By Karen Willoughby, Managing Editor
GULF COAST of Louisiana – The oil spill resulting from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20 has curtailed a third of the fishing waters in the entire Gulf of Mexico. It’s a mess.
Oil is being seen on Alabama, Mississippi and Florida beaches as well as on the beaches and in the fragile marshlands of Louisiana. The cutting tool being used in a try to cap the leak is stuck in surrounding equipment nearly a mile under the water’s surface. Tensions are high, and Southern Baptists are on track with Disaster Relief chaplains.
“This is not overwhelming-crushing-moment crisis; it’s prolonged,” said Pastor Craig Ratliff of Celebration Arabi Church in St. Bernard Parish. “You wake up tomorrow and wonder if it’s going to be worse than today.”
Over the first seven weeks of the disaster, the well leaked perhaps 45 million gallons of heavy crude oil, the government estimated – perhaps 20,000 barrels a day. It’s the United States’ worst environmental disaster ever, and there is no end in sight.
Most everyone remains in a tension-filled wait-and-see mode even as they scramble to do what they can, with various governmental agencies vying for control and everyone concerned about the increased possibility of hurricanes this summer.
“Everything is just too fluid to see how it’s going to play out,” said Eddie Painter, commercial fisherman and pastor of Barataria Baptist Church. “Everybody’s pretty tense.”
Alleviating that tenseness is the initial way Southern Baptists are responding to the disaster, say Louisiana directors of missions, disaster relief personnel and pastors, several of whom did onsite assessments of the situation over Memorial Day weekend.
Venice, La., is the furthest-south town in Louisiana, with about 500 people and not even a substantial grocery store. It’s located about 75 miles down a two-lane road south of Belle Chasse, which itself is a town that “shuts down at night,” said David Maxwell, disaster relief coordinator for the New Orleans Baptist Association.
He discussed the unfolding situation with Duane McDaniel, executive director of the New Orleans Baptist Association, Steve McNeal, pastor of First Baptist Church of Venice, Lynn Rodrigue, pastor of Port Sulphur Baptist Church, and fisherman/pastor Eddie Painter of Barataria Baptist.
The “situation” includes a 1,500-person tent village being built for oil spill workers.
“The infrastructure is not designed for that many people,” Maxwell said. “Really and truly there’s just not anything to do down here.”
McNeal talked about the possibility of acquiring exercise equipment and using the First Venice church building as a fitness center. He also suggested showing films in the church at night.
Rodrigue mentioned the possibility of providing facilities for volunteers in future – as yet undetermined – efforts. The men determined a feeding ministry is not needed at the present time. Block parties and other children/family activities are possibilities.
Various ways of connecting with the fishing industry families and with those coming to the region’s rescue were discussed.
“Southern Baptists care, and they want to show they care,” McDaniel said. “It’s in the long run – through the relationships built – that we show we care. The pastors there are talking about the psychological and spiritual well-being of the families. The tensions are there and it could be an explosive powderkeg situation down the road.”
Logistics and health safety issues need to be worked out before large groups come to minister along the Gulf Coast, Maxwell said.
The big need, all say, is for Disaster Relief trained counselors who will sit and listen to people talk about losing not only their livelihood but also their heritage, for DR counselors who will sit and listen to people talk about the uncertainty, the dashed hopes and dim future, and for DR counselors who will remind people that with the strength of Jesus in their hearts, this too they can get through.
Southern Baptist DR-trained counselors waited to be asked to get involved in the disaster, said Gibbie McMillan, disaster relief director for the Louisiana Baptist Convention. According to the DR charter, SBC DR personnel always respond to requests. They don’t initiate action unsolicited.
“We received a request June 2, and we are sending 12 DR chaplains a week for the next few months or as long as needed,” McMillan said. “They will be in Grand Isle, Venice, etc.”
James Carson is the LBC DR chaplaincy coordinator and director of missions for Caldwell, Deer Creek and Richland Baptist Associations. On June 2 he advised the regional DR chaplaincy coordinator, Joe Arnold, who also is director of missions for Bayou Baptist Association, just north of the Gulf, to alert the nearby chaplains on Arnold’s list to be prepared to be called out the week of June 7.
“Everyone is engaged in vigorous conversation,” McDaniel said. “Everyone recognizes that there is a disaster unfolding, and we’re just seeing the tip of the wellhead [of need]. We’ll be dealing with the devastation for the long term.”
A gathering of SBC Disaster Relief coordinators from the entire Gulf Coast region has been called for the week of June 7.
“We know what to do with hurricanes, but this manmade disaster has hidden victims,” Arnold said. “This is going to be a long-term thing – we’re talking years. … Right now the tension is so touchy down there [at the water’s edge]. There’s a lot of frustration.”