"The most challenging - but most rewarding - time to be a workplace chaplain"

17 January 2022 12:00 PM

Birmingham Central Garage Shafiq, Chaplain John Bradley And Paul Tuite Jan 2022[1]

National Express West Midlands Birmingham Central garage - Mohammed Shafiq, chaplain John Bradley, Paul Tuite

On Blue Monday, National Express West Midlands reflects on the work of its team of workplace chaplains.

The National Express chaplains are the people anyone at the bus company can talk to about anything. Literally anything at all, from worries about a new rota pattern to questioning life in the face of suffering. So of course what they do has been especially valuable during the pandemic. The chaplains themselves agree that, “It’s been the most challenging - but most rewarding - time to be a chaplain.”

Chaplaincy has been a part of the military and the railway for hundreds of years, but it’s relatively new and rare in the bus industry. Clive Fowle, now chaplain at National Express Coventry, was a bus chaplain in the early ‘80s at the since-closed Harborne, Selly Oak and Cotteridge WMPTE depots. Then 10 years ago, National Express Black Country garages introduced chaplains, then other garages asked for chaplaincy services for themselves.

Chaplains belong to the Christian church. They want to fulfill the church’s mission to contribute to the community but, rather than “sitting in a church waiting for people to come to them, we go out where we’re needed. People spend a lot of their time at work, so that’s where we go to support them.”

The official description of chaplains’ work is “a ministry of presence”. The National Express chaplains explain what they do as “loitering with intent to listen”. They might hold a scheduled open drop-in session; sometimes they mooch about in garages; often they are out and about in town centres where bus drivers change over for their shifts.

Wolverhampton garage chaplain John Welsby says:

“As chaplains, we have the time to wait for people to go beyond day-to-day chat about the weather, the bus routes, the football. I chatted about nothing in particular with one driver for a whole year. Then one day, we were in the canteen and he suddenly opened up about the thing he really wanted to talk about. You have to be ready for a conversation to go deeper. You never know what people are going through in their lives.”

Never has this been more true than during the last two years. Covid brought a change in working for the chaplaincy team - there were periods when they couldn’t go into the garages because of the restrictions. But the main change has been in what National Express employees talk to their chaplains about. John Bradley of Birmingham Central garage says:

“Since Covid, conversations have become more meaningful. People are so conscious of life and death now. We have sadly experienced a few deaths of National Express employees, and some serious illnesses - not just from Covid. We’ve been to see people in hospital, and visited bereaved relatives.”

Coventry chaplain Clive Fowle says:

“Following a tragic incident at my garage, I increased the number of my visits for several weeks, talking to many drivers, canteen staff and others in the garage about what had happened. That deepened my relationships with staff, and I go into the garage far more often since that terrible time.”

Many of the chaplains can draw on training from previous careers such as in social work. The Birmingham Airport chaplain is a trained counsellor and gave all Birmingham and Solihull chaplains a day of mental health training. They’ve also had bereavement counselling training.

Chaplains work closely with managers and trade unions at each garage. They signpost people to other services, such as for mental health. And although their work is completely confidential, if they notice the same issue being raised by many people, they will pass that on to garage management.

John Welsby says at the start, drivers were suspicious. They would ask: “Are management paying you to spy on us?” despite the fact that being a chaplain is an unpaid volunteer role. But, as Christine McAteer from Yardley Wood and Acocks Green depots says, the chaplain is now an integral part of each garage:

“We are asked along to leaving do’s. One time, a driver brought me her newborn baby in and let me have a cuddle. We also get invited to employees’ funerals and wreath-laying ceremonies.”

The bus industry is still very male, but Christine doesn’t believe middle-aged men bottle things up like in the stereotype.

“If you’re there regularly, and you remember things - like grandchildren - and ask them about that, people will share how they’re feeling about their families. That leads to how they’re feeling about other things.

“We say chaplaincy is ‘like thinking aloud’ and some people think very deeply even while they’re also concentrating on driving their bus. And bus rotas often involve split shifts - that gives drivers a lot of time to think through things.”

John Welsby thinks that many people these days don’t have links with any religion since school. So sometimes chaplains will be the only spiritual person they come across.

“If people do have faith, they will often explore what that means - to be a Christian bus driver, to run a happy bus, to care for their customers by keeping them safe. It may be that for some passengers, the bus driver could be the only person they’ve spoken to all day.”

He says people from non-Christian faiths are often keen to talk to him too.

“I have excellent conversations with people of all religions. I’ve learned so much. Sometimes it’s like being at theology school - people have huge knowledge of religious texts and a great understanding of philosophy.

“I feel valued as a minister, even if I’m not a minister of that person’s faith. People do ask us to pray with them - we just take the lead from them. We often share a recognition with someone that what we see in this world isn’t all there is.”

National Express West Midlands is incredibly grateful for its chaplaincy team.

Managing Director David Bradford said:

“Our workplace chaplains provide an incredibly valuable service to National Express. We are increasingly aware of how important everyone’s mental health is to their overall wellbeing, especially after the two years we’ve all just been through. So our chaplaincy team, who are completely independent of the company and can offer impartial confidential support with work or personal issues, are a huge part of how we look after our greatest asset - our people.”

Despite the responsibilities that come with their work, and the stresses of the pandemic, the National Express chaplaincy team are still enthusiastic about what they do. Indeed, they would encourage anyone who’s interested in chaplaincy to sign up. As John Bradley puts it:

“In these current times, being a chaplain seems even more of a privilege.”