The nation spent Wednesday riveted by a live video feed of BP’s latest attempt to stop the geyser of oil infiltrating the Gulf of Mexico, but in Louisiana, sights were set on the heavens as residents gathered at First Baptist Church of Chalmette to pray. One by one, they stood and asked God for protection, guidance, comfort, and mercy. At times, they clung together so closely that they evoked images of the delicate reeds that are now in danger – frail, but not weak; bent, but not broken. Never, ever broken.
If hurricane Katrina was a lesson in survival, the Gulf oil spill is proving to be a trial of endurance. More than five weeks have passed since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, unleashing hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Gulf, and still the flow is unstanched. In places like Grand Isle, La., and the Chandeleur Islands, the effects are just beginning to be seen – thick rivulets of oil bypassing protective booms, brown pelicans stained to black, crabs struggling to crawl, herons dying amid a toxic muck.
Chalmette, part of metro New Orleans, is fortunate. Located more than 100 miles inland, it is afforded some protection from the viscous onslaught. The town was not so fortunate during Katrina, a fact that was foremost on people’s minds Wednesday night.
June 1 marks the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season, and the oil spill brings added stress. If a hurricane comes, will it push the oil further ashore? Could the presence of oil in the Gulf raise water temperatures, resulting in stronger storms? As scientists and forecasters frenetically plot hypotheticals, residents along the coast watch, wait, and cling to what many say is the only thing of which they can be certain: the presence of a higher power guiding it all.
John Dee Jeffries, pastor of First Baptist Church in Chalmette, said in the surreal days following Katrina, the reality of God sustained. His home was gone. His church was gone. Ninety-seven percent of his congregation was scattered across the United States, the majority of which would not return. Whereas he had once prepared Sunday sermons for crowds of 500, suddenly he found himself standing at his lectern addressing 40.
“Life was so dark, so unfair,” he told the crowd of 100 who gathered in his newly built church Wednesday night. “I was filled with agony and loneliness. But every miracle in the Bible began with someone in a mess. We’re in a mess. It may be dark, the prognosis may not be good, but He’s still a miracle-working God.”
Other local pastors who spoke at the service echoed similar sentiments.
“Anybody can worship in a miracle,” said Derek Buchert, pastor of World Prayer Tabernacle in Chalmette. “Worship in a mess, and God will turn it into a masterpiece. Don’t give up. In your crisis, don’t give up.”
The question on many people’s minds, though, is this: How do you prepare for – and recover from – something you’ve never experienced? The Gulf Coast is no stranger to natural disasters, but a technological disaster of this magnitude is unprecedented.
“You don’t know what to do or what to expect,” said Chalmette resident Shelita Woods-Muse. “It’s almost as if someone took tar and threw it all over the place, and you’re left standing there going, ‘What do I do now?’ ”
Her key to survival is not only her faith, but also remaining positive and surrounding herself and her family with uplifting people.
Following Katrina, faith-based organizations proved to be faster and more effective in quickly getting aid to far-flung areas, and in this new ecological drama unfolding, the churches may once again play a crucial role in community outreach.
“In a crisis, your faith has to rise to a different level,” said Mr. Buchert after the service. “Churches have to go into disaster mode.”
In Chalmette, Katrina resulted in a stronger, more close-knit interfaith community. Before the storm, many of the pastors didn’t know one another. Now, they call upon one another regularly, praying together, sharing advice, and even blending their congregations, as they did for Wednesday night’s vigil.
Only time will tell if the oil spill has a similar effect. Earlier this week, a community meeting became heated as BP company officials, the Coast Guard, and representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fielded questions from residents and local politicians. Mr. Jeffries said even he grew frustrated.
“People on the coast are losing a whole way of life,” he said. “There are pockets of pain and almost existential fear. Like other people, we wonder, ‘What does this mean? What if they can’t stop it?’ But we can’t live in hypotheticals. God is not always the cause of calamities, but He can use them and turn something painful into something better than we can imagine.”
In the church sanctuary, dozens of flags hang, representing congregations that helped Jeffries's church rebuild. Life is still hard in post-Katrina Chalmette, but Sunday morning, he will prepare a sermon for the 200 people who currently fill his church roster.
“I’ve seen God do so many wonderful, powerful things,” Jeffries said.
As BP’s battle rages on, the people of the coast fight an inner battle, hoping – and praying – the tide will turn.