About a dozen people participated in the first Blessing of the Fleet Paddle on Saturday, Aug. 1 at St. Mary Magdalene Church Orthodox Church in Fenton.

 With overcast weather and the Shiawassee River flowing behind him, Fr. Gabriel Bilas did a blessing of the water and a blessing of the fleet for a group of kayaks and kayakers before heading down the river.

 “It’s a tradition that goes back 2,000 years,” said local resident Matthew Morgan, who organized the event. “It’s a really old tradition. When I was in the Navy, everyone had a blessing of the fleet.”

 This tradition goes back to a time when populations relied on fishing as a main source of food. Religious leaders would bless the vessels and sailors for a safe return, and they would pray for a great harvest.

 Pastoral Assistant Rebekah Humphreys said this is part of the Procession of the Life-Giving Cross, and Aug. 1 is one of three times in the Orthodox liturgical calendar when they can bless water.

 The kayaks and canoes fit into that. The church does a blessing of the Shiawassee River in the beginning of January, and they do these types of community outreach events a few times a month. They gave kayakers snacks and water for the paddle.

 “Your kayaks keeping you safe on the river offers you numerous opportunities while going down river to experience the glories of God,” Bilas said. “This blessing is for the blessing that your boats will keep you safe and keep you far from harm and to keep you on that river, and also while you’re rowing, give you a sense of ‘open your eyes, stop the blindness of your heart, all of our hearts and to look at the glory of creation, look at the glory of God and all that He has done for us.’”

 This was Bilas’ first kayak ride, and the group went from the church property and pulled out at the Linden Millpond. People wore masks and adhered to social distancing guidelines.

 Considering the pandemic, organizers were happy with the turnout.

 It started when Morgan left a message on Bilas’ phone to see if he could pull his kayak out of the water at the church property after coming from Bush Park.

 “He was such an energetic and enigmatic figure, I was like, ‘wow,’” he said. Bilas asked if they wanted to do a blessing of the fleet. “He’s (Bilas) is a great dude. He was really excited about it. Hopefully we can do it every year. It’ll grow.”

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