Amid pageantry, parishioners provide spiritual care at Churchill Downs

By Jessica Able

Catholic News Service
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Attention on Churchill Downs in early May is focused on the twin spires, Millionaire’s Row, mint juleps and all the pageantry surrounding “the greatest two minutes in sports.”
But beyond the turf and the winner’s circle, hundreds of people live and work with the horses on the racetrack’s backside.
About 1,000 workers labor at the backside each day and about 600 of them actually call it home, said the Rev. Ken Boehm, senior chaplain at Churchill Downs’ Christ Chapel.
Outside the chapel, the backside buzzed with activity as Kentucky Derby contenders arrived. Workers were engrossed in preparing barns, transporting hay and grooming horses.
As Rev. Boehm’s cellphone rang, his ringtone played the call to post. He is warm, affectionate and greets strangers with hugs.
Rev. Boehm, along with associate chaplain Chris Wong and a host of volunteers – including parishioners of Archdiocese of Louisville churches – provide spiritual care for the workers.
“For many, they travel from racetrack to racetrack. What is that one constant? The chaplaincy program at the racetracks,” Rev. Boehm told The Record, archdiocesan newspaper.
Christ Chapel is part of the Kentucky Race Track Chaplaincy, known as KRTC. It offers ecumenical worship services in English and Spanish each Monday. A separate service for children is held simultaneously. Following the service, worshippers are invited to stay for a meal provided by a network of about 40 local churches, including Church of the Epiphany, Our Lady of Lourdes Church and St. Edward Church, all in Louisville, and St. Gregory Church in Samuels, Kentucky.
Epiphany parishioners Muffy Sinclair and Brayton Bowen are both longtime volunteers at Christ Chapel. Sinclair directs the children’s program. Bowen helps connect workers to community resources.
They see their work as a way to live their faith, especially Pope Francis’ call to mercy.
As director of the children’s program, Sinclair coordinates ministry for two age groups: 3-7 years and 8-12 years. Aside from lesson plans, Sinclair said she sees her role and the role of volunteers as “being constant” in the lives of the track’s children.
“This is a very safe and loving space here for them. There is a consistency, which is one reason I’m here a lot. Now, I’m a familiar face,” said Sinclair, who also is a member of the KRTC board of directors. Attendance at the children’s liturgy varies from 15 to 40 kids each.
Sinclair said she believes the backside ministry is more important than ever given the climate of politics in the U.S.
“Now with the political rancor going on and the concern over immigration, it’s so important that what we do here is to continue to help learn about each other,” she said. “We are learning about another culture and they are learning about us. The best way to live in peace and love is to keep doing things together.”
Rev. Boehm estimated that 75 percent of the grooms and hot walkers speak Spanish with many from Guatemala and Mexico. He said what Sinclair has done for the families at the chapel is “invaluable.”
“For these kids who have so much changing around them, to know when they come to the chapel on Mondays, Muffy will be there, welcoming them and asking about their week is incredible. She shows the love of Christ in what she’s doing,” he said.
Bowen, who is also a member of the KRTC’s board of directors, became involved with Christ Chapel about a dozen years ago. Since that time, he has spearheaded the Epiphany Backside Ministry program. The group has about 40 active members and meets monthly to plan outreach efforts.
Bowen said the backside ministry is a way to practice Catholic social teaching.
“It fits in directly with what our pope is talking about in terms of mercy,” Bowen said. “Compassion is not about charity. It’s about mercy. In the case of the backside, it’s about solidarity.”
Rev. Boehm said individuals who work on the backsides of racetracks are among the hardest working and most faith-filled people he knows.
Despite his admiration and affection for the backside workers, Rev. Boehm said he is disheartened by people in the wider community who have a negative opinion of the backside and its workers.
“A lot of people think of the backside in a negative light because it’s the gambling industry. There are some who see someone who speaks Spanish and immediately assume they are undocumented workers,” he said.
Far more often than not, Rev. Boehm said, that assumption is wrong.
“The people here are working hard, doing a job many others don’t want. They get up before the crack of dawn and continue working until the work is done. And, they are getting up to do it all again the next day,” he said.
Rev. Boehm describes the backside as equal parts competitive and supportive.
“Life on the backside is challenging. Racing is very competitive and that gets in your blood. There is a spirit of competition back here,” he said, adding, “It’s more than work, it’s a family.”
Rev. Boehm noted that most backside workers are far from home, and their co-workers become a second family. Though they hail from different cultures, the one thing that unites them is God, he said. “Our love for God, his love for us – as different as we are, we are all children of God.”
Rev. Boehm has an advantage that most pastors lack: He gets to see his congregation day in and day out, working six days a week at the track. Sunday is his day off because of the racing schedule.
Thirty minutes before the first post each day of live racing, Rev. Boehm offers a prayer with the jockeys in the jockey room, including Kentucky Derby days. He offers similar prayers for safety with the pony crews and gate crews.
“I’m always praying for safety,” he said.

Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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