These quail were wild birds. I shot them myself during an afternoon with Dr. Jill Carroll, tromping across several hundred acres of South Texas grass fields—a glorious piece of God’s good creation.
I’m a hunter. I haven’t always been. I was raised in rural Arkansas, where during duck season it was not unusual for high school classmates to arrive at the opening bell sleepy-eyed in coveralls after having already spent two hours in a duck blind. Many boys had killed their first deer by age eight. (Indeed, I have several Arkansas nephews who have accomplished exactly that feat.) I went duck hunting once or twice as a boy. It was always frigid outside, and the ducks always seemed too high in the air to shoot. I was cured of hunting by the time I reached sixth grade.
But then in 2007 I moved to Roanoke, Virginia, and soon my good friend and parishioner, Robert Brailsford, invited me to dove hunt with him. On Labor Day weekend, we drove to a cut corn field in Franklin County, and in the span of four hours I was hooked. (It helped that I hit the first bird at which I took aim, which was—so far—the highlight of my hunting career.)
I loved all of it: The camaraderie; the extended time outdoors without email or cell phone, time in which to pray and count one’s blessings; the excitement when a flight of birds crossed the field; and the respect I felt for the canny dove that knew when to veer and dip to avoid being hit (in my case, most of the dove).
I dove hunted each fall after that. Then in 2012 another friend and parishioner, Chris Moore, took me quail and pheasant hunting, which had the added benefit of constant movement. I returned from that hunt with the realization that I was no longer someone who enjoyed hunting; I’d become a hunter.
The country rock band Drive-By Truckers talk about “the duality of the Southern thing.” I experience that sometimes-conflicted conundrum in many different manifestations, including when I reflect upon my identity as a hunter. On the one hand, I am a progressive-leaning Episcopal priest who advocates reasonable gun control, the stewardship of God’s earth, the good care of God’s creatures, and peaceable living. On the other hand, I am a shotgun-owning wing shooter who admittedly thrills when I hit my mark.
I navigate “the duality of the Southern thing” in this case—and I offer this as explanation, not as excuse—by acknowledging that I am a carnivore. I consume meat, including the birds I hunt. And after viewing the films “Fast Food Nation” and “Food, Inc.,” I trust with confidence that the birds I kill and consume have lived as God hopes and intends compared to the mass-produced, bioengineered, engorged chickens, cows, and pigs that are conveniently packaged in cellophane at Kroger and HEB. It seems to me there is integrity in being vegan; there is integrity in buying one’s meat from free range, grass-feed farmers; and there is integrity in being a hunter who eats what he shoots and doesn’t shoot more than he will eat.
I will admit that I experience intermittent ambivalence about hunting. But then again, I’m fond of saying (and I believe) that doubt is first-cousin of faith, while certainty is faith’s opposite. And it is surely true that in the field I feel as close to God as I do anywhere but the sacred space of the church.