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Interview: Jenny Dibsdall senior chaplain to the waterways

28 September 2012

'I've always been good at listening to people and coming alongside them'

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 holding services.

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 time.

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 congregation.

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 Army.

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 the blue.

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 MacMath.

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