JEAN LAFITTE, La. (BP)–The alarm sounds at 4 a.m. in Eddie Painter’s house. In the village of Jean Lafitte, a tiny fishing community just south of New Orleans, the early November sunrise is still nearly two hours away.
Painter emerges from the bedroom a few minutes later, dressed in boots, a heavy jacket and a floppy-brimmed hat — his uniform for a day at sea. After a quick breakfast, Painter heads out the back door toward his boat docked on Bayou Barataria.
This local pastor has two stops to make before heading south toward his 200 crab traps. Just down on the east bank of the bayou, Painter stops for bait and crab boxes. He takes a few extra boxes, hoping to catch at least 775 pounds (a catch that would be a personal best).
Next, he cruises back across the bayou to buy gas and some food for the day. A group of commercial fishermen is inside, catching up before a long day on the water. After a few stories and laughs, the fishermen disperse as they notice the black horizon beginning to fade to a deep red.
For many residents of Jean Lafitte, Painter’s morning routine is just that — routine. By percentage, Lafitte residents work in fishing, hunting and forestry more than any other field. But for Painter, a 15-year veteran pastor, Mississippi native, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary student and pastor of Barataria Baptist Church, becoming a commercial crabber was a surprising and innovative career twist.
This fisher-of-men, who began pastoring Barataria Baptist in April 2007, became a commercial fisherman to better reach his community and to supplement his income. It’s the definition of incarnational ministry and innovation, and it started soon after he went there as pastor.
Painter first got to know his new community. Early on, he spent time sipping coffee in a local hardware and fishing supply store called the Canal Store where he would meet people as they came for supplies.
Also during those first months a man named Glen, a deacon at Barataria Baptist and a local commercial crabber, began to take Painter with him to run his crab traps. Painter was hooked.
“You know, I grew up fishing with my granddaddy,” Painter said. “So I’ve always enjoyed being on the water. This was just a natural fit for me to go into a community where commercial fishing was part of the backbone of what everyone does.”
He started commercial crabbing last May, limiting the work to about four days a week. Evenings and the remaining three days are reserved for family, ministering to the community and preparing for worship services. And the community has supported him.
“When I started out, I had a bunch of traps given to me — about 118,” Painter said. “At the prices right now, that represents close to $4,000 worth of traps.”
His first boat was given to him, but it proved too small for the open waters of Barataria Bay. With Glen’s help, Painter found a fully rigged crab boat for an outstanding price. In little time, Painter was up to about 200 traps in the water and a fully outfitted boat with a brand-new motor.
But the going hasn’t always been easy. For the beginner, commercial crabbing is neither easy nor lucrative.
“I put out 30 traps and lost them overnight,” Painter said, recounting one of his first days as a commercial crabber. “I’d found a channel where the barges were coming through. But I didn’t know what happened, so I put out 30 more. So right off the bat, I had 60 traps just whacked. Man, I was singing the blues.”
Of course, losing traps comes with the job, and fortunately for Painter, he’s avoided any more mass losses. But still, commercial crabbing is far from easy.
“Take this morning,” Painter said with a smile. “My expenses were $120, so I cleared $26 today. That ain’t doing too good.”
Still Painter trusts that, in time, he’ll become more efficient. And he knows that he’s learning more than a new trade. There’s the challenge of learning patience as he, a local pastor-turned-crabber, earns the trust of the fishing community.
“They know who I am,” Painter said of being a pastor. “And they’ll sometimes joke about it, but they’re very standoffish. It’s like getting permission. You finally get a little permission to enter their turf and talk to them, and that’s how it starts.”
Painter gave one of the crab buyers as an example.
“I just found out that he and his wife are separating,” Painter said. “I got just a little opportunity to talk with him this evening. I started this in April or May, so it took from then to now for me to get an open door.
“And he came to me for questions.”
Little by little, Painter is building relationships and impacting lives. He’s using commercial fishing to fish for men.
Michael McCormack writes for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.