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A fisherman on a mission

06 December 2013

A keen angler, Jon Barrett reports on a visit to the United States, where he found out how Americans in the deep South are using outdoor activities to spread the gospel

jon barrett

Hunting, shooting, fishing: Jon Barrett's catch of the day

Hunting, shooting, fishing: Jon Barrett's catch of the day

A DECENT mid-life crisis seems to have become an almost inalienable right for middle-class 40-somethings in the West.

But what do you do if you: (1) had your ear pierced in your teens; (2) already have tattoos; and (3) have ruled out both a sports car (for financial reasons), and an extra-marital affair (for moral ones)?

My answer was to abandon my busy, programme-driven church, in a semi-rural suburb, east of Leicester, and escape to the Bible Belt in the United States. The idea was to run around in the woods with a bunch of gun-totin', fishing-rod-wielding, redneck Christians from the Southern states.

I had no need to "find myself". I've been a Christian for longer than I've been a cleric - but an angler for longer than either. It has long been a dream of mine to find a way of integrating my faith, my heartfelt desire for evangelism, and my fishing; to pioneer a "fish expression", if you will.

Some of the "good ol' boys" I had arranged to visit had found some innovative and effective ways of combining their love of the outdoors with a whole host of Christian ministries.

After a transatlantic flight to New York, and a bumpy internal flight in what looked like an overgrown sardine tin equipped with wings, I picked up my hire car at Atlanta airport. My first concern was the car: the red VW Bug (thankfully minus the flower on the dashboard) looked a lot of fun, but was it too "metrosexual" for America's Southern states? Would it lead to disdainful stares - or worse - every time I pulled into a diner's parking lot?

I headed for Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina, for my first appointment.

Columbia was hot, pleasant, but unprepossessing. I arrived early, and walked around in the intense late-morning heat. Aside from the temperature, it was the politeness of the people that made the biggest impression on me. Without exception, everyone - male, female, young, old, smartly dressed or homeless, white or black - said "Hello"; and, on hearing my English accent, the greeting was often repeated with the addition, "Sir".

At Jimmy John's Diner ("A tradition since 1983"), I met my first American outdoorsperson, intentionally engaged in using outdoor pastimes for Christian purposes. Patrick Tyndall, of "Ironman Outdoors" (which derives its name from the metaphor of "iron sharpening iron" from the book of Proverbs), was engaging, and thoughtful, and had got into "outdoor ministry" pretty much by accident. 

HE HAD been teaching an adult Sunday-school class, and decided to invite the men from the class away for a camping weekend, thinking that it might help them to open up to one another, spiritually. It did.

From small beginnings has emerged an organisation with a professional staff, an e-newsletter that goes out to more than 2500 people, and a year-round programme of hunting-and-fishing-themed Christian retreats that take place across several states.

Generally, gender politics in the Bible Belt works something like this: "Men are men, and women are grateful." But in Charleston, my second port of call, there were female voices among those eager to share their passion for outdoor-related ministry.

Charleston, the oldest city in South Carolina, voted this year's "America's most friendly city", is the most charming town I have ever visited. With its Civil War heritage (the first shots took place when Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor); pretty, white clapboard houses; polite locals; and attractive seafront, it has pretty much got the lot.

I stayed in the home of a lively, intelligent septuagenarian, Shirley Hendrix, whose free spirit and Democrat affiliations made her something of a local novelty. The church that she attends, Mount Pleasant Presbyterian, has a range of outdoor-related ministries that in-clude hiking-and-camping groups, and works with a school for children with behavioural problems. 

AMONG the clergy team are a married couple, Clark and Carmen Groetschius, who are both keen anglers and kayakers, and it was in Charleston that I caught my first fish in the US. Susan Dalton, a deacon from the church, is an angling guide, and she took me fishing off the end of a friend's dock.

"Do you like Alister McGrath?" the dock-owner, who had spent some time lecturing in UK universities, asked; and, after my affirmative reply, and assurances that I owned some of his books and had attended some of his lectures, I was welcomed on to his dock like a long-lost friend. We caught skate and flounder, and very good they tasted, too.

From South Carolina, I travelled on into North Carolina - Billy Graham country (there is even a highway named after him). Here, I stayed with Brent Besosa, who runs an evangelistic outdoor outfit, "4 Outdoorsmen". On a visit to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Organization's training centre, in Asheville, I was allowed to sit in the great evangelist's leather chair at his desk. The walls of his office are lined with photos of him with past US Presidents, members of our royal family, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and a host of other worthies.

After the visit, and after a prayer-meeting with some of the leaders of Brent Creek Baptist Church, I did what any self-respecting redneck would do: I walked out of the church with a rifle slung nonchalantly over my shoulder.

By the river at the back of the car park, I discharged bullets from a hunting rifle - a Glock - and a small pistol at some branches that overhung the water on the far bank. I like to think that Billy would have approved.

