By Karen L. Willoughby
GULF COAST (BP)—As the oil spill crisis drags on along the U.S. Gulf Coast, Southern Baptists are ministering to people who live on the coast in two main ways – with on-site chaplains and with “Buckets of Hope.”
As much as 200 million gallons of British Petroleum unrefined crude oil has been escaping into the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sank April 22. The fishing industry has been crippled, as has tourism and local economies in many places across the Gulf. Tar balls have been found on beaches in all five Gulf states. About one-third of Gulf waters have been closed to fishing, and in some cases – such as Grand Isle, La. – the beach itself is closed.
The disaster relief department of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board convened a three-day June 30-July 3 conference in New Orleans that included Baptist disaster relief leaders from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, plus regional and national leaders from the Salvation Army, American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A July 7 conference call also was held to follow up on the discussion and plans.
The group decided that six disaster relief-trained chaplains would be onsite – two in each of three locations – by July 11. Summit participants also decided to conduct a “Buckets of Hope” food ministry to permanent residents of Gulf Coast towns.
“For the rest of the world, everything is normal. For the folks down here, it’s a reality that life is not going to be the same anymore,” said Joe Arnold, director of missions for Bayou Baptist Association in Terrebonne Parish, south of I-10 and west of Plaquemines Parish, where Port Arthur and Venice are located. Venice is 52 miles northwest of the Deepwater containment efforts.
“These are people who are losing their heritage and losing their future,” Arnold said. “They’ve trained 2,000 or more, and yet only 500 are working on ‘vessels of opportunity.’ The ‘vessels’ are boats owned by the fishermen, assigned to the task of skimming oil from Gulf waters.
“The support personnel is where the despair is coming in,” Arnold continued. “These people who were supplying these boats and rigs, they’re the ones feeling the crunch. It’s always the bottom man on the totem pole who gets crushed first. … More than anything else, the frustration is from looking to see what tomorrow holds, and not being able to see anything.”
Just the day before, Arnold had talked with a welder, a man who works for a wage in an industry that primarily serves the oil industry in Terrebonne Parish.
“He said business is slower all the time,” Arnold said. “He goes in every day, wondering if today is the day he’ll get a pink slip. It’s hard to live like that.”
Buckets of Hope
While chaplaincy ministries require intensive training and experience, a wide range of Southern Baptists can help Gulf Coast residents through the “Buckets of Hope” initiative, said Gibbie McMillan, disaster relief director for the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
“When Christ saw the needs of people he was moved with compassion and did not wait for them to ask for help,” McMillan said. “He asked, ‘What do you need?’ Because of that model, we, too, need to be Christ to these hurting people of the Gulf.
“One way of offering hope is a small bucket of food that could keep some families from doing without at the same time it would remind them that they can have hope because people do care about them,” McMillan said. “It would be my prayer that Southern Baptists would stop for a moment and ask themselves a question: ‘How would I feel if I were in their condition?’ I know I’d want someone to care.”
The buckets were expected to include pasta and sauce, rice and beans and other non-perishables Gulf Coast residents would want to eat.
“We’ve made the plea for people to stop and realize there is a need,” McMillan said. “This is a way people in our churches can have a part in bringing hope to people in the afflicted areas of the Louisiana coastline. With the Buckets of Hope, we’re providing a way for God’s people to be involved in giving an offering that hopefully will restore hope.”
Participants in the recent Deepwater Horizon Summit spent at least two sessions talking about the need to minister on an emotional/spiritual level to the people of the Gulf Coast. The oil spill has affected people on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast to date more than in any other state. But as the oil slick spreads to all five Gulf Coast states — affecting tourism, local economies and fishing – similar stress-level indicators alert Southern Baptists and their partners in disaster relief, The Salvation Army and American Red Cross.
U.S. Coast Guard chaplains also see the stress.
“I was at the beginning of this, when the phone rang at 4 a.m.,” said Commander Tim White, who supervises Coast Guard chaplains in 26 states. “Every day it got bigger and bigger, every single day.
“This is not just event stress,” White said. “The scope is so big, so much oil, the coastline so vast … there’s so much going on and they can’t fix it. That’s cumulative stress. It wears people down. … How do you clean up a marsh? They’re out there with paper towels and Shop-Vacs. It breaks your heart to see this.
“They’re fighting an enemy they can’t see,” the chaplain said. “You can see the evil in a natural disaster, not in this. And yet it keeps coming. People think not a lot of progress is taking place. And the heat. It’s jungle hot.”
The people of the Gulf are hurting economically, mentally, spiritually, financially and in their day-to-day lives, White said. “And then there’s the mental disconnect,” he said. “They’re going to BP – who on one level they’re seeing as the bad guy who caused all this – for help.”
Mickey Caison, adult volunteer mobilization team leader for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, emphasized the fragility of human life.
“As human beings we can snap and break under the circumstances of life,” Caison said. “As Christians, we can offer the hope that is found in Jesus Christ to people so they can bend in this wind, and not be broken by life.”
During the conference call July 7, the decision was made to place three trailers onsite for chaplains ministering in Gulf Coast towns. One trailer is to house two disaster relief chaplains – rotating in a new team each week for 12 weeks – in Venice, Grand Isle and in Houma. Local chaplains are serving until DR-trained chaplains arrive.
“We’re looking for listeners, people with a calming nature,” said Joe Arnold, director of missions for Bayou Baptist Association. “Life is upside down for the people here, basically because of the uncertainty, not knowing what tomorrow holds.”
In addition to the need for trained DR-trained chaplains, there’s the need to provide sustenance for them. The disaster relief chaplains will support the local churches and pastors as they provide ministry to the people in the affected communities.
“What we need is for churches or Sunday School classes to provide the means to feed these chaplains,” Gibbie McMillan said. “We figure it will take about $100 a day to provide the food for these six chaplains.”
Checks to help feed chaplains can be mailed to DOM Joe Arnold, Bayou Baptist Association, 440 Magnolia St, Houma, LA 70360. Note on the check that it is to feed the chaplains.
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal for churches in the Louisiana Baptist Convention.