Jesus and the Grey Whales

I’ve been baptized with whale snot. You don’t imagine that’s the sort of thing you’d feel jealous over, but when others in the front of the boat had a whale spout on them and I didn’t, I felt the sting of cetacean exclusion. I needn’t have worried. The spouts came with amply-distributed inclusivity later on.

We spent a bit of February in Baja California Sur—a place where I was assured I could see a personal holy grail—blue whales. As a child, I devoured a book my brother gave me about endangered animals. I had those pages memorized, along with all the stats on all the animals. Blue whales, the largest animal ever created, were on the list.

After the blue whales, we flew to a remote camp at San Ignacio Lagoon to visit with another species—grey whales. This experience proved far different.

Not long ago, whale hunters dubbed grey whales “devil fish.” Whaling boats found them highly unwilling victims of the harpoon. The whales would put up a mammoth fight, intentionally swimming under and overturning boats. They proved so dangerous they were among the last to be hunted, but they were finally driven near extinction, like most other whales. Their survival reaction to danger made them a feared species n the shallow coasts where they traveled.

So these San Ignacio whales we visited are a bit of a miracle. Not only are they not dangerous, they’re considered the most friendly whales on earth. They swim to tourist boats, bringing their babies in tow, seemingly begging for a scratch and back rub. The huge mammals appear as curious about humans as the humans are about them. They rise our of the water alongside the boat, and we were privileged to interact with God’s creatures in a way I imagine God always intended. The bruises on my knees as I scrambled to kneel first on one side of the boat then the other, rocking and reaching out to touch their rubbery skin, testify to the wonder.

Yes, my husband is petting whales

And believe it or not, it reminds me of church. Most things can, when you’re a pastor. Occupational hazard. San Ignacio is the only place in the world you can touch grey whales. It’s safe there, and the whales know it. They come to the boats only there because they know they’re protected. How do they know? I have no idea. Neither do conservationists. They say we just don’t know why the San Ignacio whales are friendly, but I think it’s this. They know this is a place they don’t need to fear human nearness.

It’s also a place where they have agency to choose their level of interaction. Boat drivers at the preserve don’t chase them. They motor safely and slowly toward a group or individual, letting them know they’re there for an interaction, then they sit and wait for a whale to come to them.  

And I am petting a whale

Is your church a lagoon? Is it a place where those who have felt the harpoon of abuse pierce their skin can come for safe human touch? Can those who have been hunted by gaslighting and harmful counsel in church find a place of healing there? Can women and BIPOC come and be respected for their strength rather than called shrill, angry, and dangerous? What if my church came to be known as the one place hurt people don’t have to fear being close? What if, no matter what happened out in the wide world where they had to survive in other seasons, our small lagoon proved a shelter where fear dissipated into curiosity, play, and mutual delight?

I desperately want there to be places where hurt people can swim and trust they will never feel a harpoon in their back. Where they know the people there with them in that place want their best and want to see their joy. Where they can choose their level of freedom, intimacy, and privacy, with no one determining for them where they go and with whom they stay. 

Grey whales didn’t act like devil fish out of their nature—they behaved like devil fish in response to the way they were treated. In a place where they’re granted both agency and safety, they’re miraculous.  

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