By Fernando Alfonso III
Religion News Service
(RNS) As oil continues to spill into the Gulf of Mexico, churches and religious organizations along the Louisiana coast are providing food, money and support to parishioners whose livelihoods hang in the balance.
More than 7 million gallons of oil have contaminated the Gulf since an oil rig explosion on April 20, pulling the region's fishing industry to a screeching halt. It's been particularly hard for churches like St. Patrick Catholic Church in Port Sulphur, La., where many parishioners are fishermen.
The Rev. Gerard Stapleton and his staff at St. Patrick's have distributed food and $100 vouchers to 300 families in his congregation affected by the oil spill.
"It could very easily ... destroy our way of life which generations have enjoyed," Stapleton said. "This is one of the top 10 areas in the United States for fishing."
One of St. Patrick's parishioners is fisherman Vincent Frelich, whose family has owned Frelich Seafood and Bait for about 35 years. At its best, the business brought in more than 3,000 pounds of shrimp and seafood a week. In the last month, they are lucky if they get a hundred live shrimp a day, Frelich said.
"Right now, we don't even know how long the extent of the damage is going to last," Frelich said.
Frelich has tapped into his savings to pay the bills and his employees. He regularly attends service at St. Patrick's but hasn't yet asked for any money.
"That's all we got left right now, to pray and hopefully we can get some help from the Lord," Frelich said. "We pretty much know, we outta business right now."
It's much the same story at Mary, Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans, where almost all of its 1,000 members have been affected.
"It has reached a certain point where the issue here is the future uncertainty of our people," said the Rev. Vien Ngyuen, who was in Washington Monday (May 24) to introduce President Obama at a White House reception for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. "We don't know (if) the fishing industry in the Gulf Coast will be affected for the next two years or 20 years."
Ngyuen is working closely with the Mary, Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation to help resident of the eastern New Orleans community of Village de l'Est, which is home to more than 5,800 Vietnamese.
The corporation serves as a liaison for parishioners and representatives from oil giant BP, Medicaid and the Catholic Charities, said executive director Diem Nguyen. Translators are available.
"We've gotten people come in and you can't help but feel bad," Diem Nguyen said. "They've done this all their lives. Coming from Vietnam, that's all they know how to do."
Outside Hosanna Church in Marrero, Pastor George McLean and his staff have put up a black and white sign in support of the 60 or so families affected by the spill. "Pray for a solution to the oil leak problem," it says.
"We are resilient here in bouncing back from storms that we've been through, but we've never have to face oil coming at us," McLean said.
McLean has provided counseling to his congregation and has tailored his sermons to address their concerns.
"I've really been trying to address faith and encouragement," he said. "Somehow, in what seems to be a drastic and tragic situation, he'll (God) bring good out of it."
This same optimism is shared by Pastor John Dee Jeffries of the First Baptist Church of Chalmette, who is also trying to lift the spirits of the 180 people in his congregation through sermon.
"God is a God of hope," said Jeffries, who has been with the church for 20 years. "I don't understand how God will work this together for good, but I'm confident that he will."
About 40 percent of the church is unemployed and still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Jeffries said. They were not ready for the oil spill.
"It's a pretty tight-knit web of pain and despair that has been here for awhile that is starting to lessen, but this is really complicating things," Jeffries said. "There is a general gloom and anger across the metropolitan New Orleans area. ... They can't believe this is happening again.