Come late summer, the rolling Palouse wheat fields stretch like a golden carpet south to the breaks of the Snake River Canyon. Far below, the river winds through rocky channels on its way to the Columbia River and eventually the Pacific Ocean.
This evening, the Rev. Matthew McNelly, co-pastor of Pullman Presbyterian Church, is preparing a silver pontoon fishing boat named the “Suzie Q” for launch on the river. It’s 102 degrees as his crew and passengers don life jackets and the engine roars to life. McNelly slowly motors out of the cove and into the open current, where their adventure is about to begin.
The Suzie Q is the humble stage for an enterprising and multifaceted new youth ministry called GoFish! In essence a floating monastic community, the participants share a river trip complete with Bible readings, prayer, discussion, meals and campfires, all while being paid to catch northern pikeminnow—an aggressive fish that preys on juvenile salmon.
This innovative program welcomes youth in McNelly’s congregation, as well as from other churches, or with no particular faith background. On the boat, they are given a chance to work and learn life skills in a social enterprise based on ancient Christian practices. Over the last two summers, McNelly’s crew has helped 40 participants catch hundreds of different types of fish, including nearly 200 large pikeminnow worth over $1,000.
The name GoFish! comes from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus calls a group of fishermen tending their nets to become his first disciples. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fishers of men.”
“Fishermen are deeply acquainted with failure,” McNelly says. “There are days when you go out and don’t catch anything. And you are wet and cold. Jesus needed a group of people who would not back down from the mission of the gospel, even when things were difficult or people were rejecting his message and failure seemed to be at every turn. Fishermen are resilient folks.”
Jesus needed a group of people who would not back down from the mission of the gospel, even when things were difficult or people were rejecting his message and failure seemed to be at every turn.
It’s an apt analogy. The process of launching an unconventional ministry was difficult and took prayer, faith and a healthy dose of hope to persevere through the inevitable obstacles and disappointments.
“In GoFish! I can have conversations of faith with kids while we’re doing life on the river,” he says. “Through the trials and tribulations of catching fish and losing fish—getting hung up on the bottom or getting skunked one day—we talk about how we deal with success or failure as followers of Christ.”
“Save salmon, experience creation, earn money and encounter Christ”
McNelly grew up along the Columbia River in Longview, Washington, where he spent time outdoors fishing with friends. The call to ministry led him to Princeton Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Amy, became a clergy couple and, later, associate pastors in California, where he channeled his passion for the water into a youth surfing program.
When their children arrived, the McNellys moved back to the Northwest to accept a ministry position in the university town of Pullman.
“We’ve been here 12 years, and a lot has changed,” he says. “I think one thing that allowed us to become healthier is the willingness to experiment and not be afraid to fail—on both my part and that of the congregation. We’ve learned to embrace the ongoing rapid pace of change in society. I believe change is the one main constant, and that we always have to be adapting and innovating.”
I think one thing that allowed us to become healthier is the willingness to experiment and not be afraid to fail—on both my part and that of the congregation.
When McNelly heard about the Northern Pikeminnow Sport-Reward Program, which pays anglers to catch predatory fish in the Snake and Columbia river systems, he thought, “Why not try it as an extra way to make some money for the family?”
“That’s what really started the ball rolling with the idea for GoFish! Ministries,” he says.
Each spring, millions of juvenile salmon migrate down the rivers on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Many are injured or killed as they pass through dams, and millions more are eaten by pikeminnow along the way. It all leads to threatened populations and fewer salmon returning to spawn in the rivers.
The sport-reward program helps thin out the older pikeminnow, which eat the most salmon. Payments range from $5 to $8 per fish, depending on how many fish an angler catches. BPA also throws in a few specially tagged pikeminnow worth $500 apiece.
As a result, nearly 5 million northern pikeminnow have been removed from the rivers since the program began in 1990, and predation on juvenile salmon has dropped 40 percent.
As McNelly learned more about the program, his vision for a youth ministry began to take shape.
“We want to save salmon, experience creation, earn money and encounter Christ,” he says. “I thought I could fund the ministry from the proceeds, but pikeminnow are harder to catch than I expected. I had to totally rethink my ideas of how to run the fishing program.”
And rethink he did, securing multiple grants to make GoFish! the program it is today.
“This is a program that helps us reconnect with life”
On the river, the Suzie Q chugs downstream into the setting sun, the dry canyon hillsides reflected in the rippling water.
It’s time for the evening reading, and tonight, McNelly chooses Psalm 8 (NIV), sometimes called the sportsman’s psalm.
“Lord, … how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens,” he begins.
“… When I consider … the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, … all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas …”
The boat sways as McNelly closes and then leads the group in a few moments of silence. He follows with a discussion on the many ways God’s beauty is expressed in nature.
While the passengers contemplate his message, the fish finder suddenly comes alive with underwater activity. Joe, an older participant, reels in a silver fish with orange fins—a pikeminnow worth $5.
McNelly drops the camera into the river and quickly picks up images of blue mysid shrimp and one very large crawdad. Later that night, they will marvel at the sight of an 8-foot sturgeon gliding along the river bottom.
The full moon is high when the group finally heads back to the campground for s’mores. After a short break, McNelly and the crew return to the river, where they eventually catch nine more “money fish.”
“Though it’s still in its infancy, GoFish! has become Pullman Presbyterian’s summer youth ministry,” McNelly says.
He’s hoping this can be a first point of contact for kids who would never go to a church—who didn’t grow up with it—but who do like to go fishing. The youth will encounter caring, committed adults and might see something different about their attitude and how they live.
He also hopes eventually to offer weeklong fishing camps where children and adults from urban areas can come and spend time on the river.
“This program isn’t about just catching fish—it’s about the complete sensory experience,” he says. “The brightness of the sun radiating off the water. The smell of the river, the sound of the motor. Plus all the wildlife we see: ospreys, coyotes running along the ridges, chukars cackling in the brush.
“This is a program that helps us reconnect with life—our bodies and senses, the created order.”
Rebecca Phillips is a writer for Washington State Magazine, where she has covered university research ranging from antimatter and gravitational waves to food banks and the struggles of opioid addiction. This article, in a longer format, was first published in Faith and Leadership and appears here with permission.