Waterways Chaplaincy

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Waterways Chaplaincy
The Waterways Chaplaincy is an ecumenical project working out of Workplace Ministries in
the Diocese of St Albans. The vision for the project is to engage the church with the
waterways communities. These communities are the boaters (live aboards and continuous
cruisers), walkers, runners, fishermen, waterside residents and businesses. A pilot study
was undertaken by Dr Malcolm Ernst (A Salvationist at Aylesbury and a yachtsman) and Rev
Michael Shaw, the then Director of Workplace Ministries. In the last year it became clear
that teams of volunteer chaplains were needed to cover the planned area of Grand Union
(South), the rivers Lee and Stort and the Ouse through Bedfordshire. I was seconded
part/time to the chaplaincy from the beginning of 2011.

The canal boats in summer look idyllic. For the most part canal life is great, but, as in all
communities, there are down times. People experience loneliness, stress, marriage
breakdown, ill health and financial difficulties. The chaplains regularly walk stretches of the
towpath getting to know people and building trust. It is in those situations that people stop
us and ask “have you got a minute?” Those minutes can turn into hours. Sometimes it is
just giving someone the opportunity to offload and think issues through. We are asked for
practical help either by the boaters, or the British Waterways enforcement officers. We
greatly value the fact that they are beginning to trust us.

We have supplied food, clothing, a new chimney for a boat, water in the winter when water
taps at service areas were frozen, and the time to work through applications for housing
benefit etc in order to help someone become financially settled, able to pay their licence and
boat safety certificate and remain afloat. Through modern media such as email, Twitter,
Facebook and Cutconnect.com I am able to ask for help from other boaters when we are
urgently looking for items that boaters need but cannot afford (such as replacement batteries
which cost £100 each). Many boaters are now our ears and eyes on the waterways and are
keen to help and also let us know if they think someone needs some support. There are
often suicides along the canal and river network. Sometimes we have been able to have
conversations that enable people to turn away from that option. On a recent occasion it was
a case of talking to the boaters after a young man had committed suicide near their boats.
For boaters and residents it was a terrible situation and we were able to provide pastoral
support in very difficult circumstances.

The average age of the live aboarder is 50+. There are many couples who take to canal
living in later life. When one of those partners passes away life can become difficult, not
necessarily in managing the boat, but in coping with loneliness and isolation at night. As we
walk the towpath and take time to say hello to everyone we find lonely people. One lady had
been widowed and had no-one to talk to and felt isolated and forgotten. We were able to
stop and engage her in conversation and over a cup of tea to let her tell her story and find
some comfort. It is always a privilege to be able to pray with someone whether it is on their
boat, or on the tow path. Those times bring blessing to us all.

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Our volunteer chaplains are given advice and training, special jackets and a windlass. We
walk their chosen stretch of towpath with them to ensure they are happy and then set them
off in two’s to start their ministry. We keep in touch by email and text and are beginning to
organise regular get togethers and further training. What we need are people to become
involved: to adopt a stretch of tow path or river and commit to walking at least once a week
so that they build up relationships with the regular walkers and boaters. This is not
evangelism in a mission-type way, but being Christ in the community: befriending people of
faith and no faith, listening, pulling in resources through the senior chaplains where
necessary, sharing one’s faith when given the opportunity. We find people who have left
church for one reason or another, others who have no faith at all. Starting from a baseline of
friendship building we are able to share the stories and reconnect people to their faith and a
way of being community in faith with each other.

I find Waterways Chaplaincy challenging. It is not just a gentle stroll along the towpath or
riverbank. It is reaching out to all the people I meet in faith, accepting them as they are in
the situations they find themselves. Through those situations I can express my faith
practically and prayerfully. Some of the challenges are immense, such as dealing with
suicide, or people being sectioned or experiencing violence and the potential loss of their
home. Most of the experiences are pure befriending, trusting that the shared moments will
be the basis for that person to look at faith in a different way and maybe start their own faith
journey. We know that God is in this work because he continues to open doors for us,
sometimes so fast it is like walking down a street where every door is open and not quite
knowing which door God wants you to go through first. There are too many God instances
rather than coincidences for this not to be God’s ministry. I am privileged to be part of this

If you are interested in this kind of ministry and would like further information please either
call on 07717 813682 or email on jenny.dibsdall@salvationarmy.org.uk

Captain Jenny Dibsdall
Senior Waterways Chaplain
Workplace Ministries

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