Religion and Spirituality Play Essential Roles in Serving People and Restoring Gulf

As is the case with any disaster, many people in the Gulf region are turning to religion to find comfort, compassion and assistance. At the same time, religious groups of all persuasions are actively trying to embrace environmentalism as a social movement to build their congregations and preach the gospel.  Here I have collected some of the most interesting and inspiring stories about how religion plays an important role in addressing the social and spiritual crisis faced by people in the Gulf. This post summarizes key articles about how religious institutions are helping address the material and spiritual needs of their congregations.  The gulf presents challenges to churches’ budgets, while also driving a new type of spiritual ecology.
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Religion’s green movement sees spill drawing converts
USA Today

Religious leaders who consider environmental protection a godly mission are making the Gulf of Mexico oil spill a rallying cry, hoping it inspires people of faith to support cleaner energy while changing their personal lives to consume less and contemplate more.  “This is one of those rare moments when you can really focus people’s attention on what’s happening to God’s creation,” said Walt Grazer, head of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

Activists in the movement often described as “green religion” or “eco-theology” are using blogs and news conferences to get the word out. Some are visiting the Gulf, inspecting oil-spattered wetlands and praying with idled fishermen and other victims.  And believers in the stricken coastal regions are looking at the consequences of the oil’s reach and asking what good can come out of it. …

Organizations including the National Council of Churches and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have issued statements calling for soul-searching. Some are providing ecologically themed online resources — prayers, liturgy, scripture readings — for use in worship services.  “We have used God’s creation without regard for the impact our rapacity had on the other creatures with whom we share our earthly home,” reads a model prayer on the Council of Churches’ website.

The push for an ecological Great Awakening since the oil spill began in April has come from liberals as well as theologically conservative groups such as the Evangelical Environmental Network, which previously sponsored an ad campaign with the slogan “What Would Jesus Drive?” that called for more fuel-efficient vehicles.

In a resolution this month, the Southern Baptist Convention declared that humanity’s “God-given dominion over the creation is not unlimited, as though we were gods and not creatures” and called for “energy policies based on prudence, conservation, accountability and safety.”  “Caring for creation is an extension of loving your neighbor as yourself,” said Russell Moore, dean of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, who wrote the statement. …

“Very few of the world’s religions were making any statements about the environment 20 years ago, and now virtually all of them have,” said Mary Evelyn Tucker, a historian of religion and founder of Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology. “The challenge is to put them into practice.”

Even people with no specific religious beliefs are recognizing a spiritual dimension in the Gulf tragedy and taking a deeper look at their energy use, Tucker said.  “There is a yearning for meaning and purpose and being able to contribute to something larger than ourselves,” she said. …

For progressive believers, it’s an easy sell. But many conservatives consider eco-theology a distraction from the church’s primary mission of winning souls — or even a stalking horse for socialism or earth worship.

A Time for Moral Reckoning. By Jim Wallis. Sojourners Magazine, August 2010 (Vol. 39, No. 8, pp. 7). Hearts & Minds.

This could be one of those moments when the nation’s attention focuses on one thing, as was the case with 9/11 and the days after Katrina. To use an overused phrase, this could be a “teachable moment,” but as 9/11 and Katrina demonstrated, we don’t necessarily learn the right lessons from teachable moments. This time we had better do so.

First, we have to change our language. This isn’t a little “spill.” It is an environmental catastrophe—the potential contamination of a whole gulf and hundreds of miles of coastline, contamination that threatens to expand to an ocean and more coastlines. It has the potential to bring the destruction of critical wetlands, endanger countless species, end human ways of life dependent upon the sea, and even increase the danger of a hurricane season that could dump not just water but waves of oil miles inland.

Theologically, we are witnessing a massive despoiling of God’s creation. We were meant to be stewards of the Gulf of Mexico, the wetlands that protect and spawn life, the islands and beaches, and all of God’s creatures who inhabit the marine world. But instead, we are watching the destruction of all that. Why? Because of the greed for profits; because of deception and lies; because of both private and public irresponsibility. And at the root, because of an ethic of endless economic growth, fueled by carbon-based fossil fuels, that is ultimately unsustainable and unstable. …

Already, we are hearing some deeper reflection on the meaning of this daily disaster. Almost everyone now apparently agrees with the new direction of a “clean energy economy.” And we know that will require a rewiring of the energy grid (which many hope BP will have no part in). But it will also require a rewiring of ourselves—our demands, requirements, and insatiable desires. Our oil addiction has led us to environmental destruction, endless wars, and the sacrifice of young lives, and it has put our very souls in jeopardy.

The Passion of the Gulf. Sojourners Magazine, August 2010 (Vol. 39, No. 8, pp. 14).

