Chaplain Kempton D. Baldridge recounts his recent time supporting incoming freshmen at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, NY
From June 28 - July 18, 2018, I had the privilege of serving at the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY on eighteen days of special active duty in support of the Academy’s command chaplain, Lieutenant Commander Jerry Durham (Chaplain Corps, U.S. Navy.)
My presence was the result of a meeting between SCI and USMMA Kings Point in early 2018 which flowed from SCI’s recently-adopted strategic plan for greater outreach to U.S. maritime academies. On a visit to the Kings Point campus, I met with Chaplain Durham and we thought creatively about how an SCI chaplain could be a help to the midshipmen there. The “Indoc” period stands out as a crucial point in the journey of these exceptional future mariners, and so arrangements were made for me to perform ‘ministry to mariners’ more than a thousand miles from Paducah, KY, working alongside two active duty Navy chaplains and an enlisted religious program specialist.
“Indoc” is the term for the orientation period (“Indoctrination”) undergone by the incoming class at USMMA, or Kings Point for short. Upon completion, the future officers go from being a “plebe candidate” to fully-fledged “plebe,” and are accepted into the Regiment of Midshipmen. It is, by design, an intensive experience, quite unlike any these young scholars would have faced before or will likely encounter elsewhere. One of its main aims is teaching midshipmen to cope with stress.
Joining Chaplain Durham and me to form this year’s Plebe Indoc ministry team was Chaplain Dave Pahs, who relieves Chaplain Durham as USMMA command chaplain on August 3rd, 2018, and Religious Program Specialist 3rd Class Nelson Cancel, an Ohio reservist and SCI volunteer crisis responder. The four of us soon became known in the barracks as the “Kings Point God Squad”.
The Class of 2022 began their Indoc orientation on June 29. For the next seventeen days, the 280 candidates spent the training period learning the basics of maritime and regimental life at USMMA. The training emphasized military discipline, teamwork, physical fitness, basic seamanship, and an introduction to college-level academics. Candidates experienced weapons familiarization firing, Waterfront Safety, Sexual Assault Response and Prevention training, Honor training and an introduction to the industry-wide Standards of Training in Crew Watchstanding, to name but a few.
As a Chaplain, my Indoc responsibilities involved very long days of teaching classes of plebe candidates about the chaplaincy and chapel community, preaching at Sunday chapel service, pastoral counseling with both plebe candidates and upperclassmen, and participating in the plenary sexual assault resistance programs’ “Bystander Intervention Training”.
Our “ministry of presence” required setting the alarm clock for 4:30am to be visibly present and engaged with plebe candidates and the cadre from 5am reveille and 5:10am-6am physical training on the football field, throughout the various training evolutions (students work to a regimented schedule of 30 minute increments) until Taps, “lights out” at 9:30pm.
I found that this ministry of presence and availability is not unlike what we do daily on the river as SCI Chaplains. At Kings Point, as well as when visiting towboat crews, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of a listening ear and a kind word. I believe the simple presence of the chaplains was helpful to reassure the plebes that this was a time of training and transition. We sought to be a grounding influence, showing confidence in the plebes that they can and will get through a tough and stressful time.
We watched an amazing transformation take place in Kings Point’s Class of 2022, having seen them the moment they first walked on campus until the night they formed in front of the War Memorial at Wiley Hall and administered the Honor Oath some two weeks later. I’m hugely impressed by what I saw in these young people, and I couldn’t help but be enormously encouraged about the future of the maritime industry - and our world - after living and working amongst them during such a crucial time in their journey.