Of the many worthwhile and meaningful contributions of the Catholic church to the world, my selfish favorite is the tradition of the fish fry. Thanks to a college friend who grew up with such a fantastic history, we were introduced to the all-you-can-eat, beer-filled sacrament. We don’t hit them quite often enough and I’m tempted next year to give the full Catholic Lenten tradition a go so that I can participate in the ritual weekly.
Last Friday, I made curtains for our eldest child so I didn’t feel the need to make dinner, too. With no plans, we decided upon a nearby fish fry. It started at 6 and, with tired kids, we decided to arrive promptly. We actually paid for our tickets 10 minutes before serving time.
Now previous fish fry experiences involved long lines and impatient bellies. This church, however, has endured years – if not centuries – of hungry parishioners and had come up with a system. After paying for our meals we were handed a card with the letter “G” stenciled onto it. We sat down and waited for our group to be called.
We finally stood to enjoy our meal around 6:30 or 6:45 and gave it two thumbs up for tastiness. The folks were friendly. We ate a meal while supporting some teenagers going on a mission trip. It was a winning evening.
Later I reflected on the process. The room wasn’t filled to brimming when we arrived and I assumed most of the others waiting had the foresight to reserve their tickets and save $6. However, as the clock ticked slowly forward I it was clear the letter card system was much more involved than simply those who knew to email ahead of time.
I’m still completely clueless to the system. If not reservations and first arrivals, on what basis does it work? Could they smell our Protestant blood as we approached? Did we not genuflect enough? We had 4 small children – I thought we fit in. Whatever drove the process, we were unaware and it wasn’t even until later that we became aware of our unawareness.
The letter system was created by a group of people who wanted to make something better. They didn’t have anything against me and my family. It wasn’t intentional, but we were excluded from the privilege of first fish not because of who we are but because we came from outside the system. This system works for the people who created it. Those faithful fish diners enjoy early and cheap fish because they made the rules and follow the rules. The rules work. For them.
And let me reiterate: it wasn’t personal or even intentional. The system-runners don’t specifically believe that they’re better than me or more intrinsically worthy. They simply come from a different place, one with access to the knowledge of how the system works. They know how to get the A and B fish, and so they do. It’s not that hard, they think, to order on Wednesday and arrive at 5:45.
My friends, the call to justice isn’t just giving outsiders your place in line (though certainly it may call for that at times). The responsibility of those who wish to see equality and fairness rule means asking about the knowledge and skill we have access to, that others don’t even realize exists. It means not taking lightly the fact you have something quicker and cheaper simply because you follow the rules. Realize, please, that the rules may not be known by everyone. Perhaps it’s even extremely difficult to follow the rules because the rules weren’t written with a different way of life in mind.
It’s possible that “it’s been this way forever” but that still doesn’t make it a good system to all people. It simply makes it a good system to the people who make the rules.
**Please forgive my middle-class, educated, white woman writing on privilege about a fish fry. I’m totally aware. But I’m guessing that readers who are at all like me can’t really grasp the feeling of true inequality and this is my onramp to understanding.