River Chaplain Assists Seafarers in East Africa

Aug 29, 2016

by the Rev. Kempton D. Baldridge, Chaplain

On the other side of the world … doing what SCI chaplains do every day

One month ago today, I agreed to fly to a port in East Africa to support the crew of a ship after an intense but aborted attack by pirates in international waters earlier that day. 

If this sounds like an unusual assignment for a river chaplain, it was. SCI likes to say its river chaplains “go wherever the waters flow,” but I’d bet this was the first time one of us needed three flights across nine time zones and 8,500 air miles each way to do so. 

Beyond the distances involved, everything else about this mission was “out of the ordinary” as well and daily presented me with new, strange or unfamiliar circumstances. While I think I managed to hold up my end, it’d be safe to say wherever my “comfort zone” is it’s nowhere near the Gulf of Aden.  

Three days into the trip, we stood on the pier for hours in 115°F heat and 96% humidity. As we waited stoically for a tug crew to appear to ferry our group out to the ship at anchor offshore, I began a mental list of what was so exceptional about this assignment: 

  • The vessel was 10x the size of the largest towboat, with over 70 crewmembers (six times as many as an average towboat). 
  • The crew came from five different countries, with the potential for linguistic and cultural barriers. 
  • No one on the ship or at the company had any experience with chaplains. 
  • No one on the ship or at the company had experience with Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) interventions.
  • No one on the ship or at the company had any experience with pirate attacks.
  • We were assigned a former UK military specialist for personal security (bodyguard) since Americans are among the prime targets of hostage-takers.
  • I was obliged to maintain a constant state of hyper-vigilance to threats of kidnapping, theft and terrorism and submit a “Proof of Life” form before departing the U.S.

The list could go on. 

Looking out at the scores of ships passing through to the Indian Ocean or anchored offshore, it struck me how familiar waiting on the pier actually was for me—and, for that matter, every other SCI chaplain. And it also occurred to me that this particular mission—as unique as it was—was nevertheless exactly what SCI chaplains do and are trained to do day in, day out and have done from the very beginning. 

SCI chaplains go out to mariners on their worst days, standing by them amidst challenges and struggles in order to seek the best outcomes possible. Beginning in 2010, we began incorporating Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), a well-established comprehensive, multicomponent crisis intervention system, into our crisis response protocols. Utilizing CISM techniques—combined with our own training, education, experience and judgment—we assist mariners coping with traumatic loss, stressful events and critical incidents. 

And although “pirate attack” is not specifically mentioned in any CISM materials I know of, I boarded that ship fully confident about employing CISM methods and resources to try to bring about the best outcome for this crew. It would involve a great deal of work with lots of active listening and almost no sleep, but I was extremely gratified by the results by the time we disembarked. 

As we departed late the next day, a dozen or so members of this remarkable crew gathered to say goodbye. Several handed me the prayer books I had given them, asking me to sign my name and a Bible verse on the inside cover. Still, others wanted me to pose for snapshots with them. These also were “firsts” for me.

The joviality was soon cut short by the Bosun announcing loudly that the tug wasn’t going to wait much longer. Grabbing my gear, I shook hands with as many of these new shipmates of mine as I could, “coining” them as I did so with an SCI chaplain’s coin. (Ed: For more information on this practice, read this Wikipedia article.) And I was aware my heart sank just a little—just as it does when I depart from a crew back home. But I left feeling both proud and grateful to be a small part of SCI’s tradition of meeting the unique needs of mariners in unique circumstances, “wherever the waters flow.”