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Pastors: Oil spill opens doors for ministry


GULF COAST (BP)–Now that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has spread to all five states that border the Gulf of Mexico, area pastors are feeling the heat.

LAFITTE, LA.

“I’m sensing a lot of anger,” said Eddie Painter, a commercial fisherman and pastor of Barataria Baptist Church in the Lafitte, La., area, about 30 miles southeast of New Orleans. “I think [area residents] are just beginning to understand the long-term ramifications of it [the oil spill].

“I just talked early this morning with one of our local business owners, a charter boat captain who’d had a thriving business for 12 years,” Painter said. “People like this boat captain are beginning to realize they may be out of business, even when this is over.”

“Part of the problem is the perception people have,” Painter said. “The press has tainted that. He’s had people calling and cancelling their charters for weeks. Right now, he’s doing the clean-up for BP.”

Perception is becoming reality, though. When Painter checked his boat Wednesday night, for the first time he saw an oil sheen in the bayou.

“This is giving us some tremendous opportunities,” Painter added. Barataria Baptist Church is able to provide meals for those in the community without sustenance, because BP gives them meals unused by work crews, which the church distributes.

“This is giving us an opportunity to minister with the resources BP has given us,” the pastor said.

At the mayor’s request, the church’s fall harvest festival became a community-wide 4th of July event, with major sponsorship by BP. Three bands performed, several hundred people attended and ate hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken. BP picked up the entire tab.

BP also is paying the church for use of the church facility to hold safety and hazardous waste training. The church has been able to pass out Bibles, and the pastor starts each class with prayer.

“I’m being able to mingle with people and a lot of these are local folks,” Painter said. “BP has done everything we’ve asked.”

POINTE-AUX-CHENE, LA.

Tom Bellon, pastor for the last two and a half years at Live Oak Baptist Church in Pointe-Aux-Chene, La., tells a similar story.

“It’s funny how God opens doors,” Bellon said. “It [the oil spill] is good in that the Lord has opened doors for us to speak with people about Christ and share our faith in Christ, so it’s been very good in that respect. There are people we’ve been able to interact with and share Jesus with that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

BP’s use of the church facilities has created opportunities for Bellon’s congregation too. BP set up a temporary office in the church, and uses the church for hazardous waste training and 6 a.m. daily safety meetings, which the pastor opens with Scripture and prayer.

“That’s a huge thing,” Bellon said. “There are over 100 people there. It’s not something I would be able to put together. It’s something God put together.

“We’ve been able to have more contact with a larger percentage of our community, plus people from out of state — California, Chicago, Vermont, all over,” the pastor continued. “It gives us a change to share Christ with them. I’ve been able to counsel with people and people are responding in a positive manner.”

People in Pointe-Aux-Chene earn their living off the water, the pastor said. They fish for shrimp, crabs and oysters, and work in the oil fields. All that is gone, replaced by oil spill clean-up jobs.

“There’s the anxiety of not knowing what’s going to come that gets the people down,” Bellon said. “If we get a hurricane, in addition to water and mud, we’ll have oil, and if we have oil, we’ll have a massive clean-up and that’s distressful. Any time there’s a storm in the Gulf, the tension rises.”

“But they’re working hard and we’re doing what we can, asking God to intervene,” the pastor said, “because we can’t succeed unless God intervenes.”

VENICE, LA.

This town of about 400 people at the southern end of Plaquemines Parish is almost bursting with newcomers. Venice is the closest point of land to the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well site. As many as 5,000 clean-up personnel — perhaps more — are expected to converge on the town.

About 1,400 already fill a tent village at the south end of town, beyond which the road dead-ends. Several smaller groups of people have squeezed in around town, and a flotilla of vessels offshore also houses people, said Steve McNeal, pastor of First Baptist Church of Venice.

It’s the overcrowded conditions, lack of entertainment and traffic tie-ups that are wearing people down, McNeal said.

“The media is trying to paint a picture down here of despair and how the oil industry has ruined peoples’ lives,” the pastor said. “That’s just not true. The people here are very tenacious. The emotional upheaval is simply because life is so difficult, and it happened so quickly, and it’s not going away, and you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.”

Everyone is busy, the pastor said. Those who were unemployed are employed; those who were employed are now working overtime.

“The face of the community has changed drastically,” McNeal said. “Eventually if it doesn’t settle down, the emotions are going to climax. I’m trying to be ready for whatever happens.

“I see there is such a tremendous potential for emotional problems in the future with the families because this is such a drastic quick change in lifestyle,” the pastor continued. “Hopefully, people will be able to be flexible, to go with the flow.”

As a bivocational pastor — McNeal’s also a firefighter — he would like a chaplain to come in and stay several months, to become established and be recognized in the community so that as people get to know him, they come to trust him and start confiding in him as a way of releasing some of the tension they’re under.

“I am looking forward to someone who can come down, have meetings with people at large and make themselves available several times a week,” McNeal said. “I’m hoping for a long-term guy. I don’t know how God’s going to work it out.”
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Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal for churches in the Louisiana Baptist Convention.