As the Creation Care campaign associate at Sojourners, my job is to get people thinking about God’s call for us to care about the creation. Usually, I do that from behind a desk in Washington, D.C., but recently I got to do it from a boat out on the bayou in Louisiana, in a tiny community that has been hit by eight disasters in eight years (seven hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). I took 100 people out to the town of Jean Lafitte, less than an hour from New Orleans, to hear from people who live on the front lines of climate change.
One of the obstacles to igniting a passion about climate change is that it feels so abstract; it feels like a future problem, a global problem. But it’s really a here and now problem. We took folks out on the Louisiana bayou to meet with those who are living in the midst of climate change – people who don’t think of themselves as environmentalists, but who can bear witness to the impact that climate change and our use of dirty energy have had on their lives, personally.
The town of Jean Lafitte is an old and diverse town, a close-knit community where faith is important to many people, including the mayor. It’s a town that sounds a lot like the early Christian church. We were told that homelessness is not a problem there – if your neighbor loses her home, why wouldn’t you take her in? We were told that when the state government showed up two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the town had recovered so quickly that the government thought the hurricane hadn’t hit them. This community comes together, and because it knows how to survive, it often gets forgotten by government responders and by oil companies like BP.
The people here are shrimpers and fishers — they depend on the land. That way of life is being threatened because of what’s happening to their coastal wetlands, locally referred to as the bayou.
Louisiana’s wetlands, which are critical as natural habitat for shellfish, and as a buffer zone whenever hurricanes hit, are disappearing at the rate of a football field every 38 minutes. I’ll say it again: Louisiana loses a football field’s worth of wetlands every 38 minutes. Why? The oil and gas industry, which carves out unnatural canals for transporting fuels, is one culprit. Another reason is climate change, which has led to sea level rise, brings in saltwater that is deadly to the freshwater marsh plants. And climate change acts like steroids for the weather, making hurricanes and other storms worse.
I could keep talking about it, but I haven’t lived it. So I took participants out to Jean Lafitte to meet those who have. We met with Pastor Dr. Charlotte L. Keys, a veteran of the environmental justice movement from Mississippi, and we met with a few locals: Reverend Kristina Peterson and Reverend Richard Krajeski of nearby Gray, La; Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner; and the most unexpected messenger of all, Captain Lil’ Lou, who brought us out in his boat and had a few tricks up his sleeve. (Or in his backpack, anyway – he brought along a young alligator that we all got a chance to hold.) People like Lil’ Lou live on the front lines of climate change, and they can call it out for what it is: environmental injustice.
Many of the participants admitted that they’d always assumed the swamp, or the bayou, was an ugly, muggy, buggy place. It was muggy, but it was beautiful. I was surprised by the participants who came up to me later with a simple question – what can I do?
The first thing we can do, I think, is to tell these stories. To tell people that Lil’ Lou has repaired his family home six times and expects to do it again. To tell people that climate change is happening right in our backyard, and I heard about it from an interesting group of people. To tell our friends, our pastors, our neighbors, and our politicians that we have seen the impact that climate change is having on people. The problem isn’t distant – in time or in geography. It’s happening in our own backyard, in the bayou where we get 20 percent of our shrimp. In a place where Cajuns, Creoles, African Americans, and white people all work together to recover and rebuild time and time again as the storms come, and where almost nobody notices what our use of oil and gas has done to a vanishing way of life.
As Christians, we know the importance of storytelling. We follow a Jesus who shared his messages in parables, in stories, so we would remember them. It’s up to us to share the stories we hear, and to speak up for the truth and for action.
If you’re ready to join us, please join the Sojourners email list. And please share this story – you never know who you might surprise.
Liz Schmitt is Creation Care Campaign Associate for Sojourners.