The Common Good

Praying on the Gulf Coast

Sojomail - July 8, 2010


"We must remember the past, define the future, and challenge the present -- wherever and however we can. It will take the rest of our lives even to begin. But then, what else have we to do?"

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Praying on the Gulf Coast

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The captain was the first to smell it. He told us that the ocean didn’t used to smell this way. Then we all smelled it. As we traveled further out over the choppy waters, it finally came into view -- oil coating the grasses and clinging to the edges of the water and land. I asked what all the oil would do to this place. “Kill everything that lived here before,” was the solemn answer.

Our captain’s name was Kevin. He has fished those waters for 30 years. He learned to navigate the bayous and estuaries from his father, who in turn learned it from his father. Eighty percent of the areas he used to fish are now gone to him. He’s heard stories of other fishermen taking their own lives. But Kevin, with his 8-year-old daughter, is not giving up hope. “If we didn’t have hope we wouldn’t have anything. So we hold on to hope,” he told me.

Here we are in New Orleans ... again; on the Gulf Coast ... again. This place and what happens here has a way of asking America deep questions. It’s not a role the people here have asked for, but one that has fallen to them.

On Tuesday night, a delegation of national faith leaders gathered together with the local religious community and the people who live here for an interfaith service at First Grace United Methodist Church -- a congregation formed from a black church and a white church after the storm of Katrina. It was an appropriate beginning to these days of seeing and listening to what is happening here since the BP oil spill, because when they take everything else away from you, all you have left is faith.

Because of their faith, a local gospel choir, in the face of this environmental disaster, led us to sing, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Because of his faith, a young rabbi led us through two often-asked Jewish questions: “What happened here, and where were you?” Because of her faith, a young Muslim woman reminded us that this church was once under five feet of water, and “We’re not floating around. We’re praying for hope again tonight.” The faith leaders have gathered from around the country because this is, for us, more than a political and media issue; it is a spiritual and moral issue.

Language fails us. This is not a “spill,” but a spoiling of God’s creation -- of wetlands and beaches; of God’s myriad creatures; of lives and livelihoods. And we heard many testimonies of this devastation over these last few days. The words that kept coming to my mind were “reflection, restoration, and renewal.”

The first thing I noticed as we left the dock and entered the water was how beautiful this place is. The marshes extend almost 15 miles out into the ocean, and barrier islands are another five miles further out. While I’m only a visitor, I can see how Kevin and so many others have fallen in love with this place. It was so peaceful to hear the water lap against the boat and see wildflowers coloring the marshes. The life of a fisherman is certainly hard work, but our captain told me that the beauty they see every day makes it all worthwhile. But Kevin says he has seen nearly 25 percent of these marshes, the natural protection against hurricanes, disappear during his time on the water. The oil will only hasten their disappearance. “Flood waters recede and houses we have rebuilt,” he told me, “but the estuaries are not restored so quickly, if ever.”

The people I am meeting have fed this country some of the world’s greatest seafood. Now, when some of them have to stand in line for food at relief agencies, it is almost too much for them to bear. Depression and mental health have become major issues on the Gulf Coast when people see no future for themselves. We stopped at a dock by a small village and talked with three women who were on their way to work. We asked them if their faith had been shaken. They told us, “No, it has only gotten stronger.” After all they had been through, after all the times they had been knocked down, they were sure that the only reason they stand today is because God has lifted them up.

I was asked by a reporter if this disaster was an act of God. I said no, this is a result of human folly. And if you think the people you see here are sad at what has happened to this place, then just imagine how sad the Creator who gave us this natural beauty as a gift must be. If you think those who have lost their jobs are mad, imagine how angry the God who gave us the job to take care of creation is when we fail like this.

It is not enough for any of us to be sad, feel guilty, or say we are sorry. We must repent. That means we have to turn away from the way things have been and move forward on a new path. We need to turn away from our addiction to oil that has hurt our neighbors and the planet. Why this crisis has happened and what we will learn from it are both spiritual questions we must now ask ourselves. Life will not be the same for Kevin; it cannot be the same for us.

I leave for home this afternoon, and I will tell the stories of what we have seen and heard. As a matter of faith and solidarity with our brothers and sisters on this embattled coast of America -- we will testify. I will go to our congressional leaders and let them know that no one on the Gulf Coast is getting a vacation while the oil continues to flow, and they shouldn’t get a vacation either until they pass emergency legislation for the people on the Gulf and begin work on building a clean energy future. The political pundits and Washington insiders all say it’s impossible, but it is the only thing that is responsible.

My time here has confirmed that this disaster must become an epiphany for our nation. An epiphany is a waking up. It’s when something changes in our hearts and our spirits and suddenly we see the whole world for the first time again. An epiphany then leads to conversion, when we make the choice to live differently because of what we now know, see, and feel.

Pray for the people here, and pray that this epiphany leads to conversion.

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Inside Sojourners Magazine

Nature in a Chokehold: The Passion of the Gulf

The BP catastrophe invites us to take a hard look at ourselves. We invited eight writers to offer their reflections on images from the Gulf Coast disaster. Authors include Nancy Knowlton, Gretel Ehrlich, Ched Myers, Elaine Enns, Calvin DeWitt, Majora Carter, James Lee Burke, and Bill Wylie-Kellermann.

+Read their reflections and more in the August issue of Sojourners magazine.

Building a Movement

Pray for Jim at Lifest

This Saturday Jim Wallis will be speaking at Lifest in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Lifest is one of the country's largest Christian youth gatherings and music festivals, with 15,000 young people expected to show up for the weekend of teaching, music, and ministry. For many, this will be the first time they have heard the presentation of the gospel.

Pray for the organizers, that the event would go smoothly. Pray for the young people, that they would encounter the power, presence, and Spirit of God. And pray for Jim as he shares with them the heart of God for the poor -- that the kingdom of God might come on earth as it is in heaven.


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