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.
The first thing I noticed as we left the dock was how beautiful this place is. The marshes extend almost 15 miles out into the ocean and barrier islands are another 5 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 me 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 that 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 that 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.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Jim is currently on a tour of the Gulf Coast with a interfaith group of leaders sponsored by the Sierra Club. For live updates from his trip please follow @jimwallis on Twitter.