Fishing for souls in rough water Ministry: The Rev. Bill Viel will use his floating chapel along 173 miles of Baltimore County's shoreline in search of Sunday faithful. But some question how many souls want salvation.

April 12, 1997|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In the New Testament, Jesus advises two apostles, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people."

Today, the Rev. Bill Viel is carrying forth this daunting theological challenge through a new ministry along Baltimore County's 173 miles of shoreline -- where the Sunday faithful are found nursing drinks at the Red Eye Yacht Club or dropping a line for perch in a tranquil cove.

His 46-foot floating chapel: a 1949 Chris Craft named Agape, Greek for "love."

"A lot of people out there on the water are hurting, lonely," the soft-spoken Baptist says of his mission, aimed at the tens of thousands of boaters along the county waterfront.

But even as Viel and a handful of volunteers scrape and paint the wooden classic in preparation for the opening of boating season next month, some question how many souls desire salvation.

Thomas Mannion, past commodore of the Sue Haven Yacht Club, says, "No disrespect intended, but I think he'll have a hard time. Most people on the water are not looking to go to church or address their spiritual needs on a Sunday morning."

Boaters, he says, "get up, do the things they want to do. They might want to wax the boat, have a coffee, shoot the bull, drink a Bloody Mary. People don't want to hear it from an outsider; they have a boat to get away."

Viel's boat is one of a handful of waterfront ministries along the East Coast. In Riviera Beach, Fla., Christian divers in the Glub Club meet regularly and services are conducted weekly. Similar groups meet in Toms River, N.J., and Palm Bay, Fla.

In Baltimore County, the waters are crowded every summer with graceful sailboats, screaming cigarette boats and expensive yachts. Viel will seek worshipers from the county's 65 marinas, a dozen or so yacht clubs and the partying flotilla -- sometimes 300 boats strong on steamy weekends -- anchored off Hart-Miller Island.

"There will be no pulpit on the bow," he says. "The only sign we are a ministry will be the flag of the Christian Boaters Association."

The floating chapel, which was donated to his Inner Harbor Ministry, is as comfortable a "church" as one will find. It has two bedroom areas, a full galley and a mahoganied living room that will be converted into a library.

Viel, a minister since 1966 when he graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., knows working new ground will be an uphill battle. But he has climbed the mountain before.

He has preached in Cleveland, made ministerial trips to Russia and the Caribbean to help in hospitals and orphanages, and for eight years headed the First Baptist Church in the Middlesex area of east Baltimore County. He also counseled rescue workers and survivors in the 1987 Amtrak crash at Chase, in which 16 people were killed and 170 injured.

"This is a nontraditional effort across religious denominations; we just want a gentle foot in the door," says Viel, an Essex resident.

"I'm not a fire-and-brimstone-type of preacher," says Viel, married and the father of a grown son, who is a paramedic. "I'm very comfortable with a contemporary-style ministry. I don't wear a collar. If I'm on the water, I wear my deck shoes; in the business community I wear a suit. Dress should not be a barrier to people."

Viel's effort already has touched some. Bill Sullivan, owner of the Riverwatch Restaurant and Marina in Essex, has donated a slip with a year's rental value of $2,400 for Viel to dock his boat.

The donor of the Chris Craft -- which was called Baltimore before it was renamed -- prefers to remain anonymous, Viel says, "but it is a gift for which we have been praying for eight years."

Four-year-old Brian Shafer Jr. is helping his father, Brian Shafer Sr., a mechanic, who is helping volunteers get the boat ready.

Contributions, Viel says, would be appreciated -- fuel isn't heaven-sent; it's $1.49 a gallon.

The concept of reaching out to worshipers by boat dates to at least the turn of the century, when ministers in Florida visited outlying settlements where people lived amid abundant game and fish. These circuit-boating preachers had to confront the settlers' raucous lifestyles -- drinking, fighting and gambling.

Along Florida's lakes and rivers in those days, a waterborne minister observed, "We find a great and needy field among the fishermen. They do not observe the Sabbath in many places, and are wicked, shiftless, aimless and profane."

Today, along peaceful places such as Sue Creek and Strawberry Point, Viel's task is not as intimidating or demanding. But it's still likely to pose a challenge.

Says Guy Shaneybrook, a Bowley's Quarters resident and recreational boater for nearly 20 years: "I think the minister, who's probably a fine guy, would be better off with a floating casino on that boat of his, perhaps toss a couple of one-armed bandits on board.

"Boating people are a tough crowd. After everyone has had a few drinks at Hart-Miller on a hot morning, the last thing they want is their soul saved."

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