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.

Oil and Water: Will we choose to take the painful steps that future generations will thank us for? by Dr. Nancy Knowlton.

Like a toxic vinaigrette, a sample from the waters off the Louisiana coast reminds us, once again, that oil and water don’t mix. All major oil spills at sea bring with them heart-wrenching scenes of animals and plants mired, dead or dying, in suffocating black ooze. This still-unfolding catastrophe will bring death to life below the waves as well. But even more profoundly, our addiction to fossil fuels puts not just the health of the Gulf of Mexico, but that of the entire planet, in jeopardy. … As oil continues to gush into the Gulf, we watch videos of the ghastly underwater geyser in dazed horror. Will we absorb from this tragedy the hard lesson of the broader folly of our current course? Even more important, will we choose to act, taking painful steps now, steps that future generations will thank us for?

A Heart Has Been Pierced: We’ve exchanged beauty, hope, and wonder for the myopia of profit. by Gretel Ehrlich.

We’ve forgotten that when we step down on the earth we are walking on a living membrane. Now we are wounded people recklessly pimping a wounded planet. We’ve turned away from a sacred view of the world, a deep openness in which we accept that all living things have value. We’ve drilled recklessly under the ocean floor for economic gain, and in the process exchanged a sense of well-being, beauty, hope, and wonder for the myopia of profit.

Make It Right: Now’s the time to get to work restoring wetlands on a grand scale. by Majora Carter.

Today, wetlands along the Gulf Coast are all under threat from the oil, regardless of their proximity to oil routes, and must be protected and rebuilt. It’s my goal to see a massive wetland restoration project with a job training and placement system attached. These are good jobs that can provide therapy for people returning from war or prison, or living in generational poverty. The value of the inland property they are protecting far outweighs the costs of restoration.  Since we know climate change predicts more and more severe weather, we need to put Americans to work restoring wetlands on a grand scale, right now. Jobs, environmental restoration, and reduced risk—this is the kind of shovel-ready project the U.S. needs yesterday.

Another Wake-Up Call: Will this disaster re-energize the environmental movement? By Ched Myers,

In January 1969, Union Oil’s Platform A blew out six miles offshore due to inadequate protective casing. (In a haunting parallel with the current Gulf spill, the company had been granted permission by the U.S. Geological Survey to operate with casings below federal and California standards.) Over the next 11 days, an 800-square-mile slick formed in the channel, eventually fouling island beaches and 35 miles of coastline.  …  The following spring, Earth Day was inaugurated nationwide. It is now widely recognized that the Santa Barbara catastrophe was a major catalyst for the emergence of the modern environmental movement in the U.S. The 1969 spill was “minor” compared to the current ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, as I gaze upon our beautiful but colonized Pacific horizon, I feel keenly the pain of the Gulf region. Forty years after that first wake-up call, I pray that another popular and passionate environmental counterforce to Big Oil will re-emerge to put an end to this madness.

Galvanizing Will: What “restorative justice” means to the voiceless victims. By Elaine Enns.

Most of the current discussion around the Gulf spill is preoccupied with economic losses—jobs and the fishing and tourist industries. But how will the environmental damage to islands, deltas, and bayous be calculated, the loss of intertidal fish and fowl, the destruction of the marine ecology? The short- and long-term needs of these victims would presumably include commitments by offenders to save what can be saved, to restore what can be restored, and to ensure the violation will not be repeated.  Who will advocate for such covenants of accountability, and who will carry out these tasks? I pray that our churches might play a lead role in galvanizing such will.

‘In Awesome Wonder’: We are called not merely to exist but truly to live.  By Calvin B. DeWitt.

As we recapture a few drops of the great rock-oil gusher released from deep below the Gulf of Mexico by some combination of arrogance, ignorance, and greed, shoveling them into plastic bags along vast strands of shoreline … As we reflect on the myriad forms of life that had been flourishing in the rich waters of the Gulf … As we hope eventually to behold creation’s testimony to God’s divinity and eternal power in the Gulf and all creation … We might once again, “in awesome wonder,” come to behold God’s creation, refusing to be consumers of the world, seeking first the kingdom of God, and sing in truth, “Beautiful savior, king of creation.”

Whose Land Is This?: And how much are we willing to sacrifice to have cheap gasoline? By James Lee Burke.

