Q: How would you describe your role as chaplain?
A: For me, a chaplain is a combination between a pastor and a social worker. I provide all of the sacerdotal functions for the community. Those are the weddings, funerals, baptisms, baby dedications, worship services, bible studies and all of the other trappings of any church congregation.
I also do the social work helping those who need help find housing or bedding or navigate the legal systems at both the track and the local community. I will go to court with people and visit them in the hospital (the two places where I believe no one should be alone).
I help with immigration issues. I translate between English and Spanish. I have offered classes in both of those languages as well as GED and computer classes.
We provide all of the parties including Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving as well as occasional barbecues or perhaps serving taco breakfasts to the horsemen in their barns. Often I describe it with the analogy of a Wild West film where there is a West Texas town with one pastor and that pastor helps the people whether or not they go to his service.
As a chaplain I advocate for those who can’t always stand up for themselves. Our jockey colony believes that this very action has saved the lives of at least two jockeys here at Retama. At times I coordinate between our community and a treatment center. I help translate our reality to the outside world (and the outside world to our community).
No two days are alike for a chaplain. We are more like a missionary than a traditional pastor. In 1977 there was a ministry called the Missionary Advancement and Communications Center (MARCC). Their whole ministry at the time was compiling an exhaustive list of unreached peoples. For their definition an “unreached people” was any group that was held together by a common thread; race, region, common language, etc. and less than 20% of that community had a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. In the middle of that five-inch thick annual volume were the people who lived and worked in racetrack barn areas in North America. At the time they estimated that 250,000 people slept in the barn areas in North America (not counting those who commute daily from farms and apartments) and less than 20% had enough of a knowledge of Jesus Christ to make a decision. That population has only grown since then.
Once in Seattle, I had an Episcopalian Priest follow me around for the day. At the end if the day he commented “I know what you do!” To which I replied, “I give, what do I do?” He responded, “You loiter with intent!” I couldn’t agree more. I, along with my council, try to bring the message of Christ’s love to a community who is forgotten and invisible. A community that is so forgotten and invisible that they often believe that about themselves.
Q: What are some of your greatest challenges?
A: Two of my greatest challenges are funding and rejection/judgment by the church community. The track is 10 months behind in it’s support, but miraculously we still do everything that we’ve always done (with the exception of classes). We can’t afford the resources any more.
When I was in Seattle I met a lady named Belle Roberts. At the time she was the matriarch of horse racing in the Northwest. She trained the horses for the owner of our beloved Longacres Race Track. The third most prestigious race North of San Francisco and West of Chicago was named after her. She and her husband, “Hump” both died Christians.
When Belle was “middle aged” she decided to finish her training early and visit a church in the town of Hot Springs, AK where she was running at the time. She loved the service. By her description it was some form of an evangelical service. When the service was over and people were mulling about deciding where to go for lunch, some “men in suits and ties” came and asked her who she was. (To a racetracker, anyone in a suit and tie represents power, either horse owner or track management). She responded with pride, “I’m Belle Roberts and I’m from Hot Springs Race Track!” It’s important to note that the track in Hot Springs is a prestigious and a significant part of the town’s economy. Those “men in suits and ties” asked her to leave and not come back until she “got her life right with Jesus.”
In my 30 years as a chaplain, that story, in various ways has been recounted to me hundreds of times. I do my best to undo that message that Christ won’t love you if you work with horse racing.
Q: How have you worked to overcome these challenges?
A: As far as the financial challenge, I don’t know how we do it. I was scratching my head last week as I tried to understand how we’ve kept going with such a significant loss of regular funding. I can only attribute it to God.
With the second challenge, God has finally opened up a strong relationship with my local Assembly of God Presbyter (like a bishop). Because of that, we now have a “Pastor’s Day” with about 30 pastors attending and two churches assisting us with holiday activities.
Q: What have been some of the results of the work you and your team have accomplished?
A: Probably the greatest results of the chaplaincies where I serve are disciples won. I have never been at huge, well-funded tracks. I have never been able to have great crusades like some tracks. Our form of evangelism has always been personal, intimate and very strong. I have often described my tracks as “farm teams” for other chaplaincies. Though we don’t have huge numbers saved at crusades, the ones who are saved grow strong and eventually bless other programs.
Often, when a family gets saved, I have learned to tell them that they won’t be staying for long. They always protest saying they love me, they love whatever track we are at and they have no plans of moving. My response is always “you have always had a good product. You are a great hand. Now you have Jesus. It’s inevitable that you are going to find yourself in Kentucky or California or some other big track.”
I love those notes I get from Keeneland or Santa Anita or elsewhere when I read that they are now racing at tracks they only dreamed of and they are continuing to serve Jesus. I also love those occasional phone calls from fellow chaplains thanking me for “sending” such a strong Christian.
Q: Do you have a specific story of a challenge you’ve overcome and how you overcame it?
A: Probably the greatest challenge that I have ever faced in RTCA was when I first started in the program. Although as a pastor I had been a member of the RTCA board at that track, I truly was unaware of how unpopular the chaplaincy was both with the people who worked and lived there at the track and the local community.
One of the major funders had already opted out of supporting the chaplaincy. They were so surprised that they had a new chaplain that they continued to support us for an entire year. The next year when they reviewed the minutes from their last annual business meeting they were surprised to remember their dissatisfaction with our program. The head of security informed upon my arrival that if the current program were anything like the last, he would “kick (my) butt from one end of the barn area to the other!” Five years into my tenure at that track I was still receiving complaints from individuals who had felt violated by the past program.
Simply a strong “ministry of presence” overcame this. However, this caused my family to pay a huge price.