These days American racetracks have more then horses. Many have in-house chaplains, including Churchill Downswhere the message of Christianity has become more prominent behind the backstretch. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.
Among the many workers you see riding on golf carts around Churchill Downs is Pastor Ken Boehm. Today, he’s going to the jockeys’ lounge to lead a prayer.
“Let’s pray for safety for the day,” Boehm says. “Heavenly father we come to you this afternoon and we ask for your blessing.”
Boehm is a Lutheran minister who became the first full-time chaplain at the Downs in 2003. He leads a daily prayer broadcast each morning over the loudspeakers across the racetrack’s backside. He often tours the place greeting workers and visitors.
“Boy, the crowds are getting big,” he says when he sees a group of people coming in. “I hope everybody has a great opening day here.”
“Thank you,” they say in unison.
On the track’s backside, he helps provide the often low-paid workers with everything from food to mattresses. He even helps migrant workers get their required permits and, in rare circumstances when a worker dies, he contacts their families and helps arrange for transport of the body.
The tasks are typical for him and other ministers in the Race Track Chaplaincy of America. Founded in 1971, this Christian organization is evangelical and interdenominational. It helps people working in all facets of the horse racing industry — and the organization is growing. In 2000, it had ministries at 67 racetracks in the U.S. Today, there are more than 120 around the world, with a new one opening soon in Kenya.
Here’s Chaplain Ken Boehm.
“In this industry, with chaplaincies at every race track now around the country and growing to around the world, people are more open about talking about faith wherever they are,” he says.
Churchill Downs Incorporated, which owns this track and three others, supports the chaplaincy’s work. The company donated the land for the chapel here, built just last year. It funds about one-third of the chaplaincy’s operations, including Boehm’s salary. The rest comes from an organization of horse owners and trainers called the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and more than 40 local churches. The Race Track Chaplaincy has negotiated this funding system at almost every racetrack it works with.
Churchill Downs provides space for the chaplaincy’s annual fundraiser. The track’s general manager, Jim Gates, attends the event every year. When asked why the company offers so much support, Gates gives a short answer.
“The spiritual well being of the people that work on the backside is very important,” he says.
Other industry insiders attribute their support for the chaplaincy to the social assistance it provides here and at other tracks. One is Suzanne Campbell, whose husband Cot Campbell founded Dogwood Stable in South Carolina.
“I think the chaplaincy is the backbone of the backstretch,” Campbell says. “I think they really keep it all together. They do such wonderful work with Green Cards and getting all of their business and economic problems worked out, Bible studies, pregnancy — I mean they cover the gamut.”
Mixing business with religion is a growing trend.
Laura Nash is a former faculty member at the Harvard School of Business and author of two books about business and religion. She has seen the growth of ministry in businesses that employ many low-wage earners. In addition to workers’ spiritual needs, these ministries help meet their material needs when their salaries and benefits don’t. Nash says the growth of religious activities in these kinds of industries has accompanied recent moves to incorporate faith into the workplace, which brings its own dilemmas.
“There’s more and more attempts to accommodate religion and then immediately it brings up questions of when does the practice of this religion begin to step on other people’s toes,” Nash says. “There’re not a lot of employer safeguards on this until somebody complains.”
At Churchill Downs, most people talk favorably about the inclusiveness of the chaplaincy’s work. Pat Day, the famous jockey, has been a spokesman for the Race Track Chaplaincy since he retired from racing.
“It’s all inclusive to the race track: frontside, backside, office help,” Day says. “But it’s predominately for the people that work on the backstretch that aren’t able to get off the racetrack and to go to the church of their choice.”
With that emphasis on a Christian church, it’s not clear how easily the Race Track Chaplaincy will be able to expand its work at racetracks in countries like Kenya and even Israel, where the culture isn’t predominantly Christian.
As Boehm leaves the stables, he looks out towards the track. He is happy with what the chaplaincy has been able to accomplish here.
“What a difference it is from what the public outside these fences think about what’s going on back here to what really goes on back here,” Boehm says. “To be able to go into a barn and start talking Jesus, in any barn back here, and have a very genuine conversation not only about horses, which are our main focus, but about faith.”