The 50,000 men and women who work on the nation's waterways are rarely on dry ground long enough to attend church regularly. So a new chaplaincy ministry is bringing the church to the rivers.

Seven clergy and one lay leader from cities along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers have volunteered as chaplains as part of a ministry developed by the New York-based Seamen's Church Institute (SCI), which has provided chaplains to ocean vessels since the 1840s.

The river chaplains' duties include responding to calls from mariners on the program's toll-free phone number, delivering Christian literature, and providing pastoral counseling. The volunteer chaplains—who maintain full-time positions as clergy—also rally their congregations to bake cookies and knit gloves and scarves as Christmas gifts for the boat crews.

Family tensions are common for river mariners, who typically work 30 days and have 15 days off. "These are people away from their homes, away from their support systems, their churches, for long periods of time," says Jean Smith, director of SCI's river chaplaincy program.

Jim Wilkinson, chaplain and pastoral coordinator with the program, sees his role more as a counselor than a pastor. "It's a listening, learning, and sharing ministry in the workplace," he says. An Episcopal priest and former army chaplain, Wilkinson spends two to three days each week on towboats.

Smith hopes churches in maritime communities will see the chaplaincy program as a tangible way to help mariners and their families. "I think there are a lot of churches that are looking for new ministries that are relevant to their communities," Smith says. "If [the churches] back up to the river, it's relevant."

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