parish has volunteered. This Easter, Sunday school classes at Trinity in St. Charles, on the Missouri River west of St. Louis, will help St. Peter’s children decorate boxes.