Moving on to Tennessee, I met a schoolteacher, Trevor Ruble, who had developed a successful Sunday-school curriculum, aimed at non-churchgoing children, which teaches them how to fish while simultaneously teaching them spiritual truths.

I then pushed on, through the mountains, heading for Kentucky.

THE further into the mountains I drove, the poorer the housing be- came: small, tumbledown shacks, and many trailer homes with rusting pick-ups, left to die in the sun-beaten yards. This looked like the kind of place where everyone took snakes to church, and I told my car not to break down by the roadside.

Fortunately, there were no mishaps. I didn't hear the sound of duelling banjos; and I made it safely to Wilmore, in Kentucky, to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Kentucky and Illinois gave way to Missouri, the state where I was busiest, connecting with five different outdoor ministries and having a great deal of fun in the process. I stayed just over the border, in Arkansas, with an internet friend of almost a decade's standing, Dave Lingner, who runs a web-based forum for Christian outdoors en- thusiasts, and helps to connect and network various outdoor ministries in the US.

Nestled in the Ozark Mountains, his home provided a delightful base from which to venture forth to meet other Christians, and go fishing. We managed two trips: the first from a wave-bouncing, high-speed, bass boat. On the second occasion, I found myself standing knee-deep in water that is known to be home to venomous water moccasin snakes. This added a certain frisson of risk to the task of catching small bluegills, and sunfish.

The neighbouring town of Branson is known for its bluegrass music, and one of the highlights of the trip was hearing the Mississippi River Boatmen playing an open-air concert to a crowd in the car park of a shopping mall.

There were tight harmonies, authentic bluegrass-picking, a great deal of self-deprecating Southern humour, and, in the midst of all of the bluegrass standards, a beautiful rendition of Cowper's old hymn "There is a fountain filled with blood". Mesmeric.

NEAR BY, in Oak Grove, I sampled worship at a Paradise Outfitter Ministries church that was entirely themed around, and aimed at, outdoorspeople. The organisation was started by a handful of evangelistically orientated anglers and hunters, led by Brandon Smith, an enthusiastic church-planter in his late 30s.

Now, it meets three times a week, and has a weekly attendance of about 350. The emphasis is on building and fostering community. Meals precede every service, and an archery range is open for an hour before the meal starts.

Even with my woefully deficient theology of sacred space - I tend to see church buildings as little more than rain shelters within which Christians choose to meet - I still found something slightly surreal about worshipping in a church where, instead of stained-glass windows and crosses, the décor is stuffed deer heads, cased fish, antique guns, and fishing rods.

Members of the congregation were rough and ready - vests, tattoos, and baseball caps were the standard dress-code - but the seriousness of their spiritual pilgrimage was both exhilarating and humbling.

Talking after the service with a man who, by his own admission, had previously been a heavy drinker and a less than attentive husband, and hearing him describe himself as a "Jesus freak" these days was one of the trip's special moments.

I would happily bottle and bring back to my own church some of the sincerity and authenticity of the Christian community life at Paradise Outfitter, but they are welcome to the moose heads.

Looking back, my American adventure was everything that I had hoped it would be - but not always what I had expected. I had thought I would find a bunch of pleasant but simple hillbillies, who thought that a split infinitive could be fixed with duct tape. But, while a few of the characters I met approximated to the stereotype, most were bright, smart, and articulate.


FOR instance, I met big, strong, pick-up-driving men, who viewed life through a straightforward "no nonsense" prism, and saw things in "straight lines", but were none the worse for it.

Lacking the superiority complex that drives much of our European cynicism and sarcasm, these were some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I have ever met. They wore their faith on their (invariably camouflage) sleeves, and were highly motivated to share it with others.

I drove more than 2500 miles, travelled through nine different states, and stayed in a few motels that seemed to be self-consciously referencing Psycho (I avoided the shower). I witnessed a synchronised lawnmower display in a small-town Independence Day carnival in Kentucky, and fell in love with small-town, blue-collar America.

I enjoyed my time in a country that - perhaps because it is so close to its past - does not yet have the distance from its history to be riddled with cynicism. I enjoyed being somewhere where men are encouraged to stay "boys" for life, and was humbled by the friendliness and sincerity of my Christian hosts.

I made far more connections between my own very English brand of Evangelicalism and its American cousin than I might have expected. I still don't get American politics, and, as a theological conservative who happens to be politically left-wing, I will always be a source of bafflement to most Americans, who see the two as being mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, my experience of life, and of Jesus, has been enriched by my time spent in their company.

There are four million anglers in the UK, which represents a pretty big mission field. Inspired by what I have seen in the US - and with Jesus's evangelistic injunction to "go fishing" in mind - the next step for me is thinking through how to use angling in a British context. I want to develop a point of connection between Christian anglers and the wider angling community. The journey continues. 

The Revd Jon Barrett is the Vicar of St Luke's, Thurnby, and would like to thank the English Speaking Union, Ecclesiastical Group, and Leicester diocese for their support for his trip. Contact him by email at fishing@thurnbychurch.com

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