My commentary this week touches on the spiritual and cultural significance of the largest U.S. oil spill in history. I was a resident of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for 11 and a half years. I worked in the Gulfport district office of U.S. Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss) before leaving for seminary. I was a Katrina evacuee and returned to see unbelievable decimation. It reminded me of the pictures of Hiroshima in textbooks after the dropping of the nuclear bomb. I always think it is fascinating when I hear people observe the Gulf Coast on the news after a tragedy and say how the people should just move. I wonder where they would go when the water is such an integral part of their subsistence and heritage? The people on the Gulf have much more culturally in common with individuals on the Gulf in neighboring states than they do with those living inland in their own state. Louisiana, especially, has one one of the most uniquely diverse cultures in this country. A key theme in my piece is that BP can compensate them economically, but there is an important cultural and spiritual aspect to their labor that is above financial compensation. The text of my piece is also printed below:
Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill
by Ray Nothstine
Many Americans are proud of where they come from; this is no less true of the people of the Gulf Coast. Human interest stories have gripped viewers and readers following the news about the BP oil spill, which often highlights the locals’ pride in their roots. Sal Sunseri, the owner of P&J Oysters in New Orleans says it well: “The history and culture of the seafood industry in Louisiana is part of the fabric of who we are. The world should not take this lightly.”
Sunseri brings to life an important point about the spiritual and cultural aspect of work that is especially rich on the Gulf Coast. Work in a free economy is an expression of our creativity, virtue, and response to a calling. Christian authors Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster note that “God so arranges work that it develops the soul.”
BP is airing a commercial in which it vows to compensate fishermen and others for the loss of income until the cleanup is completed. This is a good start. But it also serves as a reminder that earnings are secondary to fishermen whose very labor is the preservation of heritage. It is not uncommon to hear fishing crews speaking Cajun French off the coast and in the bayous and marshes of Louisiana. Cajun French, an endangered language, was at one time banned in Louisiana schools. The spill is another threat to communities and a way of life for generations of a proud and sometimes marginalized people.
Vietnamese shrimpers, too, proudly work these waters, many of them refugees from communist aggression. They flourish at shrimping, a trade that generations of families practiced in Vietnam. The Vietnamese were among the first communities to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina, often not waiting for government aid. The Washington Post, in a story on the Vietnamese community, echoed this fact and explained how the spill was especially tragic as a resilient community was forced to await assistance.
BP would be wise to continue to hire as many local crews as possible for cleaning up this disaster. Locals have an extra incentive to assist in a thorough effort since they are most tied to the water. BP needs to be concerned not only with repairing its brand; the company has a clear moral obligation to follow promises with action.
The oil industry in the Gulf Coast accounts for almost a third of all U.S. oil production. The oil company’s contribution to the nation’s energy supply is invaluable, but they have been fighting public relations battles for years. Seen largely as a benefit to the community before the spill, they are now being battered by doubts from many in the region who repeat a common line: “We have made a deal with the devil.”
But many residents and local leaders understand that the oil industry is essential to Louisiana’s economic well being. The governor and legislators have fought a bipartisan battle to preserve jobs while the federal government seeks a moratorium on offshore deep-water drilling.
Many in Mississippi and Louisiana are also understandably weary of an often unresponsive federal bureaucracy. United States Congressman Gene Taylor (D-Miss), who represents the seacoast, said of the federal response, “I’m having Katrina flashbacks,” and called the current administration’s efforts “incompetent.” In a particularly harsh quip Florida Senator George Lemieux (R-Fla) added: “It’s not just oil that’s washing ashore Mr. President, it’s failure.” Asked about the biggest frustration with the federal response, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-La) on day 73 of the spill lamented, “There’s just no sense of urgency.”
There is dismay that a nation that once landed men on the moon, liberated nations, and fed and rebuilt its enemies has few answers: the “yes we can” mantra has not materialized for the Gulf. Out of the darkened waters, there is an opening for an oil company to do the right thing and repair trust with an understandably outraged populace.
The men and women of the Gulf Coast who take to the water to practice their trade deserve the opportunity to flourish in the vast wonder of creation. The many Christians among them are keenly aware of the passage from John 21, when the resurrected Christ from afar tells the disciples to cast their net on the right side of the boat and they are rewarded in abundance. The passage is a reminder that Christ has an intimate knowledge of and concern for even the creatures under the sea. It is a source of hope that the cooperation of private enterprise, government, and local ingenuity can bring healing and the rejuvenation of a treasured way of life.