I was baptized in the neighborhood Presbyterian church. We were one of two families of color that attended. My parents were adamant about church attendance, even though it was a very white experience. At the time, there was not a Samoan worshiping community in our neck of the woods. Nothing about this church felt like home—at least not to me.
The children’s songs didn’t help:
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world,
red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight…
Every Sunday I prayed this song wouldn’t come up. To sing about skin color was weird; I felt that at a very visceral level. I felt embarrassed and maybe a bit ashamed. It was easy for everyone else to sing it. They all were the “same color.” I was different—not in a “good way”—and this song reminded me of that. My only relationship to “color” was the Crayola Color Crayon box and finger painting. And the little white boy down the street who harassed me daily. He called me the “n” word. It was terrifying.
Then there was this song:
I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men.
I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.
Someone should have known better. Children are very literal thinkers—no matter how cute and catchy the melody. When you say, “men,” kids think “men.” Semantic nuance is not in their wheelhouse.
Experiences like this framed my theological upbringing.
All the images I saw on the walls of my Sunday school classrooms were pictures of white children and a white Jesus who looked like a surfer. And then there were stories like today’s Gospel in which boys were the lucky ones. They were on the shore that day to receive the amazing invitation from Jesus to follow him. I imagined there were young girls, like me, who were playing on the shore hoping, waiting, and more than likely hiding their desire. They also wanted to be invited to follow Jesus. They also wanted to be seen.
I needed to hear that part of the story, too.
Here were my very real questions as a budding 6-year old girl theologian:
- Why would I want to be a fisher of MEN? (my answer: I guess I won’t be “following Jesus”)
- Why were there only boy disciples?
- Did Jesus not want girls to follow him?
- Was his invitation for me, too?
- Did girls even fish?
This passage is about Jesus calling people into a relationship with him—into discipleship and service. My reluctance to respond with a hearty “yes” and drop everything to follow Jesus was deeply rooted in a theology formed and shaped in my early years which was this: my story isn’t here. Not really.
I now know, that whether you see yourself in the story truly depends on how you read the story. And for those of us who teach and tell, our words can make a big difference in whether others can hear Jesus’ invitation.
An embodied theology matters.
If you have ever been in the position that I am describing above, you know what I mean. It’s a constant and exhausting struggle when you feel like you have to “force” yourself into the biblical narrative. Deep inside I knew this gross mishandling of the biblical story wasn’t God’s fault.
Children shouldn’t have to work that hard. In fact, they get this stuff way faster than adults do.
The Deep Water
Jesus instructed Simon, “Push out into the deep water and let your nets down for a catch.” They hauled in an abundance of fish. That’s my favorite part. Might that be another way to have heard the Good News?
Deep water, in the biblical narrative, was often used to describe chaos. Choosing to push out into deep water, into chaos, feels counter-intuitive. But it helps to remember the creation narrative here. It tells us that the Spirit hovers over the chaos. Pushing out into deep water is where you find the good catch.
And that is a different way to approach this story.
Chaos would have adequately described my childhood feelings of being different, not seen, and not important. My skin color and gender felt like a barrier in most places: the playground, the classroom and even the church. Being caught by Jesus would’ve been really good news to me back then. It might have even sustained me through some rough patches in my youth. The truth is, it even feels good to me right now.