A Different Kind of Fishing Derby

“Don’t give up! It only takes one worm to catch the big one!” the volunteer with the megaphone bellows. “If the bobber starts shaking like you wouldn’t believe, that means you have a big one.”
When Trista, with the help of her Fishing Buddy, catches a striped bass, the megaphone man scans the crowd for a volunteer photographer. “Hey, camera person, get over here! We’ve got a fish!”

Meanwhile, Mickey Mouse collects hugs and Winnie the Pooh slowly follows the lakeshore hand-in-hand with a little boy who can’t believe his good fortune. Men with spatulas flip 2,000 burgers, brats and hot dogs on massive grills while a clown named Caasi cheers on an elephant jumping through a flaming circle. (Or maybe that was a little girl riding a broomstick elephant navigating a hula hoop.)

Speaking of hula hoops, there’s a hoop contest with laughing girls spinning their hips to very happy music provided by enthusiastic disc jockeys. On an adjacent patio aspiring artists paint butterflies, flowers and Chicago Cubs insignias on upturned faces and ink “tattoos” on outstretched arms. Younger kids send bubbles skyward with help from the “bubble man.”

Six hundred volunteers have transformed the pastoral setting of a church pond into the most amazing fishing derby anyone has ever seen. The two men who sorted 5,000 worms into 1,000 small containers with five worms each claim they volunteered for the job, but I am convinced they lost some kind of volunteer lottery.

The volunteers wearing Disney costumes are grateful for the cloud cover and cool temperature, but I’m sure those meeting with guests in the Prayer Tent are praying that the rain holds off. Of course, the Fishing Buddies in their red baseball caps—who actually bait the hooks and hold the squirming fish—are the heroes of the day, in my opinion.

Special Friends is the name of the Willow Creek Church ministry for people with disabilities. Throughout the year, Special Friends offers a variety of one-on-one and small group experiences for families with special needs children from our church or from the local community, as well as for developmentally challenged adults living in local group homes. But the highlight of the year happens on a June Saturday morning when Special Friends hosts the fishing derby.

For years I was out of town or otherwise engaged on the morning of the fishing derby, so I missed it. But last year I attended and I’m committed to never missing another one. At the fishing derby, there are many people whose disabilities are readily apparent. But last year as I walked around, I realized that in many cases you can’t tell for sure who is physically or mentally challenged and who isn’t. Entire families attend together and it’s not always obvious which children have special needs. Sometimes it’s not clear which person in a fishing duo is the helper and which one is being helped; by the end of the event, the red Fishing Buddy caps seem to end up on everybody’s heads. To make matters more confusing, some of the volunteers are adults with delayed development who have grown up participating in Special Friends and gradually acquired the skills to serve others in the way they were once served. So the lines dividing people get beautifully blurred.

My point is this: The fishing derby reminds me that we are all disabled in some way—whether visible or not—and we are all gifted in some way.

Melissa is twenty-one years old, non-verbal, in a wheel chair equipped with a computer she activates by gripping a tool in her twisted hand. Somehow she got my husband’s e-mail address and sent him a note asking if he would square dance with her at the fishing derby. She knows, of course, that there is no square dancing at the fishing derby, and even if there were, her staid Dutch pastor would not know how to do it. But Melissa has the gift of humor, so she sent her silly request to Bill. I laugh even now, just thinking about it. And I look forward to what new expression of humor Melissa will come up with for next year’s derby.

I think this was the first time in a decade that the fishing derby got rained out. At 10:30 am the dark clouds burst and a mad dash for Room 100 began. In the chapel directly above Room 100, an elegant wedding was under way and in the chapel parking lot a line of antique cars awaited the bridal party. But in Room 100 a parade of wheelchairs, clowns, artists, hula hoopers, fishermen and their families, and of course the red-capped buddies stood in line for the brats and burgers hastily rescued from the torrential downpour. While lightning flashed in the background, and a newly married couple walked the aisle upstairs, in Room 100 we partied!