2:00 P.M. EST June 9, 2010
The Rev. Kirby Verret is working all sides of the Gulf Coast oil spill disaster that threatens both his small Louisiana church and his community.
He is trying to tend to his 178-member Native American United Methodist congregation at Clanton Chapel in Dulac, offering support to families and people who fish for a living.
And he is negotiating with British Petroleum, which wants access to the large, centralized sewer system – built after Hurricane Juan in 1985 – on the church’s property and space to house cleanup teams on church grounds.
June 8 marked the 50th day since a BP-owned Deepwater Horizon oil rig ruptured in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and setting the stage for what is feared will be the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
The spewing oil has yet to be contained. During a White House press briefing a day earlier, Admiral Thad Allen noted that the nature of the spill has changed. “We’re no longer dealing with a large, monolithic spill; we’re dealing with an aggregation of hundreds or thousands of patches of oil that are going a lot of different directions,” he said.
In Dulac, Clanton Chapel is affected by the oil spill. “Our church is mostly fishermen,” Verret explained. “Most are unemployed. Some have gotten work with BP.”
An RV park that housed evacuees after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is being prepared for use by cleanup teams, he said. The oil company would like to place another 50 campers on church grounds to house volunteers.
Verret considers cooperation with BP as a way, he hopes, to save the coast and estuaries and provide jobs for the community. “They’re going to pay us, so that will give us a chance to do things to help our people,” he said.
He also hopes for help from the United Methodist Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference.
The conference’s usual response for hurricane and flood relief doesn’t necessarily apply in this situation. For example, United Methodists can’t organize teams to help with efforts to decontaminate beaches or other areas, said the Rev. Darryl Tate, executive director of Louisiana Conference Disaster Response.
“We’ve been told we cannot go down there and do any cleaning up,” he explained. “You have to be HazMat certified.”
Tate and Bishop William Hutchinson met with Verret, the Rev. David Carlton, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Buras, and the Rev. Jim Reid, pastor of the United Methodist Church in Grand Isle, in late May.
For people who live in the coastal communities, the oil spill is the latest in a long line of hardships. “These are the same victims that have been hit in the last five years with four hurricanes,” Tate said.
He plans to return to the area on June 14-15 and hopes to place case managers to work as advocates for the community residents.
United Methodists attending the conference’s annual meeting this week in Shreveport are assembling 6,000 spiritual kits for volunteers and victims of the oil spill, Tate said, which will include Bibles donated by United Methodist Men and devotionals from The Upper Room.
During his June 7 annual conference address, Hutchinson outlined plans to minister to the Buras, Grand Isle and Dulac communities. The plans include organizing volunteer teams to provide Vacation Bible School to children, arranging for Vietnamese and Cambodian translators, and dispatching youth workers and spiritual and crisis counselors.
These efforts are not for church members alone. “We need clergy volunteers who will go down to the places where massive amounts of workers are being housed and fed and serve as greeters and spiritual encouragers and supporters,” the bishop said.
Hutchinson urged conference participants to sign postcards calling on Congress to pass the Gulf Coast Work Act “that will help bring some much-needed jobs into being.”
He also called on the power of prayer. “Please pray for the citizens of the coastal areas, for the workers, for the families who lost loved ones in the initial explosion, and the fragile environment and ecological system,” the bishop said. “And please pray for those of us who are trying to direct a response to these multitudinous needs.”
Back in Dulac, the challenge is how to deal with a situation that threatens both people and animals.
After serving 23 years at Clanton Chapel, Verret, a former tribal chairman for the United Houma Nation, has become accustomed to dealing with natural disasters. He values the friendships made as volunteers from around the country have helped restore the small fishing town time and time again.
For example, the United Methodist Committee on Relief assisted hundreds of families in Dulac after Hurricane Rita flooded the area nearly five years ago. Dozens of volunteer teams participated in the rebuilding, which included a new facility for the conference-owned Dulac Community Center near the church.
Such experiences have imbued the community with a certain mindset. “When people are going from one disaster to another, they learn how to appreciate each day,” Verret explained.
“As long as you have food, shelter and hope, you can keep going.”
But he worries that the nature of this disaster will jeopardize their ability to “go back to the waters” for physical and economic sustenance.
Not being able to fish those waters “would put us at a total loss,” Verret said.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.