By Cory Sparks
Pastor of Faith Community United Methodist Church, Youngsville, LouisianaChair, Commission on Stewardship of the Environment, Louisiana Interchurch Conference
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts. You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water, you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers and blessing its growth. - Psalm 65:4, 9-10
South Louisiana is vanishing. An area the size of Rhode Island has disappeared since the mid-1950s. That’s a football field of land every thirty-eight minutes, but it’s hard to comprehend statistics on that scale. It’s easier to see the change with your own eyes as people point to pastures that have become fishing holes and fishing holes that have turned into open water. These stories used to come only from the older generation. Since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, even children can tell you about change they’ve seen in their lifetimes.
The coast can no longer rebuild itself like it has over the centuries. Sediment that would restore the wetlands is channeled straight into the Gulf of Mexico by levees. Canals dug for navigation and oil and gas exploration break up the land and bring saltwater deep into coastal marsh, killing grasses that prevent erosion. And hurricanes have battered barrier islands and low, wooded ridges called cheniers. Now scientists are concerned that sea levels may rise a foot or more over the next fifty years because of global climate change. That increases the risk to the land and to the people and their vibrant culture. It also threatens the economy of the region and of the nation. South Louisiana ports host a 3.5 billion dollar seafood industry and vital thriving ports.
Because so much is at stake, major players from government, industry, and the environmental movement have mobilized to find solutions. But one significant response is coming from an unlikely source—a little white church on the bayou. Bayou Blue Presbyterian Church is located just inland, close to the city of Houma, Louisiana. Since Hurricane Rita, Bayou Blue’s members and their pastor, Rev. Kris Peterson, have hosted Presbyterian Disaster Assistance teams that have come to rebuild homes destroyed by the hurricane. The church members want volunteers to understand the story behind the hurricane, the story of their community. They give teams a taste of life on the bayou, throwing potluck dinners with home cooked Cajun food. After the meal, the members talk from the heart about how much their way of life means to them and about the threat that wetlands loss poses. Although they share the latest research gathered by scientists, they speak about what coastal erosion and climate change mean to their lives and to their livelihood, which have always been tied to the land.
In addition to educating visitors, Bayou Blue is addressing wetlands loss and climate change in another innovative way—by developing their own pilot project to fight erosion. Bayou Blue has partnered with Heifer Project International and the Jewish Fund for Justice to protect the coast by building artificial cheniers as storm protection. The cheniers offer sites for gardens and even oysters, not only protecting the coast but promoting the area’s traditional way of living with the land. It’s a model for a sustainable future that builds from the strength of the past.