This wasn’t somewhere I planned to be. Fighting the large crowd at a fish cleaning service in the back of a Panama City Beach marina’s fresh seafood market. On a 100 degree day after 9 hours on a fishing boat. Yes, I was excited about taking my family on a fishing charter. But as far as cleaning, eating, or transporting coolers full of fish on a 15 hour drive home…….no.
But apparently charter captains aren’t real keen on throwing back a good collection of keepers. Good advertising I suppose. But my mind was made up when we hauled in our first red snapper of the day and my 12 year-old son Kal said, “Dad, we’re going to keep these and cook them aren’t we?’ Yeah, sure buddy.
So here I sat with my 18 year-old son, exhausted and dehydrated. Baking in the hot sun, waiting for our ticket number to be called so we could pick up our fillets from the 50+ pounds of fish that our mate had dropped off an hour earlier.
As I sat down on the concrete ledge facing the garage style door opening that was the center of activity, the stench of dead fish overwhelmed my senses. And I witnessed what seemed to be pure chaos unfolding before my eyes. To my left, quickly lining up along the outside of the building were incoming fishermen with their own catch of the day. Stringers full of smaller fish. Plastic laundry baskets overflowing with larger fish. Waiting to drop off their fish, get a weight, and grab a claim tag telling them when to return. Impatient people returning to pick up previously dropped off orders. Seemingly no organization whatsoever to the whole process.
Did I mention the smell? What a terrible place to work! Multiple fans were running but I don’t imagine they were much help for the guys lined up at the cutting table or the guys scurrying around with incoming loads of smelly fish or the guys popping out every few minutes with large wheeled carts hauling off the scraps.
After 30 minutes of people watching, my son suggested that our number had probably already been called and that I should step up to the door to check on it. The man who stepped forward amidst the chaos to get my claim ticket was someone that I’d already taken notice of. His “calm in the eye of the storm” demeanor was hard to miss for a people watcher like me. He was a young and confident man who was obviously in charge of at least the cleaning service part of this smelly fish market operation. He quickly retrieved our bags of fillets and patiently explained that we needed to take our ticket to the storefront to pay (something that we should have done beforehand) and that he’d just meet us there with our order. At the front counter, he quickly handed over our haul to my son and asked if we had a cooler. When he asked if we had ice, my son hesitated (we already had dry ice). The worker/manager was already telling my son to follow him into the back so he could fill our cooler with ice.
My son and I started toward our car with our fish, vowing to not tell the rest of our party that our order had probably been ready since we first arrived, and that we’d been needlessly people watching for 30 minutes while they waited in the car. Before we reached our car, I turned to my son and said, “That guy must have been the owner. He did his job entirely too well to not be”.
Back home in Kentucky and in church on a Sunday, our pastor posed a question to himself and our congregation, “How many people have you led to Christ?”. My wife told my afterward that she felt convicted and inadequate when she honestly answered that question (I guess we all should).
My mind jumps and wanders to strange places. The pastor’s question and the conversation with my wife returned my thoughts to the man operating the fish market. Because there was more to that story than simply a man doing his job well. And I brought up the point that, rather than beat ourselves up for failing to be able to count up a real number of people we can honestly say we led to Christ, we must always be able to find excitement and encouragement in all the little things that come up in our daily grind that have the power to lead others one step closer to a relationship with a living God.
Instead of saying, “I bet that guy is the owner”, after witnessing this man’s actions and interactions with co-workers and strangers, I was left with a pretty strong feeling that “This man is a follower of Jesus Christ”. The fruits of his belief were on full display for anyone watching as I was.
As I waited for our fish, a man who didn’t seem to be a fisherman of any sort had come up to the door on two different occasions. He looked like a pesky nuisance sort of guy to me. I get them at my work also. “Can’t he see how busy this guy is?”, I thought. But the manager treated him with dignity, patience, and kindness in the middle of all the chaos he was conducting. And when I stepped forward to present my own claim ticket, it was this same beggar man who cut in front of me. Once again he was treated with kindness, and I overheard the manager tell him when to come back. Not “I will have YOUR fish ready” but “I will have some fish FOR you”.
A tall man of foreign descent who seemed to speak little English had the duty of hauling out the large cart of scraps. He probably hauled out three loads while we waiting. Not once did he enter or exit without the manager or another co-worker saying something to him to make him smile.
There was a lot of yelling, but in a chaotic scene I didn’t hear any yells of anger. Every so often I noticed the five guys at the cutting table looking back over the shoulder smiling or laughing at something that a co-worker had shouted out. Every direction that the manager yelled out was delivered in a tone that said they were all on the same team, and I’m pretty sure that everybody on the team knew that their boss cared about them.
Maybe this wasn’t such a bad place to work after all. And maybe one man with Jesus in his heart had transformed it to be this way.
The fishermen who lined up outside, waiting to drop off their day’s catch weren’t exactly a patient bunch. All those men who thought drinking mass quantities of beer earlier in the 100 degree day was a good idea at 9AM, were probably starting to regret it at 3PM. You could see the angry bully in them waiting to come out. Kids with stringers full of fish argued with parents while they waited. This manager stepped out to converse with them regularly. A true peacemaker. Telling people exactly what they didn’t want to hear, “Anything dropped off now won’t be available for pickup for tomorrow”. And time after time, these foul and impatient people, because of this manager’s confident smile and kind tone, accepted the bad news amazingly well, “Sure, that’s no problem”.
Yeah, one person can have an amazing impact on the lives of those around them. Just by the way they do a whole lot of little things right. And even though I’m not 100% sure this man was a follower of Christ, I am 100% certain that he has a voice that will be heard if he chooses to speak to others about Christ. Not because he is the loudest. But because the life he lives and the way he treats people gives him a voice worth listening to.
That’s quite a bit to gather from a half hour of people watching I suppose. But anyone who brings light to a dark, dirty, and smelly fish market…………they’re worth noticing and talking about.
And it makes me think that most of us shouldn’t find it quite so hard to bring a little light to the places we spend our days that aren’t quite so smelly.