LAFITTE, La. (BP)–It’s been more than a year since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, leased by oil giant British Petroleum, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, just 41 miles off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers and contaminating waters that are home to the state’s large fishing industry.
Once oil began washing ashore, federal officials for a season prohibited fishing in the once-prolific waters.
Remarkably, area pastors say their congregations are stable, if not thriving, as the largest marine oil spill in history became a blessing in disguise for the local economy. Still, they express concern about the spill’s potential long-term effects on the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem and human health.
“There’s definitely concern about how this is going to play out in the long run and the unknown,” said Eddie Painter, a then-commercial fisherman who now pastors Barataria Baptist Church in Lafitte. “Actually, it was a backdoor blessing for us. It provided some tremendous ministry opportunities.”
The cleanup effort allowed Painter’s church the chance to minister to the community in a unique way. On most days during the cleanup, the church delivered some 200 meals to area senior citizens and missions centers as far away as New Orleans, using excess food prepared for British Petroleum cleanup workers.
“The hours were long for the ministry,” Painter said of the church’s efforts. “It was seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day.”
But he and leaders of other Baptist churches along the Louisiana coast say their ministries have been blessed despite the upheaval.
“From all the reports I’m getting, everything is looking pretty good,” said Lynn Rodrigue, who leads Port Sulphur Baptist Church, where about 60 worship on Sundays. “I would say basically, now everything is back to normal. [The spill] really turned things upside down for a while.
“The giving is back to normal and the attendance is back up. I think actually the oil spill was a blessing to many people financially. I know some people who made $300,000 or $400,000 in six months.”
Fishermen were able to make money by leasing their boats to British Petroleum during cleanup efforts and, to Rodrigue’s knowledge, there were no reports of related health concerns in his congregation of more than 100. While litigation attorneys have been calling, Rodrigue said he’s had no need to respond.
Now that fishing has resumed, Rodrigue said he has talked with area fishermen who are enjoying big catches.
“They’re catching oysters. They were making like 100 sacks a day, which is really good for oysters,” he said.
At nearby Venice Baptist Church, pastor Steve McNeil reports that his small congregation of 12 worshipers includes one family of fishermen who leased two boats to British Petroleum during the cleanup and have now returned to fishing.
“He’s done well. God has blessed him before, during and after the spill,” McNeil said.
“By and large, our community benefited financially in the short term. This year appears to be a good year,” the pastor said. “The main effect was a [temporary] lifestyle change,” he said, though noting that some families have been adversely affected.
At Barataria Baptist, Painter, a bivocational pastor at the time of the spill, was preparing to resume crabbing on his boat when the explosion occurred in March 2010. He opted to hire two workers and lease his boat to haul ice during the cleanup. Painter sold his boat several weeks ago to concentrate on being a pastor and obtaining a master of divinity degree at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Shortly after the spill, officials and cleanup workers descended upon the community in droves, and fishermen had to temporarily find a new livelihood.
“Our little community looked like somebody kicked over an ant hill,” Painter said. “Our mayor did a great job of getting most of our people employed with [British Petroleum].”
After the spill, Barataria Baptist participated in the Unlimited Partnership New Orleans program that places NOBTS seminarians in part-time ministry positions at struggling churches, Painter said, and was able to grow its small group ministry.
Also, the church hosted British Petroleum’s hazardous materials handling classes during the cleanup operation, which allowed Painter the opportunity to open those meetings with public prayer.
Diana Chandler is a regional reporter for the Baptist Message, official newsjournal for churches in the Louisiana Baptist Convention.