USPG webinar International Chaplaincy - Caring across contexts in a crisis.

First published on: 23rd October 2020

International Chaplains extend care across contexts, structures and cultures. This webinar drew on the experiences of three chaplains in unique contexts around the world, to provide insights into new forms of pastoral ministry which are particularly relevant with the additional challenges of Covid-19.


Attending the webinar were representatives of parish and chaplaincy ministry, from Sri Lanka, Morocco, Pakistan, Mozambique, Malaysia, Japan, India, Tanzania, Korea, the Philippines as well as from the locations of the speakers:  Hong Kong, Panama, and Britain.  

USPG’s research and learning manager, Dr Jo Sadgrove outlined the historical context that have arguably shaped aspects of care-giving today. She said, ‘As part of USPG Britain and Ireland’s work in relation to these themes of crisis and care-giving, we will examine the historical contexts of care-giving emerging from the Christian communities that we are currently exploring.’

Jo said, ‘The nature and provision of forms of care have become of critical importance in the context of Covid-19. Social isolation has been exacerbated by lockdowns and has separated families…with implications for both mental and physical health.’

Jo Spoke about the extra pressures on those offering pastoral and spiritual care and the additional fears felt by people all around the world. She said, ‘The pandemic has created fear of sickness, fear of isolation…this has exacerbated stress, anxiety, depression and rates of suicide.’

The forms of care provided by chaplains are distinct, supporting people spiritually and practically.  Jo said, ‘The distinctiveness of Christian practices of care-giving to marginalised communities has a long history. This is something that USPG with colleagues at the University of Leeds is currently exploring. We are seeking to understand the unique historical contexts of caregiving that emerge out of the period of SPG’s formation in the late 17th century and early 18th century.’

Jo posed rhetorical questions for delegates, asking, ‘How do we care for those with whom we cannot have physical contact, for those from whom we are geographically separate, for those who are isolated, those in precarious economic situations? And how, amidst these challenges, do we care for the chaplains themselves?’

Dr Alison Searle and Dr Emily Vine to give us a sense of how some of these questions appear in their current archive work’ recognising that letter writing was historically very important.

Alison said, ‘I want to give a snap-shot of the early missionaries that went to South Carolina. Many of these men faced an identity crisis. There were plenty of dissenters who had viable congregations in the same area. These men were not sure who they should be ministering to, was it the enslaved Africans or the British Colonials or the indigenous American tribes?’

Alison explained that these missionaries had questions about where their money would come from, how would they provide for their families and how would SPG support them? They also had questions about personal vulnerability – exposure to sickness and attacks from pirates and they had a need for reciprocal care but were distanced from other members of the clergy and from SPG.  Questions like ‘should I do this baptism, and how should I officiate this marriage in this context? took many months to answer by letter.

Emily Vine gave an example from history of an exiled Huguenot, who worked for SPG and died in 1717.  She said, ‘He was dependent on letters to communicate with SPG as part of his mission. During a lengthy voyage to South Carolina, he is regarded as a chaplain, and he wrote, ‘After 10 weeks’ having left Plymouth, our ship’s company is in good health thanks to God’s mercy, and only three men have been lost.’ Emily said, ‘This gives us a sense of the importance of writing back home in an uncertain context.

Jo Sadgrove added, ‘If we move forward 300 years to present day, there are many forms of Christian care-giving.’ The webinar examined forms of Christian care under Covid-19 and how they manifest in the present day.

Speaker Averil Pootan Watan said, ‘How have we responded to the pandemic? We had to stop all public worship. About a third of our congregation don’t have internet, but we had to move a lot of things on-line. We used the telephone to reach the elderly and the most vulnerable because we wanted to keep them connected.’  

Averil said, ‘We turned to Facebook and Whats App and chat groups to keep connections going. We learned that whilst we couldn’t be physically connected, we had to use technology and use phones daily at first and then weekly.’

Of course, people had other needs, and Averil’s church responded with food parcels and financial support for the most vulnerable.

Speaker Fr Ian Hutchinson spoke of an email in which Jo Sadgrove described chaplains as ‘spanner’ - rather like a bridge that spans a gap. This made him think about connecting people to each other and to the Divine. ‘This is the essence of maritime ministry’ he said.

