I haven't done any towpath walking this week,
because I've been doing firefighting on social issues, but that's
what we're there for. It's about reaching out to people, not about
It's horrendous. This community doesn't have an
advocate. If you're miles from a town, and you need financial or
medical help, what do you do?
When I started, I was told that God would open a door
for me every time I went out to the towpath. Within a
month, God would open whole streets of doors, and I wasn't sure
which door to go through first.
Of late, he has upped the process, and now we
are dealing in communities. It is breathtaking, exhilarating,
challenging, and very humbling to be a waterways chaplain at this
The chaplaincy is ecumenical, and is the newest
arm of Workplace Matters in the diocese of St Albans. I work
three-and-a-half days a week for the chaplaincy, and two-and-half
days as a Salvation Army officer looking after a village
The boating community is a moving community.
Because we helped many boaters with financial difficulties, or who
are struggling with illness and unemployment, the enforcement
officers of the Canal & River Trust in our area began to ask
for our help. We are now working with them, and looking at projects
in other parts of the UK.
It scares me to death. It's evolving at such a
rate. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) trained us in the
benefits system, and now we are a partner with them. That's what
God does: he keeps putting people in our way, which enables us to
do something else, and something else. . . I stand amazed.
I pray day in and day out. Sometimes I get the
opportunity to sit back and pray and listen for a block of time,
but often it is prayers throughout my day, as things happen -
either to say thanks, to seek guidance, or to say to God: "Can we
slow down a bit?" because I find it difficult to keep up with his
speed on things at the moment.
There is no average day for a waterways
chaplain. You might have a quiet day when you just say
hello to everyone you meet. The next time you go out you could meet
someone who is desperately in need. It could be depression,
poverty, illness, alcoholism, breakdown of relationships,
addiction, or bereavement. Often I am called out by enforcement
officers, who tell me of a boater with a particular problem.
Most boaters don't have a postcode, which means
they can't have a GP, go on an electoral roll and vote, can't open
a current account, and so on. Legislation clearly states that a
boater does not have to be in a specific place, like a marina, to
be awarded housing benefit; but getting many councils to recognise
that can mean lots of letters, emails, and visits to show them the
legislation and get them to agree.
I took one of my guys into the Job-seekers office on
Monday - one whose application had gone missing. The lady
asked me: "Do you help other boaters? Can we ask your help?" We're
a partner with DWP; so anything we can do to help, we will. The
learning curve is vertical.
We've more or less become national without
trying. The waterways chaplaincy covered Berkhamsted to
Apsley on the Grand Union South. After I took up post, that area
was stretched to Braunston (near Daventry) down to the M25, the
River Lea from Enfield north, the River Stort and the Ouse in
Bedford. The Watford town-centre chaplaincy waterways team covers
the M25 down to Rickmansworth. Funding comes from the Church of
England, Roman Catholics, Baptists, URC, Methodists, and Salvation
I took a phone call from a nice lady, who said:
"My husband and I feel we should be doing waterways chaplaincy, and
we live at Sharpness Marina." Now we have a chaplaincy on that
stretch between Sharpness and Gloucester, and it just came out of
God doesn't let you go. My grandparents were
Salvation Army officers, and I went to look round the training
colleges; but you were not allowed to talk to boys, not allowed to
wear trousers. . . I couldn't see where the pluses were, and how
I'd be encouraged in mission. So I worked as the administrator for
the Salvation Army School for the Disabled, and then became
business-development manager in a secular firm.
It came up to 9/11, and my boss was only
interested in how much money she would lose, as her colleague was
watching 50 of his people die. But other people were coming in and
asking, "Where do we go? Is there somewhere we can pray?" I knew I
had to do something then. I was in college in the next intake.
I've always been good at listening to people and coming
alongside them. If anything was going on or needed help,
my mum and my gran were there; so it became second nature to me. I
did three years of hospital chaplaincy, and helped to regenerate
the SA's work in a community near Heathrow where all faiths and
cultures were represented.
We do our work by walking and talking.
Volunteer chaplains adopt a stretch of towpath and walk it
regularly, at least once a week. Gradually, the boaters and other
towpath-users get to know the chaplains are there. We don't "Bible
thump". Our work is purely pastoral care.
There's rarely a church on the towpath. A boat
would be lovely if we had a full-time chaplain, but at the moment,
time-wise, we cover more ground by driving and walking.
A boater phoned me: "Captain Jenny, there's a young lady
sleeping on the canal, and I fear for her safety." She
would come very late, and be gone before daylight, but I noticed
once that she'd lost her sleeping bag, so I left her a bag and
tarpaulin because the weather was turning cold, and a leaflet, and
a note begging her to call me if she needed help. One day she
disappeared. It was one of the best things that has happened when
she sent a lovely email from a borrowed computer telling me that
she was OK.
Back in the '50s and '60s, the Salvation Army had two
boats, the Aster and the Salvo, now in
private hands. Last week we met the Aster and the lady who
currently owns her. It was like reaching out and touching our
heritage. The Salvo was the butty (a boat without an
engine) and used as a mission hall and teaching room. She's now a
live-aboard boat near Birmingham.
Many people buy a boat, and then find what the real
costs are, and what life is like as a boater. When people
become sick or lose their jobs, £65 a week on Jobseekers Allowance
does not go far. They need diesel to run their engines and charge
the batteries, coal and wood for their wood burners to provide
heat, Calor gas to cook on. There's no money for paying their
Continuous Cruising Licence - up to £1000, depending on the size of
the boat - insurance, boat-safety certificate, cleaning and
maintenance. . .
The surprise has been that boaters are often treated as
Travellers by officialdom, and discriminated against.
Those on a continuous cruising licence have to move every 15 days,
and that makes daily life difficult. If they are unemployed, they
need to keep in touch with a Job Centre. If they are ill, they need
to stay within touching distance of a hospital. If they are
employed, they need to be able to reach their work. If they have
children, they need to be able to get them to school. In the
winter, when the canals freeze over, the boat's Elsan tanks freeze,
water-tanks freeze, and boats can be covered in snow and ice. Even
the coal and diesel boats can't get through sometimes.
I love my family to bits. I grew up at
Portland, in Dorset, a virtual island community with its strong
naval links, prisons, and the heritage of its stone industry, which
formed many of the most famous buildings in our country.
The most important choice I have made was to accept
Christ as my Saviour. Through all the bumps and lumps of
life, some of which have been difficult to contend with, he has
been there and seen me through.
I'd like it to be remembered that I loved my
family and rejoiced in all that they have brought to me, but also
that I cared about the people around me, and found serving them to
be a privilege.
Just to see the sea, walk at Portland Bill, and
chill out is my personal retreat.
When I want to switch off, it's biographies, or
writers such as R. F. Delderfield, Erica James, Maeve Binchy,
Charles Dickens, Jane Austen. I read modern Chris-tian writers such
as Yancey, Lucado, Jeff Lucas, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Psalms and Proverbs are my favourite books of the
Bible. I don't like Lamentations.
I'm happiest when I am with my family, and
watching my grandchildren grow and learn about their world - and
when God does one of his amazing things, which he seems to be doing
a lot of lately.
I would hate to be locked in a church. I don't
like being bound by four walls. I would prefer to be able to take a
walk along the cliffs at Portland with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Captain Jenny Dibsdall was talking to Terence Handley