Sometimes I think we forget whose country this is. Woody Guthrie said it a long time ago: “This land is your land, this land is my land, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters.” But since Woody wrote those lines, we’ve turned our government, our foreign policy, and our natural resources over to corporations and the politicians who work for them.  … Extractive industries have cut 10,000 miles of canals through Louisiana’s wetlands. These canals allow salt water to enter freshwater swamp and marsh areas and systemically destroy the roots of the grasses and trees that literally hold the land together. The consequence is that the southern rim of Louisiana is like a gigantic ragged sponge. The oil surge that is occurring at this moment along Louisiana’s coast will kill thousands of square miles of living marsh. … As I write these words, the Gulf Stream waters that Woody sung about are being turned into chemical soup. Maybe it’s time to take a personal inventory and decide if this is our land or not, and if it is, how much are we willing to sacrifice in order to have cheap gasoline?

Death Has Its Day: You and me? We are guilty bystanders to planetary domination. By Bill Wylie-Kellermann.

You and me? With our southern Gulf shore? Our freeways and our ignition keys? Our transcontinental vegetables? We are complicit in our own captivity. We are guilty bystanders to planetary domination. We are the users in a culture of addiction. Such is the bondage of sin and death.  Which is also to say: The healing of the planet and the healing of ourselves, inside and out, are one. Apocalyptic events reveal the truth, pull back a veil, break the seal, set us free. Such is grace. We best get with the transformation, dear friends. Be accountable to the Spirit and community of creation. Another world, one oil-free and domination-free, is actually possible. With earth itself, let us fight for it. Heal into it. Let it be.

Two Ears, Two Eyes, One Voice – We need to listen carefully to those hurt by the oil spill. By Jennifer Hope Kottler

It has been said that God created humanity with two eyes and two ears, but only one voice, because it was God’s intent that we listen and observe more than we speak. Sometimes we do that well, and other times not so well. Now is the time for God’s people to see and hear what the people who are directly impacted by the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico have to say.

We need to listen to those whose lives have been forever changed, whose livelihoods have been lost, whose future is uncertain. Before we act—or react, as the case may be—we need to slow down and hear what the local church has to say. They are the ones who can tell us how we can serve them best.

At Sojourners, we have already begun to hear from many of our friends in the Gulf. The pain in the words that they write to us is palpable. They describe how the grief they are feeling as they see the coastline awash with oil is akin to the death of a loved one. Indeed, the psychological toll that this crisis is exacting is a seemingly untold story. There is deep anxiety about the loss of wetlands that are the first line of defense during hurricane season. There is anger at what an apparent lack of regulation or care for creation has caused. And there is deep fear that this is only the beginning of this devastating event.

We need to be listening for God’s voice in the midst of this as well. God may not be in the wind or the storm, as the prophet Elijah expected, and God may not be apparent in the gushing of oil into the waters of the world. But God may be heard in the still, small voice—the voice of children, the voice of mothers, the voice of those most vulnerable. We have to stop “doing” long enough, and we have to listen and observe closely enough, that we do not miss it. It will be then, and only then, that we will be able to discern what God and God’s people are calling us to do.

The Fishermen on the Shore
Kerry Weber – June 03, 2010

The environmental and economic effects of the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling site more than a month ago are obvious, but what many don’t see are the emotional effects on the fishermen and their families. …

Many agencies in New Orleans have recognized the impact the BP oil disaster on families, and Catholic Charities of New Orleans and Second Harvest Food Bank are among those working together to alleviate some of the resulting stressors. “There are people who have to make choices between rent and food and we help to ease that burden,” said Leslie Doles of Second Harvest.

Crises situations raise stress levels, which can result in violence, as evidenced in the  rise in cases of domestic violence after Hurricane Katrina. Catholic Charity aid workers and partner organizations are now trying to help families avoid the kinds of stressful situations that can lead to violence. …

Since May 1 more than 6,200 people have received assistance through Catholic Charities, and more than 500 people have received counseling. Still, uncertainty remains. “In addition to the stressors of not being able to work, children are at home, money is tight, it’s hot,” said Marilyn Shraberg of Catholic Charities. “We’re a very hardworking community and people are very proud here. We don’t like to ask for help unless we really need it,” she said.

People need power and your prayers
Ronald Rychlak – June 3, 2010; Washington Post

The bottom line is that people need power, and people need a clean environment. Somehow we have to meet both of those needs. That is a pressing but long-range problem that requires a scientific answer. Of more immediate concern are the needs of the people on the Gulf Coast. That is where faith can play an important role.

The Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans is involved with several initiatives to help coastal families. It has partnered with food banks and local officials to provide relief to fishermen who are unemployed due to closed waters. Hundreds of families have been supplied with emergency food boxes, baby supplies, and other necessities. The archdiocese has also provided case managers, crisis counselors, and other volunteers to assist those who need to apply for food stamps or Medicaid.

