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Hennie Johnston and Debbie Matthews at Chester Racecourse 29 October 2019

Sports Chaplain Hennie Johnston explains the need, relevance and value of visible pastoral care on a raceday

Hello – I am the Revd. Hennie Johnston and I am vicar of a parish on the outskirts of the City of Chester, not far from Chester Racecourse. I was brought up with ponies and horses and have ridden since a very early age. I love all horse events, being personally involved in some, and an observer of others, such as horse racing. For years I attended Royal Ascot, but when I moved to Chester over eight years ago and found the oldest racecourse on my doorstep, I started attending the May Races.

An opportunity to offer my services

I was aware that a number of racecourses had chaplains or chaplaincy teams, such as Ascot, Newbury, Newmarket and York, to name a few, but I had not observed such a person or team at Chester. A few years later at a friend’s mother’s 80th birthday party I found myself being introduced to the Chairman of the Racecourse, and we got chatting.  I asked whether the Racecourse had ever thought of having a chaplain or chaplaincy team, and the response was no – but a seed had been sown!  A few months later I was invited to meet the Chief Executive, and to cut a story short I was appointed Chaplain on a voluntary basis for the next season, together with a couple of other ordained priests who were part of my parish team.

The Racecourse and I felt it important that the chaplaincy should come under the umbrella of Sports Chaplaincy UK who work in partnership with Racing Welfare. There are hundreds of chaplains in the UK and Ireland, providing spiritual and pastoral care to professional and amateur sport. Paul Elliott CBE, MBE, says ‘Sports Chaplaincy is a must for 21st century athletes’.

I went down to London for a day’s Induction run by Sports Chaplaincy UK, which was very helpful, and I realised that there are chaplains of all different shapes and sizes depending on which sport they are supporting, and whether they are paid or voluntary.

Sky Sports Racing interview Hennie Johnston and Debbie Matthews at Chester in September

Racing staff deserve support

Obviously, some of the full-time chaplains supporting large football clubs have far more involvement with players compared to what is known as race day chaplains, of which I am. We are there to support, encourage and be a safe port of call for those in need of support on a particular racing day. Much of the afternoon/evening is walking among the crowds keeping eyes open for any pastoral support or assistance we can offer. We work alongside the racecourse staff, hospitality staff, medical teams, trainers, owners and jockeys.

No two days are the same. Over the four years that we have been present on race days we have been asked for prayer; helped people in severe distress; been there for injured jockeys; had great conversations, and always been very warmly received by staff and racegoers alike. It is such a privilege to be able to be a pastoral presence on what is always a very hectic, fast-moving day, and to be part of the racing community. Of course, there are some incidents that occur on a race day that need wisdom and discernment – but I enjoy it immensely – with the added bonus I often meet parishioners and friends!

Helping with all stages of life

There are many other areas where full-time sport chaplains can be involved, such as bereavement; funerals; weddings; baptisms; counselling; addictions; job issues and hospital visits, but as a volunteer raceday chaplain, and a full-time parish priest, I do what I can!

I’m so glad that Chester Racecourse has become part of the Go Racing Green initiative, which is all about offering a safe space for those who otherwise might find attending a race day very stressful, whether through anxiety attacks, dementia, autism or other such related issues. I think this initiative is so important, and a great opportunity for chaplains to work alongside the Go Racing Green team. I hope many other racecourses will embrace this much needed and important initiative.

Thank you so much for asking me to write this blog enabling me to share a little of what a Race day chaplain does at a meeting at Chester Racecourse.  If you are around come and see for yourself!

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