A Parable of the Kemp Ridley Sea Turtle (Rev. Sharolyn Browning)
A couple of weeks ago, in what seemed like the hottest part of this hot Texas summer, my cousin told me about an event happening on the Padre Island National Seashore. It would begin at six-thirty in the morning, but we would have to wake up at two a.m., just to check that the miracle was still on. I had been near the coast before when it was about to happen, but never made it past that two a.m. check. This time: confirmation it is a “go” at two a.m.: check. Up and out the door by five thirty: check. Join the steady stream of headlights on the road straight out to the seashore: check. Standing among the two or three hundred folks, awaiting the miracle: check.
I wondered if this is how it would feel following Jesus around the Galilean seashores? Hoping a miracle is about to happen…maybe a parable…nonetheless, I’m not missing it this time. I don’t care if I don’t want to wake up early. I don’t care if I don’t like crowds. I’m not missing it this time.
A speaker steps in front of the crowd in a funny hat. It doesn’t seem like he is providing enough instructions for a crowd this size. Someone is going to get hurt or stepped on. I’m worried I won’t be able to see over the taller folks. It would be awful to come all this way, and not even see.
The leader in the hat directs us toward the beach. People plod through the sand. It is such a big group, we’ve been told to divide into two groups and to gather around the little markers forming a kind “C” shape cupping the lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Folks move into place with surprising order. It is uncommonly quiet for a crowd this size.
I notice two or three white boxes in the open space made by the circle of people. They seem to shine brighter than they should in the sun just peeking over the water. Another woman comes close to the boxes and kneels down. She opens the lid. This seems familiar…like a Godly Play parable box. What is going to happen? No one is saying a word.
She reaches into the box and takes out what looks like a small, black rock, the very size and shape one would choose to skip across a calm lake. She places it on the sand and legs emerge, and reach out to grab the sand two inches in front of it and then pulls. She takes another from the box…and another. Slowly, ninety-four Kemp Ridley sea turtle hatchlings are in the open space before us, following the rising sun glimmering on the water, inch by inch. Each placed with enough inches of beach before them to know it forever, imprinted so deeply the females among them will come back and lay her eggs here, too.
The crowd is quiet, except for the occasional child tugging on a sleeve to move closer. Once the miracle began I wasn’t sure how it would end. Everyone just waited and watched. Inch by inch of sand, little trails pointing directly to the sun. It is said that the symbol for the evangelist St. John is an eagle, because it is the creature that can stare straight at the sun without blinking. I would argue for baby sea turtles…not only un-blinking…but crawling toward the sun like their very lives depended on it. And it does.
There were other liturgical helpers, like ushers or doorkeepers, not controlling the human crowds but shooing away the gulls eager to reduce the number to ninety-three or ninety-two. Someone said only three of the ninety-four turtles will survive to return. First, the perils of swimming out a couple of miles where the vegetation will be home for their first year and then fifteen years of life before they crawl across the sand again to dig a hole and lay their eggs. Any number of perils in those fifteen years…like the oil spill that reduced the number of clutches to less than fifty a few years ago.
This was the greatest number of clutches since…over three hundred. And this morning was the last release of the season. And I didn’t miss the miracle. Everyone stayed until the last turtle made it safely the water’s edge. I didn’t hear any audible prayers for their safe travels out to the seaweed, but prayers were raised. For days following.
We trudged back across the sand, to get back in our cars, and go back to our ordinary lives. Or as ordinary as it can be after coming so close to a miracle.
This ritual is a rhythm of trust that the future will happen. We can slow down enough to go through all the steps in due time: gather, kneel, hear the story, wonder, pray. Crawl across the sand. Feast on life. Go in blessing and return again. Imprint so deeply on the inches of sand to return again. It is the rhythm of faith. It is the rhythm of life.
The Rev. Sharolyn Browning
Editor's note: The earliest known turtles date back more than 200 million years. Meanwhile, the human species (Homo sapiens) arose just 200,000 years ago. Since WWII we have expanded so rapidly and to such a great extent -- from roughly 3 Billion in 1959 to more than 7.5 Billion today -- most of Earth's other species are now threatened with various levels of near term demise. The Kemp Ridley Sea Turtle is native to the Atlantic coastal waters of the United States and Mexico. It has been listed as Critically Endangered since 1996, the final stage before extinction. As mentioned by Sharolyn, recent human "disturbances" are the cause of the Kemp Ridley Sea Turtle sudden demise. Thanks to partnerships between governmental and nonprofit species protection agencies, the Kemp hangs on. Learn more about how you can help here and here, and by checking out the movie, "Saving Sea Turtles, Preventing Extinction."