- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002


To every man's life come few opportunities to play a role so unusual that it nearly calls for a movie script.It's the age-old drama of the elder passing on the torch to the younger, of Moses handing over leadership to Joshua, of Elijah handing over the mantle to Elisha.

That drama took place this autumn off the windy, rocky coast of Maine, between a 69-year-old craggy sea captain of a pastor and his 34-year-old successor.

The newcomer, the Rev. Rob Benson, is a Generation X cleric with a New England education and roots in the District. One recent weekend, he was sitting with his wife and 6-month-old child at the North End Market, a homey food and convenience store on this island 15 miles off the coast.

The door opened and a woman wearing a light-blue jacket entered.

"Are you the new preacher?" she asked Mr. Benson. As if on cue, baby Peter spit up. Everyone laughed.

There being no resident pastor in most of these sparsely populated communities during frigid winter months, the Bar Harbor-based Maine Sea Coast Mission provides one, reminiscent of the Methodist circuit riders of the American frontier. But 21st-century Maine is a different kind of frontier. The state has the country's sixth-highest percentage of unchurched residents, after Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii.

Parishioners in this often harsh climate tend to prefer their boats and lobster traps to the house of God, which means the pastor must go to them.

Mr. Benson is making lots of introductions these days to such people. He grew up in Alexandria and graduated from Mount Vernon High School, then majored in philosophy at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. Next came a degree from Yale Divinity School, followed by two hospital chaplaincies, a part-time position with Hospice of Northern Virginia and another part-time job with the Faith and Politics Institute, a think tank in the District.

In March, when his wife, Cristy, was eight months pregnant, he heard that the Rev. Ted Hoskins, the legendary Maine Sea Coast Mission chaplain to the islands, was going into semi-retirement. Mr. Benson sent in his resume.

During the interview, he was asked whether he ever became seasick.

"Not usually," he said.

The Rev. Gary DeLong, executive director of the Maine Sea Coast Mission, said Mr. Benson impressed the all-female search committee.

"They wanted someone who could own the job," Mr. DeLong said. "They saw in Rob's sensitivity, his lack of any pretense and the fact he had spent time as a hospice chaplain meant he embodied a lot of listening, caring and compassion. He came across as the real deal and competent in a solid kind of way. Rob seemed integrated. How he walked and how he presented himself, there was a certain confidence that seemed to resonate."

Much of the new chaplain's work will be on the Sunbeam, a 75-foot-long vessel outfitted with a large meeting room complete with tables, blue vinyl seats and a galley. Filling out the ship are several other rooms, including four staterooms with bunk beds and a large wheelhouse at the fore of the ship with all the steering implements.

A place of warmth

It is part meetinghouse, part church, part counseling center and always a place of warmth. The ship includes several staff members to maintain the vessel and provide health care and Christian ministry.

The Bensons arrived in late August, and the young pastor immediately began memorizing names and ferry schedules. Although the bulk of his ministry is carried out on the Sunbeam, he keeps a Sunday service schedule on several islands that can be reached best by commercial ferries.

His congregants include young men who make in the six figures with the lobster harvest; and retirees and artists who depend heavily on tourist traffic. The Maine coast long has been a playground of the rich and famous, but skyrocketing real estate prices in recent years have forced out young families on the islands who want to stay in the lobster business.

It is not an easy life. Most lobstermen are at their docks by 5:30 a.m., drinking coffee and listening to the weather reports. Because of the transitory nature of the business, banks will grant them only five-year loans for their small boats, which cost $250,000 apiece.

A good daily haul is 1,000 pounds. Sold wholesale for $3.05 per pound, this means $3,050 for one day. But the season is only six months long, the weather is rarely accommodating and the lobsters don't always take the bait.

Pastoring these folks has its rigors, explains the Rev. Ken Dutille, a pastor on Swan's Island who makes his rounds in a plaid shirt and an L.L. Bean vest.

"It takes one day to do a hospital call," he says, "because you put your car in the ferry line a night before."

Each island has its traditions. Without the anonymity of a large city, one is supposed to wave to every passing car or at least offer a flick of the hand.

"People don't want to be seen visiting you," Mr. Dutille says, "but it's OK if you visit them for a cup of coffee. Ministering in these places is more presence than anything else."

