The Bible is full of references to water: there's Noah and the ark, Jesus referred to Himself as living water and walked on top of the sea, several of the disciples were first fishermen and many of the Apostle Paul's journeys were by ship. So it's only natural that ministry still involves water. Or, in the case of Chaplain Kempton Baldridge of Paducah, on the water.
Baldridge, 56, is one of three full-time inland waterways chaplains in the Ministry on the Rivers and Gulf program of the Seamen's Church Institute, a New York-based mariner's service agency. According to the organization, a premium is put on "mobile" spiritual care, meaning that chaplains meet sailors and mariners where they are. As such, pastors including Baldridge can be found climbing gangways and riding tender vessels. It's no small task.
According to the Paducah Chamber of Commerce, there are 20 towboat companies with headquarters or offices in the western Kentucky city alone and nearly 300 towboats can be found in the Paducah-Metropolis-Cairo area at any one time. Look beyond the region and there are more than 3,000 towboats - and 30,000 crew members - on the rivers in the eastern half of the United States.
"These men and women on the rivers are on them for half of their lives," Baldridge said, explaining that a crew serves for 28 days before being relieved by a replacement team, putting the total number of inland mariners at 60,000.
"They spend a lot of time away from their families and away from what we think of as civilization," he said from onboard the Susan Johnson, a towboat operated by United Barge Lines of Metropolis, pushing 20 barges up the Mississippi south of Cape Girardeau. "There's no chance for regular church attendance, but that doesn't mean there is an absence of religion here. It's quite often the opposite. There are guys out here that know their Bibles inside and out, and there are others who live on the edges. I understand and appreciate that."
He said his role is to serve sort of as a sort of bridge between the ex-tremes of life onboard and at home.
Baldridge, a former Coast Guard petty officer and Navy chaplain who most recently served as a chaplain at NATO headquarters in Brussels, joined SCI in June of 2010.
"When I was in Brussels an asked what I wanted to do next, there was no hesitation in my answer. My father was in the mer-chant marine; my brother is in the merchant marine. Every day, I can't believe what I get to do."
He says he's "on towboat time," meaning he's never quite sure where the river or his ministry will take him. He said his family and clean laundry are in Paducah where he is based at the Center for Maritime Education, but he most often can be found on a boat or barge churning on a Midwestern river.
"My job description says I'm supposed to be underway three days out of every five," he added. "Sometimes it's just over-night, sometimes it's for a week or more."
Baldridge says he is able to board as towboats dock or has been known to transfer from one vessel to another with the use of a john boat. On board, he is known by his unique wardrobe - steel-toed boots, wash-and-wear khaki pants, hard hat, black clergy shirt and white Episcopal collar - and by the simple nick-name "Chaps."
"The call me Chaps because my first name, Kempton, would just get me in trouble. It's too much like ‘Captain.' Chaps establishes what and who I am and it works. It's both affectionate and respectful at the same time."
He said that life as a river minister is quite different from being assigned to a particular church.
"Frankly if I came with the expectation of holding a revival or something, it wouldn't work. Everyone on board is much too busy," he said. "My job here is to be transparent and to have my agenda be to be devoid of an agenda."
He said his tasks range from talking with members of the merchant marine and answering questions to offer pastoral counseling. When tragedy strikes anywhere in the Coast Guard's Ohio district, he is quick to respond in person, offering comfort to family and fellow crew members. Mostly, he said, his role is to just be there and build relationships with mari-ners.
"I have to let their con-cerns become my concerns as I get to know them. You have to earn the right to be able to provide a pastoral direction. I have to listen to them in order to become a sort of a visual reminder that God knows that they are here and cared for."
In a reference to one of the Apostle Paul's traveling companions and encouragers, Baldridge said that he sees himself as a "waterborne Barnabas" whose task is to let crew members know what it means to be a shipmate.
"A shipmate is a guy who may be hygienically-challenged and tell offensive jokes and he might be someone that you avoid on shore, but he is still someone who deserves your respect and admiration because he'll do all he can to save you if needed," he explained. "Jesus spoke in the Book of John of how ‘greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.' That's a ship-mate.
To reach that goal, Baldridge simply makes himself available.
"I answer biblical questions, do some pastoral counseling and try to make crew members comfortable," he said. "I'm here for the ‘Hey-Chaps-you-got-a-minute' moments. That's what I'm here for, and it's a joy."