Missionary Diary: The spiritual discipline of fishing

Zoe is serving with CMS under the Anglican Diocese in the Northern Territory. In her first year in community, she is focusing on learning language and building relationships. She prays that God will use her in her role as church support worker to encourage Indigenous church leaders in Ngukurr and surrounding areas.

My phone rings.

“Zoe, weya yu?”

“La main kemp. Wanim?”

“Ai wandi go fishing.”

I have this conversation on an almost daily basis. Little did I know when I signed up to become a church support worker in remote Arnhem Land that so much of my time would be spent fishing.

I’ve been in Ngukurr for two months and it’s been a mixed bag of emotions. The delight of being welcomed in and getting to know my Aboriginal family. The frustration of my ‘baby language’ as I learn Kriol. The natural beauty of this landscape. The constant trickles of sweat as daily temperatures vary between 38 and 40 degrees celsius. The fascinating lessons in bush skills from the church ladies. And all these emotions are rolled into one chaotic Technicolor kaleidoscope when we go fishing.

I finish up what I’m doing and pack the car. Hand lines, cold water, bait, billy-can, camping chairs, maybe some bananas if I’m feeling peckish and pessimistic about the prospect of fish. I drive to my friend’s house to pick her up. Turns out her sister and niece are coming too.

Before we go, my friend needs to go to the shop. There we see my Aboriginal sister who asks for a lift home because it’s too hot to walk. When we drop her off, her mother asks to come fishing too with her grandson. I have to tell her that we don’t have room, but I’ll try to take her another time. I drive off feeling satisfied with my culturally appropriate ‘no’ that didn’t involve actually saying no, whilst mentally adding her to my ever-growing list of people I need to take fishing.

I listen, praying for wisdom and cultural insight.

An hour after I left my house, we’re finally ready to drive out to the billabong.

As we drive, the ladies regale me with stories from their childhood. The old ‘mission days’ were hard in many ways, but there was a simplicity to their childhood and they talk fondly of the whitefellas who were safe people in a world that changed too quickly. They lament over their own kids who seem to be launching straight from children to adults. We discuss family and community life. I listen, praying for wisdom and cultural insight. I long to share life with these ladies and support them, but I know that trust takes time. So I listen and I pray.

“Wujay wi gada go?” I ask as we get to a fork in the track. It’s the first Kriol phrase I learnt and has been one of my most used.

“Straight on.”

I take the path I think is ‘straight on’. Turns out it was the other ‘straight on’. I pull up, reverse and take the other road. As the passengers laugh at my mistake, I take a deep breath and remind myself that vulnerable mission is the goal after all.

Others have got to the billabong before us, so we cruise the serpentine tracks until we find a quiet spot. In five minutes, everyone has found their spot and lines are in the water. For the next hour there is no movement and next to no talking.

No one talks, but all of creation is crying out. A brolga peruses the opposite banks, calling to its mate. The gums overhead rustle softly and an occasional barramundi launches from its watery abode. I wonder, idly, if they jump for food or just for the fun of it. There certainly is a joy when creation just exists as it was made to be. A turtle surfaces near a lilypad. My spirit is soothed as I remember that our Father in heaven clothes the water lilies of the billabong.

I am ashamed of my individualistic mentality as I reflect on the generosity of my collectivist-culture friends.

My private musings are interrupted by cries of delight. Someone has caught a big catfish! We’ll eat well this afternoon. The search for firewood begins. It has to be walan if we’re making damper, and if we’re eating fish there is no question about also having damper.

Before long, the pleasing aroma of roasting catfish is rising and fat little cakes of damper are being patted to remove the ashes after cooking. Some relatives show up, they too are passed food. I have a pang of frustration at the injustice. They haven’t done any fishing, so why should they share the bounty? Then, for the millionth time, I am ashamed of my individualistic mentality as I reflect on the generosity of my collectivist-culture friends.

Soon the sun is sinking low. Black cockatoos wrench the air with their cries. There’s a reason they are called ‘ngark ngark’ here. Try saying it aloud, ngark ngark. Dragonflies frolic and I’m told it’s a sign that dry season is on its way. Praise the good Lord. Fishing in 40 degrees takes more godliness than I have on some days.

As we make our way home, everyone is excited by our good feed, and I know the story will be retold many times in the coming days. But right now, I’m tired. I stink like fish bait and I’m longing for a cold shower. I came north to ‘support Aboriginal church leaders and to encourage the next generation of Christian leaders’. It sounds impressive when you say it on a church stage. In reality though, today it has meant taking some Christian sisters fishing as they needed a place to clear their heads.

Sometimes ministry here means talking, sometimes it’s sitting in silence and sometimes it’s having a shared experience like fishing. We’re not the first to experience the spiritual discipline of fishing. The resurrected Christ himself chose the stage of a lakeside fire, after a fortifying meal of damper and fish, to minister to his distressed disciples (John 21). Maybe today, as we broke bread together and shared a meal, Christ was in our midst, ministering to his people again.