Dragon boat racing gives pastor insights

Paddling as one

by Brett Webb-Mitchell | Presbyterians Today

The Golden Dragon team of senior rowers provided a powerful witness on the Charles River as to what God’s children can accomplish working together. Courtesy of Brett Webb-Mitchell

It was an exciting ending to Boston’s 2019 Dragon Boat Festival. Our team — the Golden Dragons — won by an eighth of a second, beating a group of 30-somethings from the San Francisco Bay area. The average age of our crew was 70. We lived up to the motto emblazoned on our T-shirts: “Old age and treachery will always win out against youth and ambition.”

A dragon boat is a human-powered long canoe. Its origins can be traced back over 2,000 years in the Pearl River Delta region of China’s Guangdong province. Like the outrigger canoes of many Pacific Island, Asian and African cultures, long boats have been used for religious and commercial crafts. While there were dragon boat races between competing villages, dragon boat racing itself became a modern sport in Hong Kong in 1976. Since then, large and small cities worldwide host dragon boat racing festivals yearly.

Most of my graduate studies have been in the sociology, anthropology and theology of

communities from L’Arche gatherings to Benedictine monasteries. I have also served 11 Presbyterian churches. What I discovered in these communities was that their dynamics were similar to that of a dragon boat team.

For starters, a dragon boat team is ideally made up of 20 people who sit in a long canoe filled with 10 benches. There are two people to a bench who are facing the boat’s front or bow, with a caller in the front of the boat facing the paddlers, and a tiller in the back or stern steering the boat.

Currently, I pastor two small faith communities composed of around the same number of people as a dragon boat. In other words, where two or three or 12 are gathered, Jesus is present, and in the case of a boat, we have enough to paddle.

(Left) Dragon heads, affixed to boats, are brought to “life” as part of an ancient race ritual. (Right) The Rev. Brett Webb-Mitchell is currently trying out for a senior men’s national dragon boat team for a race this fall. Courtesy of Brett Webb-Mitchell

Next, paddlers have equipment to be used, including a life preserver and a paddle. The paddles are not connected to the boat but are in the hands of the paddlers. When seated, paddlers face the bow and paddle forward. Likewise, churches have necessary equipment, used to assist us and move us forward. We have things such as a bowl for baptisms, a chalice for the Lord’s Supper and Bibles to read and study.

With paddlers in place with the right equipment, it is now the caller’s and tiller’s jobs to move the boat forward — coaching the team to synchronize their strokes as if there was just one paddler.

In a race, the caller-as-coach determines how fast the boat goes, sitting behind a drum on the bow of the boat, beating out the rhythm of the pace with a large stick or verbally calling out the pace of the stroke. The tiller’s job is to steer the boat, using a 9-foot straight oar that is locked in an upside-down “U” known as the oar lock on the stern. In a church, the pastor and church leadership council are the caller and tiller, working in concert together in moving the “ship of faith” forward.

It is when a dragon boat team paddles that the dynamics of community work lends new insight in the workings of a faith community, affirming the ways we move forward as communities. Once a dragon boat coach was asked how many paddlers were in his boat. Twenty? He replied, “No, there was one.”

While there are many paddlers, we are to paddle as one, singular in purpose. With a certain choreography, we dip our paddles in the water at the same time, at the same angle, stretching out our arms over the side or gunnel, then pull the paddle back through the water with our bodies, then quickly lift our paddles out and repeat. Even though we all have small, quirky, unique ways of paddling, by the time a race comes, we strive to stroke in unison.

Likewise, the church is many members but is called to act as one body. In Christ’s body we are called to be synchronized in our movement, doing the hard work, making sacrifices as members of the body. And yet all work must be grounded in communication. Many times, there are discussions among a dragon boat team when practicing, in which a caller listens to paddlers — a reminder of how healthy conversations must take place within faith communities.

Finally, a dragon boat is “alive.” Before a race, a carved dragon’s head is placed in the boat’s bow, its tail at the stern. The head is then dotted with red paint at the climax of a solemn ritual, calling the dragon to life. Through our baptisms, as the water dots our foreheads, we too are called to life.

With many years of study and serving, who would have thought it would be a recreational outlet that would have given me a powerful insight into ministry? But dragon boat racing has done just that: We are members of the one ship, the one body, responding to Christ’s call, who, with the Spirit holding the rudder, guides us into our future.

Brett Webb-Mitchell is part-time pastor for both The Community of Pilgrims Presbyterian Fellowship and Portsmouth Trinity Lutheran Church. Both congregations are in Portland, Oregon.

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