Fr Ian gave a stark description of ports saying, ‘Ports are starkly functional places. Devoid of beauty which is necessary for health and to nurture the soul. Men are in the majority and the stress is palpable. Time is money and everything is pressured. Implicit to the notion of Chaplaincy is the notion that the transcendent requires us to step out of our safe places.’

But how is this done in the metallic, mechanical world of the international shipping context?

Fr Ian said, ‘When a port chaplain climbs us a ship’s gangway, they do not know what or who we will encounter. We must always be on the look-out for that person who God wants us to meet. During Covid-19, all shore leave has been cancelled. We join a ship taking small gifts of coffee, chocolate, second-hand books, or mission pens. These are small things, but seafarers know that they have been remembered and this awakens joy’.

Being able to connect with home means everything to these men who can spend 9 month or 14 months or more at sea way from their loved ones. Fr Ian explained, ‘Isolation which is a fact of life for seafarers, breeds loneliness and anxiety especially in this time of Covid-19.’

Fr Ian said, ‘Learning to be listening empathetic presence can literally save lives and souls from hell. Ongoing support can be a source of strength, comfort and encouragement. We go onboard looking for Christ in those that God would have us meet and serve.’ He described taking extra copies of the Bible onboard so that he can give them to those who request one.  He said, ‘Connections have been made, the gap has been bridged and the new journey begins.’

The final speaker was Fr Dwight dela Torre.  He began by explaining that between 5500 to 5800 Filipino workers left the Philippines every day in 2019 to ‘look for the proverbial, greener pasture.  Many of us will look at migration as an economic problem but in so far as it affects the values of the migrant workers, it is also a spiritual problem.’   

He explained that St John’s Cathedral set up mission for migrant workers in 1983 to provide services for migrant workers in Hong Kong and that the ministry for Migrant Workers has five key programmes for migrant workers in distress including the labour, employment and employment assistance programme (which deals with issues such as contracts or immigration problems). They also offer a pastoral care and social programmes in education, training and organising campaigns, women’s empowerment and a document research and information dissemination programme.

He said, ‘My work as chaplain involves pastoral counselling. Before Covid-19 restrictions, this would be in hospitals, prisons and boarding houses. I would perform services for the departed in mortuaries and lead Bible studies, marriage ceremonies and baptise children born to migrant mothers. On special occasions, I am invited to lead services in the streets of Hong Kong.’

Reflecting on his work as a chaplain he said, ‘I see chaplaincy in an exercise in the theology of presence of ‘being there’. This is very clear in what St John’s Cathedral calls ‘outreach’ or the ministry alongside migrant workers. Chaplaincy is our participation in God’s healing of the broken-hearted and in the binding up of their wounds. Chaplains are also agents of social change. We are (and should be) as one with the struggling migrants seeking justice, dignity and humanity. It is for this reason that ‘the moment we close our eyes and hands in prayer it is the moment we want change. To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.’

How has Covid-19 affected those still in Hong Kong? He said, ‘The suspension of religious services has inhibited migrant workers from receiving the spiritual nourishment that they so badly need. There was a time when in person worship was prohibited.’

Of course, worshippers seek face-to-face contact, but with current restrictions, this is impossible for example in hospitals or prisons. Those in prison may not use mobile phones and for those in hospitals, phones are their only means of communications via social media and simple SMS messaging. But the use of electronic means has several limitations including the technical know-how to use a phone for communications in terms of messenger, Facebook and the use of SIM cards has financial implications.’

Fr Dwight concluded by highlighting the plight of those in the Philippines and Indonesia who lack internet connections. It seems that for many, letter writing still has a place in the 21st century.


Today’s speakers were:

Dr Alison Searle is a University Academic Fellow in Textual Studies and Digital Editing at The University of Leeds. Her areas of expertise include renaissance drama, religious dissent, pastoral care, performance, scholarly editing.

Doctor Emily Vine is a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Leeds. Her areas of Expertise include early modern religion, religious dissent, the history of London and the history of the life cycle.

Averil B. Pooten Watan LL.M is a Church Warden, Chair for Forest Women’s Interfaith Network Group, Care Home Manager and Citizens UK Waltham Forest Co-Chair.

The Rev’d Canon Dwight dela Torre

Dwight Q. dela Torre is a priest of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente/Philippine Independent Church (IFI/PIC).