A Pennsylvania trout lake is the perfect crucible for learning about haves and have-nots. In rural Pennsylvania, springtime means two things: baseball and the opening day of trout season. On the Saturday closest to April 15th, people of all ages flock to the lakes and streams to wet their lines and, if the stars align, limit out by noon.
There are two classes of people on a trout lake: haves and have-nots.
As a kid, I looked forward to opening day. The tradition was that I would spend the night before opening day at my grandparents’ house. The next morning, after a celebratory breakfast of pancakes and sausage, my grandfather and I would fish the first day together.
Although my family wasn’t poor, there wasn’t much left after we paid for basic necessities. So, when my grandfather and I arrived at one of the local trout lakes, we would take our place with the have-nots — the riffraff wetting their lines along the shore.
The other group of the people at the lake were the boat fisherman or the haves. Outfitted with electric motors, fish-finders and God knows what else, they trolled the lake in style, slipping effortlessly from one spot to the next until they landed on honey holes chock-full of breeding rainbows and fat palominos.
Maybe I could become a boat fisherman.
It seemed like the boat fishermen had an unfair advantage over us and all the other have-nots fighting for space along the shore. And unfair or not, they probably did.
It didn’t help that when the fish weren’t biting out in the deep water, the boat fisherman would troll the edges of the lake and tangle up our lines. You’d be surprised how often verbal confrontations and threats of violence pass between boat fishermen and shore fishermen.
As opening day wore on, I would look at my empty creel and feel jealous of the people cruising silently along in their boats. Sometimes, I would craft elaborate fantasies about working two or three summer jobs to save up enough money to buy a boat of my own.
But I knew that buying a boat wasn’t a real possibility.
Boats cost too much and summer jobs were too few. Even if I could somehow find a job, I would have had to work all summer long to earn enough cash to afford a boat.
What was the point of buying a fishing boat if I never had time to fish?
And so I resigned myself to the fact that I was one of the have-nots. I was a shore fisherman and probably would be for a long time. In my adolescent view of the world, the acceptance of this unfortunate truth stirred up a variety of emotions.
- I felt ashamed that my family couldn’t afford a fishing boat.
- I felt angry about being forced to fish from the shore.
- I felt less than the people in the boats.
But most of all, I felt powerless. As petty as it sounds, I felt powerless to change my situation and powerless to even try.
Blessed are the shore fishermen …
Jesus knows about haves and have-nots, too.
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5) are nothing less than a manifesto against consumerism, a poetic vision of an alternative way of living. Here, we’re challenged to become meek and poor in spirit, to live in a way that runs counter to the ethos of the world we know so well.
Jesus invites us to become free from the allure of material things and the cycle of consumption, and to position ourselves in solidarity with those who have less.
If Jesus is a trout fisherman — and I like to think that he is — he might say:
Blessed are the shore fisherman, for there is more to fishing than catching the most fish.
I want to live that way. I want to ignore the people in the boats and pay more attention to what’s happening on the shore. But it’s hard. The boats are so darn shiny.
Identifying with the Have-Nots
Looking back, there are few things I wouldn’t give to fish one more opening day with my grandfather and, if we’re lucky, going home with a few scrawny trout in our creels.
Long after my grandfather passed away, I had the chance to fish on those same lakes as a boat fisherman. Not that it matters, but I actually did catch a lot more fish from the boat. The problem was that the fishing lacked soul. It was boring and unimaginative. Nothing like fishing from the shore with the other have-nots.
Of course, shore fisherman aren’t the real have nots.
The real have nots are the people who can’t go fishing with their kids and grandkids because they’re struggling to put food on their tables.
- They’re the 7% of the U.S. workforce that falls into the category of the working poor.
- They’re the 45+ million people who live below the poverty line.
- They’re the parents and grandparents who are working two or three low-wage jobs just to make ends meet.
In some small and insignificant way, my time on the shores of Pennsylvania trout lakes gave me an appreciation for what the poor feel every day. And it forces me to remember that finding God means more than writing a check or feeling sorry for the less fortunate.
It means living in solidarity with the have-nots, learning from them and counting myself as one of them. Not where I want them to be, but in the places where they really are.
Along the shore.