The Rev. Christian Baron prepares to feed the hungry | Diocese of Western Michigan

By Mark Michael

Christian Baron and Rod Clark believe the Holy Spirit was up to something good one hot Texas night when they cracked open cold beers and kicked back on the porch. The two were then students at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, and had been invited to go on a wild pig hunt the next day. “In Texas, the pigs are a nuisance,” Baron explained.  “Ranchers just throw them to the buzzards.” That just didn’t sit right with Baron and Clark, who called up Episcopal Migration Ministries to see if they would be willing to take the game and distribute it to people in their care.

They didn’t get any pigs that day. But a year later, in 2014, when both were serving as curates in small towns — Baron in Holland, Mich. and Clark in Harlingen, Tex. — they returned to the old idea. This time, they decided to involve some outdoors-loving congregants in starting a new ministry to feed the hungry with fresh fish and game.

Five years later, the Order of Naucratius has six local chapters in Texas and two in Michigan, and Clark and Baron feel they are barely started. Collectively the ministries are distributing tens of thousands of pounds of fresh, wild-harvested fish and venison to food pantries and soup kitchens in their local communities.

The group is named for a fourth-century hermit from Asia Minor, the brother of Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Macrina. St. Naucratius left his life as an acclaimed public orator to live in solitude in the wilderness. A talented hunter and angler, he fed the poor of the region from what he caught and killed, and met his own death on a fishing expedition.

Members of the order commit to a rule of life, which includes commitment to prayer, conservation of natural resources and “giving a significant share of their harvest to those who are hungry.” In the Michigan chapters, founded by Baron, the focus is mostly on angling, especially on processing fish donated by participants in big fishing tournaments on Lake Michigan (though the highway patrol asks for their help in butchering roadkill deer). The Texas chapters, founded by Clark, have a broader scope of action, including multi-day fishing and hunting retreats, hunting safety training for kids, and a weekly feeding ministry that serves both asylum seekers and border patrol agents in Mission, Tex., the border town where he now serves.

Baron spoke to TLC the day after the Order had finished its work at the Big Red Classic fishing tournament in Holland, Mich. For four days in a row, volunteers had turned up to skin and filet 10 120-gallon coolers of salmon and trout donated by tournament participants. Baron estimated the total haul at 10,000 pounds of “God-grown protein.” The tournament participants, he said, were delighted to be able to share their catch with the needy, and he’s gotten pretty handy with a knife, and claims he can now process a fresh-caught fish in three minutes flat.

Baron said that most of his crew are not actually members of St. Philip’s, the congregation he serves with his wife in Beulah, Mich., but that doesn’t concern him too much.  “Anglers like to give back, to use their gifts for something good. Any time that a human being can use their gifts and talents to reach out and help others, that is close enough to the Church’s mission for me.”

Local people are really grateful to receive the fresh catch, which conjures up memories of happier times for many of them. “They say, ‘I grew up eating fish, my parents fished.’ But to catch salmon nowadays you need to have a boat and equipment,” Baron said. “I hate to say it, but it’s a rich person’s sport. Most people can’t afford [salmon] at $12 a pound in the store.”

Deer hunting is a larger focus for the Texas chapters, in a region where it is a valued part of the culture. When Clark was serving at St. Alban’s Church in Harlingen, Tex., they actually butchered dozens of deer in the church kitchen before hauling the meat off to local food pantries. They now work with Trinity Oaks, a local nonprofit that processes the venison for them. Naucratius volunteers help to distribute it to local organizations — 15,000 pounds of wild game last year.

Clark also hosts multi-day hunting and fishing retreats a few times a year. Each begins with time of teaching about hunting and fishing as part of God’s care of creation, in a system “that requires the taking of life for all life to prosper and flourish.” Clark said he often analogizes hunting to the fourfold pattern of the Eucharistic prayer. “Take, bless, break, and give. That’s also what we do when we hunt and fish, when we do it right. The unique part of that, for us, is the blessing.”

His retreats include daily times for prayer (using cards made to fit in a hunting license holder). The groups enjoy a few days in the field, and fellowship around the campfire at night. All the fish and deer they harvest are donated back to those in need. Each retreat closes with an outdoor Eucharist. Clark even has a camo stole.

Both Baron and Clark are excited about the way that the Order of Naucratius helps the Episcopal Church to connect with a segment of the population that doesn’t always feel at home with us. “Part of the dream was the Episcopal Church often didn’t look like us — guys from rural areas, who grew up hunting and fishing, spending time outdoors. A lot of the folks in this church have not done these things. It’s not that we want to fill the pews with fishermen, but that would be pretty nice.”

Clark’s current parish, St. Peter and St. Paul, in Mission, Tex., is located just outside McAllen, one of the busiest crossing spots along the U. S.-Mexico border. His Order of Naucratius chapter is serving people on both sides of this contentious issue with venison breakfast sausage from the deer they harvest on their retreats. They fry up enough of it to make 600-800 breakfast tacos every Tuesday morning, and take them to distribute to asylum seekers at a local detention center. A few times a year they also prepare big breakfasts for border patrol staff, who have a command center nearby.

The order does face some challenges. Baron is helping to draft a local ordinance that would make it clear that fish are also covered under a Michigan law that allows the donation of home-processed donated game. He’s also had to contend with a few vegetarian naysayers among his fellow clerics online, who claim “that no endeavor to kill animals will ever be a ministry in God’s church.”

Generally, though, the two are delighted to be part of a ministry that is touching many lives in authentic, culturally-rooted ways, and they would love to see it expand to new places. Clark explained, “Men will say, ‘I feel closer to God out in the woods or out on the water than I do sitting in a pew. Let’s make this a ministry, something that draws you closer to God and to your neighbors.”

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