There’s a challenging confusion you always face as a chaplain on a cruise ship. It’s there even before you step onboard. In the contract you will sign before you leave, you’ll see your name typed in, the Rev. Edward Dufresne, followed by the words “hereinafter referred to as the artiste.” The cruise lines use the same format for clergy as they do for entertainers!
Entertainment rules the roost onboard — it’s what your ‘boss,’ the Cruise Director, spends almost all of his or her time supervising, scheduling and promoting. It’s the entertainment productions followed by the ‘enrichment’ speakers that get top billing on the ship, and that’s to be expected: it’s what passengers sign on for and what cruise ships are designed to provide.
I’ve never seen a cruise ship with a dedicated chapel, for example. Most often, you’ll conduct worship in a hastily transformed theatre or on the dance floor of a bar. This can make for some bizarre incongruities, like the time I was conducting a mid-morning Good Friday service for about 100 people in a glass-walled piano-lounge looking out on the ship’s pool area. I did my best to stay focused on worship as quite a few bikini-clad beauties unwittingly paraded by in plain sight of us worshippers!
When I first began as a chaplain, I remember feeling like a fish out of water, a fish on deck, as it were. I was not an entertainer, that I knew. But soon enough I realized that entertaining wasn’t going to be my real purpose on board, in any case. That’s because ‘entertainment’ isn’t all that passengers are about. “There is such an enormous hunger for meaning” in people, “for comfort and consolation, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for restoration and healing,” as Henri Nouwen put it. My role as chaplain among the speakers and entertainers is to be there for my fellow travellers, to inspire and encourage, to counsel and console, to connect them with what is essential.
Travel provides opportunities for wonder, reflection and renewal. When folks are on a journey, often they are open not just to spectacular sights, but also to deeper insights — insights about themselves, the world, and their place in it. That’s where the chaplain can be uniquely helpful with a ministry of worship, compassion and deeper meaning in the midst of all the entertainment the cruise ships work so hard to provide.