Of course, material needs are not the only concern. The archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, has offered prayers for those who died in the blast, those injured, and their families, that “God may give them peace in their time of crisis.” The archbishop added: “At these times of tragedy, it is important that we remain focused on God’s love and that we are witnesses of hope.” Prayers are also being offered for protection of the coast from further harm.

This is a problem caused by science – or perhaps by the limits of science. Religion can help provide a solution. For those who want to help protect or restore the coast, online charities have made financial contributions easy to make (visit Catholic Charities of New Orleans). But prayer may be the most important thing anyone can contribute. Those who live on the coast would appreciate yours.

BP America gives $1 million to Catholic Charities New Orleans to assist those affected by oil spill – New Orleans, La., May 18, 2010

BP America,  whose underwater well is leaking millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, has announced a combined $1 million donation to Catholic Charities in Louisiana to support emergency food assistance and financial aid for families affected by the environmental disaster.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans said that the Catholic Church has been active in relief efforts since April 29 through its Catholic Charities affiliate and Second Harvest Food Bank. Though their efforts have served more than 1,000 individuals and families, need is growing among the people.

Catholic Charities co-president Jim Kelly reported that the agency had committed a minimum of $300,000 in resources before BP’s offer.  “We knew immediately that the impact would be enormous and we would need to respond quickly,” he remarked.

Second Harvest Food Bank member agencies have reported a 15 to 25 percent increase since May 1 in the number of new people seeking emergency food assistance. According to the archdiocese, the food bank itself has distributed over 700 emergency food boxes. Its agencies have distributed more than 31,700 meals in affected areas.

“Our first priority in this disaster is the people who are directly impacted and unable to work right now,” New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond explained. “Their livelihood and their way of life are endangered and it is our responsibility as church and as human beings to provide for them in their time of need. This gift from BP America is a blessing for us as it will allow us to continue our mission of service to those directly affected.”

Catholic Charities New Orleans co-president Gordon Wadge said the organization has always had “early responder” and “forever responder” roles.  “Our expertise is in identifying the needs of the people impacted by a disaster and remaining with them until their needs are served, no matter how long that takes,” he noted.

St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro said he was “so grateful” for all the assistance from the relief agencies to help fishermen. He said the BP donation will “go a long way” to aid in supporting them.  The Louisiana Department of Social Services (DSS) estimates that about 47,000 households across coastal Louisiana may need food assistance because of the oil spill.

Outreach to Fisherman Continues

As the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico stretches into a third month,  more fishermen and their families find themselves caught in an economic and mental health crisis.   Those needing crisis counseling can get it, free of charge, at any of our five oil spill relief centers.  Catholic Charities Care Line, 1-866-891-2210, is available 24 hours a day.  The National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), is also available 24 hours a day.

Since May 1, almost 14,000 individuals have received emergency assistance through Catholic Charities.  By the numbers, through June 28, 2010:

  • 13,696 people (5,203 families) have received emergency assistance from Catholic Charities;
  • $236,900 in food vouchers have been distributed to affected families, $72,840 in emergency food boxes from Second Harvest Food Bank have been distributed at the relief centers, in addition to regular distributions through the SHFB partner pantries in the area;
  • 2,667 people have received individual counseling and 58 have taken part in group counseling with Catholic Charities crisis counselors;
  • $115,948 in direct assistance and baby supplies has been distributed to families;
  • 353 cans of baby formula and 966 packages of diapers have been distributed;
  • Total food assistance: $401,370

Greater New Orleans Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster Collaborative (GNO-VOAD)

GNO-VOAD is a collaborative of local voluntary agencies that work together to respond to the needs of those affected by disaster.  Fostering Inter-agency: Cooperation, Communication, Coordination, and Collaboration

  • Mission: To better serve those affected by disaster through enhanced inter-agency cooperation, communication, coordination, and collaboration.
  • Jurisdiction: GNO-VOAD primarily serves the Parishes of Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard.
  • Members: All member agencies of GNO-VOAD maintain autonomy and commit to working together as a collaborative to maximize community resources and minimize unnecessary duplication of effort.

Membership is free of charge and open to any community/non-profit agency that has a mission or desire to respond in time of disaster.


One Response to “Religion and Spirituality Play Essential Roles in Serving People and Restoring Gulf”

  1. Heavy Heart Says:

    Maybe we don’t need comfort…that is what got us in trouble in the first place. We need to feel the impact of our wants. We need to understand the true costs of our materialism and demand more environmental responsibility for those that are supplying us. Warm, fuzzy , and safe is not the place we need to hide. There must be tears in Jesus’s eyes over this one!!
    Only when we let our spirits range to both ends can we be complete and make things better. I hope this is a “teachable moment” in history…great selection of articles and thouights–THANKS!!!

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