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Floating Mission Brings Ray of Sun to Maine's Island Communities

ISLE AU HAUT, Maine - It's been a doozy of a winter, with record snows and weeks of temperatures dipping well below zero. As challenging as it's been for inland Mainers, for island residents the dark days of winter can make for a deeper sort of isolation. That's where a ship known as the "Sunbeam" comes in.

Operated year-round by the Maine Seacoast Mission, pastors on the Sunbeam have been ministering to Maine's islands for more than 100 years. Now the mission is looking ahead.

It's a cold, blustery morning on Isle au Haut. There's more snow on the ground than residents have seen in decades. Fishermen are busting ice from skiffs. The rocky strip of land in Penobscot Bay is home to about 50 year-round residents who brave the isolation in fair weather or foul.

But when the Sunbeam is in town? They all come down to the dock and pile aboard for coffee, conversation, and one of the boat's legendary breakfasts.

"Oh it's exciting! It's nice to see her. It's just wonderful. Wonderful people. They'll do anything for you." That's Bernie Barter who, at 77, has spent her whole life on the island. Sitting next to her is her husband, William.

He also grew up here. This visit from the Sunbeam is especially welcome. It's been a tough winter. "When I grew up winters were just like this. Tons of snow."

As we talk, more folks come aboard. And word spreads that William and Bernie are celebrating their 57th wedding anniversary.

"Congratulations!" one man says.

"It's a long time," Bernie says.

"You guys have been married longer than I've been born!" the man responds.

Islanders have been catching up with their neighbors in this same way for more than 100 years. The Barters have seen four different Sunbeams come and go - we're currently aboard the Sunbeam V. And it's aptly named, says Bernie Barter, because everyone is happy when it arrives.

Each islander has a personal relationship with the boat, she says. "They toot the horn to me so we know they're coming in. And if it's at night, I blink our light back to them so I know that they've gone by. It's just a good feeling you know? Great friends."

In addition to providing an opportunity for fellowship, the Sunbeam also offers practical assistance. Islanders can virtually consult with their mainland doctors using the boat's state-of-the-art video medicine suite. And a nurse practitioner is always on hand.

But the boat is also outfitted to provide another service, says Captain Michael Johnson. "In the eight years I've been captain, we've hardly broken any ice. And this winter we've broken ice, probably ten times."

This winter, the Sunbeam has been called upon to crash through the frozen waters around Mount Desert Island to free trapped lobster boats, and twice to break a path for the stranded Isle au Haut mail boat, the island's daily lifeline to the mainland.

But its main purpose has mostly remained the same as it was in 1905, when two brothers founded the non-denominational Maine Seacoast Mission. Angus and Alexander MacDonald saw a need to reach out to the isolated fishing communities miles from the mainland. Ever since, there's always been an ordained Christian minister on board to serve the communities, many of which are too small to support a full time pastor - until now.

"We're really assessing how we're going to adapt, just like all churches are struggling with how they're going to adapt with people's changing relationship to religion and organized churches," says Douglas Cornman. Cornman is the interim mission worker on the Sunbeam.

It's a temporary job because, for the first time, the person ministering to the island is not a member of the clergy. "I'm a board certified dance movement therapist," Cornman says.

Cornman is also a mental health counselor, and a pastry chef with a farming background, all of which he says he's been able to put to use. He says islanders have come to him with depression born of isolation. Or sometimes they just come to him for a chin wag. And earlier, he and Bernie Barter spent a good half hour on the couch ogling cookbook recipes together.

Cornman says today's islanders, unlike those in 1905, are less likely to ask for religious service. "They talk more in terms of spirituality and a relationship with something outside of themselves.  And I think that's the focus - is really, not saying, 'Oh, we're going to have a Roman Catholic church on the island,' or, 'We're going to have a Congregational church on the island.' "

This, he says, reflects trends seen elsewhere in the country where church attendance has steadily dropped off.

Whether the boat needs a fulltime ordained minister is currently under review. The mission plans to hold a series of town meetings on the islands this year and then chart a course before next winter sets in.

But, whatever course is set, Cornman says it really won't look much different than the one the Sunbeam is currently on.

"The relationship will be a little different if the person is not a minister, but it will have the same flavor and the same focus," Cornman says. "Just knowing that someone cares about us is really the best thing that you can do."