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Dragon boat racing gives pastor insights


Paddling as one

November 3, 2022

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.

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.

(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

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.

While there are many paddlers, we are to paddle as one, singular in purpose. 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, part-time pastor for both The Community of Pilgrims Presbyterian Fellowship and Portsmouth Trinity Lutheran Church, Portland, Oregon

Today’s Focus: Boston’s 2019 Dragon Boat Festival

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Daniel Johnson, Maintenance Specialist, Building Services, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)
Donna Jackson, Editor, Mission Publications, Media & Publishing, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Lord, be with those you have called to take leadership in reaching people who have not heard of your love for them. Give them wisdom and courage as they seek to make your kingdom manifest in our world today. Amen.

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