Christine McAteer on the Coronavirus and Bus Chaplaincy
During the COVID-19 pandemic, bus drivers and other public transport workers have been praised as essential workers. Yet they remain largely invisible to those with the option to travel by private automobile. Your church can include bus drivers and other essential workers in congregational prayers.
Christine McAteer is a volunteer National Express Bus chaplain for Workplace Chaplaincy CIGB in Birmingham, England, UK. Besides working part time as a National Estate Churches Network support officer and Birmingham Mothers' Union diocesan secretary, she is in training to become a Church of England ordained priest. In this edited conversation, McAteer discusses how bus chaplains stay connected with bus drivers despite the pandemic.
Who are the primary groups you minister to as a bus chaplain?
I normally connect with bus drivers, bus inspectors, cleaners, engineers, caterers, managers, and administrative staff in the bus garages. Before COVID-19, I rode the buses to talk with bus passengers. I no longer ride buses because of the risk of cross-contamination.
Besides not riding buses, how else has the coronavirus changed your chaplaincy?
Chaplaincy visits have stopped and re-started during the pandemic, depending on infection rates. The drivers are delighted to see me back in the garages. I don’t drive, so I am doing my visits by bicycle rather than travelling by bus to avoid cross-contamination. This is a round trip of about 20 miles. Sometimes cycling can be dangerous, because I have to use dual carriageways [divided highways], and some drivers speed and drive dangerously. The standard of driving in general (not from bus drivers) has deteriorated in the past year.
Garage rooms have few seats and limits on numbers of people. We must talk whilst physically distanced and wearing face coverings. In the canteen [staff break room], we are allowed to remove face coverings when sitting down, so conversations are easier there.
Have bus workers opened up about how the pandemic has affected them?
People have talked and talked and talked. There have been several deaths of staff or people known to them. Many bus staff members have been ill with COVID-19 but have recovered. Many have a traumatized look in their eyes from deep, ongoing stress. People have been very tearful. I have had conversations through a glass slat with people locked in offices. It has been very strange.
There are also lighter moments. A group of Christian bus drivers have added me to a WhatsApp group, and they have arranged a food collection box for items for a local food bank run by the Baptist Church. There is still much laughing and banter among the drivers, and I have still listened to staff sharing deeply about their faith.
What COVID-19 technologies or strategies will be worth keeping in your chaplaincy when the pandemic is under control?
As workplace chaplains, we have had online training through Zoom to prepare for resuming face-to-face chaplaincy. This is mostly around safety precautions such as using hand gels and face coverings, observing the 2-metre distancing, and any other safety measurers put into place by our host organizations. Zoom training and prayer support for chaplains saves travel time and can easily be fitted around work commitments. But remote technology doesn’t work for my chaplaincy. Face-to-face visits with safety precautions in place work best.
What do you wish others knew about the people you provide spiritual care for?
People often dismiss bus drivers as grumpy, miserable, and cantankerous. Some are, but many are simply working hard to earn a living as best they can and to provide for their families. Many drivers are from working class backgrounds, often from migrant communities, and they are ethnically diverse. Black and Asian people are often denied opportunities in higher-earning jobs because of systemic and historical discrimination. Some have been driving for over 30 years, and their children have gone on to be highly educated, often studying for masters or higher-level degrees because they have a hard-working, dedicated culture.
Many drivers do not drink alcohol, including white non-Muslims. They have to do all sorts of training to keep passenger safety topmost in their minds at all times. They are greatly under-appreciated by the general public. They often face abuse, including being spat at or physically attacked in their cabs. I have witnessed some of these attacks.
What kinds of support do you wish that Christians and congregations would pray and advocate for?
Bus drivers need more support from their employers and the local council or government. The garage buildings, as you might imagine, are well-built but are very grotty and have not been properly maintained. There is a lack of toilet and shelter facilities for drivers when they are waiting to change to another bus. Many suffer from kidney, bladder, and prostrate problems as a result. More women are becoming bus drivers, and they also suffer because of limited toilet access.
Drivers work very long days due to split shifts, where they might have a break for up to four hours between their driving portions. They are not paid during this break. This means that they often do twelve-hour days which start and finish at different times, depending on their shifts. These long days can put a strain on their relationships and family life as well as their general health.
How does the British public, in general, feel about buses?
We don’t appreciate our buses enough. The buses are used mainly by poorer people, the elderly, and children. There is a lot of low-level, anti-social behavior on the buses, such as people smoking weed or playing loud music. If governments invested more in making public transport feel safe and reliable—and if governments disinvested in building more car parks—then more people would use the buses, and we would have a greener environment. We need to make it a global priority to work towards reducing air pollution, which causes many more deaths than COVID-19.
How do you prevent burnout as a chaplain during this pandemic? Do any favorite Bible verses help you?
I pace myself with my work so that I am not working flat out all the time, even when I have imminent assignment deadlines. "Good enough" is my new motto for my written work. Having said that, I am self-disciplined. Every day, I get up early, journal, pray, and go for a cycle ride before starting my work from home. I enjoy online yoga classes through Zoom and make time for walks. I take photos of nature to share on social media. I also like to relax by reading novels, and I read the Church Times newspaper, which keeps me up to date on Anglican news.
I sometimes play songs to myself on my guitar, preferring gentle, folk-style songs, such as "Be Not Afraid" by John Talbot. Because I am in training to become an Anglican priest, I am trying to broaden my Bible knowledge rather than restrict myself to certain favorite passages. I've noticed, however, that many Scripture texts, such as the words of the Prophets, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Letters, were written against a background of national and international trauma. Yet God remained present and enabled people to remain faithful.
Watch Christine McAteer's brief video greeting to bus drivers. She leads virtual Ignatian spirituality retreats through Manresa Link and recommends the book Sleeping with Bread by Dennis Linn. Workplace Chaplaincy CIGB chaplains serve employees in transportation, retail, and government settings. The organization's prayer and worship resources include this occupational prayer cycle to help churches pray for different occupations each week.