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Coping on the river
SCI chaplains support crews through stresses and loneliness of work on the waterways


Debra Wagner / SCI
The Rev. Jim Wilkerson, an Episcopal chaplain, ministers to mariners on the inland waterways from his base in Louisville, Ky.   (Debra Wagner / SCI)

Debra Wagner / SCI
The Rev. Jean Smith, executive director of SCI, supervises the chaplains and often meets directly with those who work on the tugs and towboats.   (Debra Wagner / SCI)

Jerry Hames
Ministry on the River is the only network of pastoral care available to more than 30,000 inland mariners. Above, Ingram Barge Company tugs near Paducah, Ky., link barges for a trip downriver.   (Jerry Hames)
Day 1 (Thursday) at 2 p.m.:  Johnnie, a deckhand, arrives at the Seamen’s Church Institute’s Center for Maritime Education in Paducah, Ky., where his captain told him he could find help after his doublewide trailer burned. Although Johnnie, his wife and baby are safe and living with his in-laws, he has no insurance.  Within a week, SCI’s Mariners’ Assistance Fund has provided help to the family.

Day 4 (Monday) 9 a.m.:  A crew-change dispatcher calls Ministry on the River to talk about a 26-year-old deckhand who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. What can be done to help this mariner and his family?

Day 6 (Wednesday) 11 a.m.:  A towboat company owner calls to report an accident involving a crew-change van that killed two crewmembers and seriously injured three others. He requests spiritual support at two hospitals and for the families of the deceased.

Day 7 (Thursday) Noon:  A chaplain, spending pastoral time with crewmembers who were to have been relieved by the crew in the van accident, receives a call from another towboat company with news of the death of a captain after a long battle with cancer.  Can a memorial service for 75 fellow employees be planned for Monday?

These requests, culled from a weekly logbook, demonstrate some of the expectations men and women in the maritime industry have of the Seamen’s Church Institute’s Ministry on the River staff and volunteers in River Friendly Churches along America’s inland waterways.

The ministry is best known for the Christmas care packages and Easter gift bags and cards, created by hundreds of children, teens and adults in churches with a river friendly ministry and distributed to mariners from Ohio to Louisiana.  But more serious, confidential pastoral care also is offered to those engaged in work that often turns deadly.

Seamen’s Church Institute, founded in 1834 by a group of Episcopal churches, built a visible presence on the dangerous New York waterfront. In 1931, The New York Times reported that 8,000 to 12,000 merchant seamen visited the institute every day.

Other shore-based facilities followed in a rich, expanding history of service to seafarers around the world. A training program for chaplains followed. Through its center for Seafarers’ Rights and Center for Maritime Education, SCI promotes safety, dignity and improved working and living conditions for more than 1 million seafaring men and woman.

In 1998, SCI turned its attention to U.S. inland waterways and, with the support of maritime companies, built a Maritime Education Center at Paducah to offer computer-based simulator training to improve a mariner's navigational and bridge-management skills, firefighting and CPR/First Aid courses.

Barge transport efficient

Small towns grew along the rivers where families settled as a result of the towboat industry that developed after World War II. “For years, it was a young man’s ticket off the farm,” said the Rev. Jean Smith, executive director of SCI in New York, who grew up on a family farm near St. Louis, Mo.

Decades later, however, the work became less attractive, and more freight was shipped by other modes. Trucks, for example, transported 9 billion tons of freight in 2003, the most of any mode of freight transportation, according to the American Trucking Association.

Still, barges remain an important means of economical transport. A typical barge can hold 15 times more cargo than one rail car and 60 times more than a trailer truck, according to the American Waterways Operators, a barge, tug and tow industry group based in Arlington, Va. Barges are also one of the least-polluting modes for moving heavy freight.

But with efficiency, towboats bring hardships to crew members. Work schedules are nontraditional, with crews often spending four weeks at a time on the water. (Harbor boat crews spend 14-day shifts on their boats.) Crew members spend day and night in quarters with the same co-workers and often work two shifts, with one off, every 24 hours.

“It’s a different life. Not everyone can do it,” towboat pilot Mark Holman told a United Methodist video crew filming mariners on the river. Holman and his mates were pushing 10,000 tons of coal down the Ohio. They had started in Pittsburgh, 1,000 miles and a week earlier, and now, near Paducah, they were taking on more barges filled with grain.

Separation from family

The work of many of the crews aboard the more than 4,000 tow vessels isolates them from their families and community.  "They miss birthdays with children, miss a lot of things that husbands and fathers are normally expected to be a part of," said the Rev. Jim Wilkinson, an Episcopal priest and SCI chaplain based in Louisville, Ky.

Then there is the loneliness. “Members of River Friendly Churches which support the work of the Seamen’s Church Institute often have good listeners as a part of their ministry teams,” the Rev. Gregory Waldrop tells mariners who seek counseling to combat their loneliness while working on the river. Waldrop, a United Methodist minister, gained an awareness of the river industry’s importance from 15 years as a pastor in Paducah.

“You feel so alone,” he said, describing the mariner’s life. “It seems like nobody speaks your language, like you are going to drown in your isolation. During long hours on the boat … all you have for company is the noise of the engines and the call of the gulls.”

Separation and loneliness compete with the dark, dangerous work as major factors contributing to the stress that confronts many crew members. The chaplain’s step in here, visiting the boats, talking with crews, then offering books or videos to help them cope with boredom.

“We’re a ministry of presence,” said the Rev. Ann Mills, a Presbyterian, another of three chaplains that SCI has commissioned for the river ministry.  (The third is Sister Joy Manthey, CSJ, a Roman Catholic, in New Orleans.)

River people are just like other folks, said Mills, who provides pastoral care and counseling to mariners and their families in Paducah. “They have the same problems we have. They get depressed; they have family problems. Sometimes their wives, left alone much of the time, need help.”

Dangerous waters

The public hears rarely about the people who work the inland waterways, except when an accident occurs, said Smith, executive director of SCI since 2001.

"Because of the current and conditions of the river, it requires full alertness at all times, which is very difficult to do when everything looks so innocent," she said. “You have eight acres of barge out there. When one of those boats is moving eight acres of barge, in order to be able to steer it, the boat must propel the whole thing faster than the current is going.”

When the river is high, the current is strong. That was the case in January, one year ago, when a towboat sank at a dam on the Ohio River. Four crew members drowned; three others survived.

Within days of the accident, operators of one of the boats that helped rescue the surviving crew members called SCI. Wilkinson, formerly an Army chaplain for 22 years, responded. The pastoral work of all chaplains is confidential, he said, but he described his presence as support, in good times and bad.

Last Sept. 9, in Memphis, Tenn., Wilkinson spent several hours with mariners on a vessel that had come from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“I listened carefully as they described the devastation and the gunshots,” he said. “Shortly after midnight, I was leaving the vessel and heard a voice call. A mariner was running to catch up with me. “He said, ‘Pray for me and the crew. We need your prayers.’ So we prayed.”