This couples fries fish as a ministry of love

by Karen L. Willoughby, |

POINT LOMA, California (Christian Examiner) – It is as much a love story as it is a fish story.

Earl and Ruby Bigelow, married 72 years on February 26, continue in ministry together as they have since they first met in 1939 at a church in Oklahoma City, Okla.

"I liked the way she did her hair," said Earl Bigelow, now 96. She liked the way he felt called to the pastorate, said Ruby Bigelow, now 93.

"Being patient with each other and both of us serving the Lord," are qualities that make for a successful marriage, Ruby said. Earl indicated a good sense of humor helps when he said with a chuckle, "My wife is very fortunate because she married the most humble man in the world."

Ruby helped Earl in ministry from the time he worked at a mission and then became pastor of a church even before they married. He preached and made hospital and rest home visits, and she did whatever was needed, from leading music, directing choir, heading Woman's Missionary Union, teaching Sunday School or rocking babies in the nursery. Together they made home visits.

Fourteen churches later, they retired in 1982 when he was pastor of First Baptist Church in Santee, California, and 28 years after that, he preached what he thought would be his final sermon.

It was in August 2010 at First Baptist Church of Pacific Beach, California, where he and his wife are members. "Bigelow chose to conclude his preaching now, rather than wait for his health to determine his final message"—according to a 2010 article in the alumni magazine for Oklahoma Baptist University.

But he was still preaching Feb. 8, with an interpreter, to a packed crowd of 300, at the Sunday morning worship service at Centro Shalom multi-ministry center in a poverty-stricken barrio of Tijuana, Mexico.

That same weekend the couple had prepared a fish fry for the 56 staff members and volunteers of the ministry that provides Christ-centered activities for about 500 youngsters each week, training programs – sewing, computers – for adults, as well as services such as water purification, health care, food, and family unity ministries.

For the last dozen years, the Bigelows have been involved in providing fish-fry dinners for upwards of 50 people at a time, about six times a year. For the last three years, since seeing the great need and great ministry going on at Centro Shalom, they have been going four times a year to Tijuana.

It is a ministry that started because he likes to fish and fishing is biblical, he said. Fishermen were among Jesus' disciples, he also noted.

Fishing is blessed by God, he added. The first week of February Bigelow caught a 25-pound white-tail tuna in the ocean waters off San Diego. It was the biggest catch of the day on the charter boat he had joined for the day.

Fishing also is an opportunity to do the work of Jesus, the retired pastor said.

"He catches a lot of fish," Ruby said of her husband. "How much fish can you eat? Someone told him he should have a fish fry. That was about 12 years ago."

The couple works together in the fish fry ministry as they have throughout their 72-year marriage.

He goes out on half-day charters and lets deckhands do a basic cleaning of the yellow-tail tuna, sea bass, rock cod and salmon groupers he catches because, "They need to earn a living."

When he gets home, she fine-tunes the cleaning and deboning, cuts the fish into 6-inch filets, vacuum-seals and freezes them.

When it is time for a fish fry, Ruby takes a sufficient number of filets from the freezer so they can thaw.

"It takes about a day and a half to thaw out because it's about 25 to 30 pounds of filets," the retired pastor said.

There are all the preparations the take place ahead of a cookout, including the special blend marinade he makes (buttermilk, cayenne pepper, garlic salt and paprika; or perhaps lemon juice with salt and pepper; or even just "lemonade," but not sweet) and a dry mix recipe he uses, too, (a combination of Bisquick, cornmeal and a little salt), as well as two quarts of tartar sauce she crafts from scratch (diced dill pickles, red and white onions, capers – a Mediterranean flower bud – mixed with Best Foods mayonnaise).

Recipes for great food and fellowship, prepared with love.

Each visit involves a 20-mile drive to meet up with a ministry team to cross the border.

Then there is the actual frying of the fish which takes about five minutes per filet using a two-burner propane stove, two pots of oil five inches deep each heated to 350 to 400 degrees F—one filet per pot at a time so a filet does not stick to another.

But the 90-year-old (plus) pair approaches the tasks with zeal.

Centro Shalom workers have learned how to fry the fish, so he can supervise more of the time, now, the pastor said. So, he gets to save his fish-frying talents for San Diego events, he explained with just a hint of humor.

The Bigelows have cooked for women living at a recovery center in San Diego, the homeless, Set Free and CRASH ministries, church groups, children's and senior adult groups, and pastors in San Diego Southern Baptist Association.

"Ruby and I lived through the Great Depression in Oklahoma," Pastor Earl said. "I know what it's like to be hungry. Fishing is one way I can minister and meet the need of hungry people."

It is also a way the couple lives a fulfilled life.