That is why Mr. Benson is not planning on any heavy-duty evangelism.

"I'm not really concerned with winning souls for Christ or saving them from substance abuse or making them tithe," Mr. Benson says. "People have roles here: teacher, fisherman and pastor. As people feel more invited to an explicit relationship with God, we can be part of that. A lot of this job is just showing up."

But the pastor, who is affiliated with the liberal United Church of Christ, won't be commenting on certain other explicit relationships, such as cohabitation.

"If I say you should get married," he says, "that's just my values."

'Fishing communitiesare dying'

Sitting restlessly in his Victorian home in Blue Hill, Maine, Mr. Hoskins is not taking retirement easily. He is ministering to the coastal communities and fisheries as an advocate for the 5,000 to 6,000 fishermen. The region is tremendously threatened, he explains, because of overfishing.

"Year-round fishing communities are dying," he says. "The islands will no longer exist in a decade. The system of fishing management is broken, and no one has fixed it.

"The lobster harvest is now very good, but you know what happened in Connecticut? A disease hit and a week later they were gone. These islands are like the canary in the mine. They will go first."

He fears that the fishermen could be replaced by larger consortiums.

"It's the same thing that's happened to the small farm in America," Mr. Hoskins says. "The same forces are at work. It is easier for the government to regulate two large conglomerates than 5,000 fishing boats.

"I'd rather spend my latter years helping these fishermen. I am trying to help them be organized in ways that will allow them to participate in decisions that affect their lives."

It was for these people that he held a marathon series of Easter services this year, starting before dawn on the southernmost island, Monhegan, and finishing after dark on a fifth island, Great Cranberry. Each island is a two-hour boat ride from the other.

"I like cold weather," Mr. Hoskins says. "The water is so beautiful in the winter. The islands are such a contrast: bold granite, firs and snow."

His own life has been entangled for years with those of the islanders. He spent his summers as a youth on Isle au Haut, an island 20 miles northeast of Monhegan. He lost his only son in the seas near there one stormy night in May 1983, after a boating expedition of three young men and two young women came to a tragic end.

Just before that, his first wife had died of breast cancer.

"You have a faith that this is not all there is to life," Mr. Hoskins says. "I learned a lot about grieving. What you need to do is be all right with what's happened to them; to not argue about it nor feel guilty about it."

He remarried 13 years ago.

"People here don't use the structures of language to encompass their sense of the divine," he muses, "but there's no way you can spend time on the ocean without appreciating the Creator and His creation."

Does he seek to convert people?

"Never," Mr. Hoskins says. "Never have in my life, although some people say they've been converted through listening to me.

"I always want to make sure I am available to see someone again and again. You don't solve anything for people, but you walk through a season of life with them. Half of being a good pastor is keeping your mouth shut. Of keeping confidentiality."

Big shoes to fill

A charter ferry disgorges dozens of passengers in the autumn morning sunshine, who disembark and head up a steep hill toward Monhegan's only church. It's a memorial service for longtime resident Charlie MacDonald, a retired bank loan officer who has charted weather patterns for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration from his home perched on one of the island's highest points.

It's also a rare instance in which the outgoing and incoming chaplains get to minister together. Just before 100 people a huge crowd for an island where only 80 people spend the winter arrive at the church, Mr. Benson is agonizing over which tie to wear for the service. This may be the only time many of these residents see the inside of a church.

Mr. Hoskins, the master of ceremonies, gives a 20-minute eulogy about the departed and the departed's beatitude: "Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape." The congregation loves it.

"When it comes to sharing this religious stuff, you can get into trouble," he says. "But it's in the living out of it that God empowers us to do great and wondrous things."

Afterward, the crowd tromps up to the MacDonald homestead, dishing up clam chowder and standing outside to chat in 32-degree weather. The Bensons, accompanied by a sleepy Peter, make the rounds and introduce themselves.

The ferry arrives all too soon to take the visitors back to the mainland, leaving Mr. Benson and his family alone at the small parsonage once inhabited by Mr. Hoskins' larger-than-life personality. The new pastor is quick to say he cannot fill the older man's shoes anytime soon.

"So much of this is establishing my own set of relationships on the islands," Mr. Benson says. "Maybe in a few years, I will earn the same respect as he has over time."

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