Center Lines - February 2008

Who would want to live here? Who would choose to live here? It is swampland; miles and miles of it. It is muddy and home to alligators, cottonmouth snakes, fire ants, gnats, and brown recluse spiders. It is prone to flooding from tides and rain. Mosquitoes breed and bite year-round. These creatures are at home in the ubiquitous swamps, rivers, streams, and puddles that are ever-present from the least bits of rain. The January/February temperatures and humidity are comfortable, but even the year-round residents admit the summers are unbearably hot and sticky.

This is southern Louisiana, west and south of New Orleans. (I did not know there was anything south of New Orleans except the Gulf of Mexico.) This is Bayou Terrebonne in Dulac, Louisiana. For years it was home to the Houma (pronounced home'-ah) Indian tribe. They had settled the area centuries ago and lived on this land that no one else wanted. The French "sold" the land to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. In the treaty was a provision guaranteeing that the peaceful and peace-loving Houma would always have it as a sacrosanct home. The United States broke this treaty, as it broke every other treaty made with native peoples. Today, small in number, the Houma find their efforts to be recognized as an official tribe thwarted because oil and gas have recently been discovered under land that no before had wanted.

Even in the 21st century, life is not easy along the Bayou Terrebonne- despite the name "good earth." The nearest grocery store of any size is 15 miles away. Living is a constant struggle against water and wind. Houses sit 12-15' above ground on stilts to avoid flooding. Insurance programs that cover only wind determine that damage is caused by water. Insurance programs that cover only flooding determine that damage is caused by wind. Insurance to cover both is generally unavailable or unaffordable. Who would want to live here? Who would choose to live here?

At the end of January I was with Bishop Hassinger and the Albany Area Cabinet on a week-long Volunteer in Mission (VIM) trip to Dulac, Louisiana. I found that my provincial, northeast naivete had short-changed me again. We, along with several lay leaders and VIM Coordinator Rev. Chuck Gommer, went to spend a week learning, working and serving in this disaster-stricken, poverty-stricken area of our land of plenty.

I found that people do live here. Houma, Vietnamese, Latinos, Filipinos, Cajuns (Acadians, displaced from Canada/New England in the 1700's), some African-American and even Bosnians and Irish. Years ago they came to this land that seemed forsaken. It was land that no one else wanted, at least until the oil and gas were found. All came to Bayou Terrebonne because they were poor, unskilled and of the "wrong" race/culture. They were not wanted elsewhere.

Today they live together in this small pocket of a community largely unaffected by the racism and cultural and ethnic mistrust that affect the rest of their state and our country. They work together to survive and thrive against the ills that nature sets upon them. This is their home.

And I discovered beauty here: the birds- egrets, herons & cranes; the shade trees; the draping Spanish moss; the sunshine; the life-giving waters that allow people to fish and eat right from their backyards; grasslands fading into the ocean; sunset vistas that go for miles. And, yes, even the alligators that have their niche and fulfill their role in God’s panoply of nature. As nearly everywhere, most beautiful of all were the people; friendly, open, sharing what they could from what they had, grateful for visitors with whom to work, worship, laugh and eat.

Under the direction of two or three skilled leaders we unskilled hands worked on the mobile home of woman we did not know and saw only once. We installed vinyl siding, insulation and wallboard/sheet rock. We prepared plumbing lines and electric wiring for the next VIM team to complete. Some installed a sink for another resident so he- at last!- had hot and cold water running water in his home. Some helped a woman and her wheelchair-bound husband receive furniture to replace pieces lost in hurricane storms. In the grand scheme of all that needs to be done, we did little. To these to whom we gave our little work, it was the world; it was life-giving.

Many church and secular service agencies responded in force to the ravages of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Now- some 2½ years later- most have left. United Methodists stayed. Agencies of our General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) and United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) continue the work of rebuilding not just property and real estate, but lives. They bring hope and promise. They exemplify Christ present.

With that in mind, we took a day to visit the UMCOR depot at Sager-Brown in Baldwin, Louisiana. While there we saw rack upon rack of flood buckets. These buckets- like those which our churches have collected and which our church members have used- stood ready to be shipped anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice when there was a need. We took time to inspect donated health kits and pack them for shipping. These health kits- like those which our Disaster Response Team is seeking for this May’s annual conference session- are life-saving in times of disaster.

Who would live in land of swamps and alligators, hurricanes and floods? God’s people. Gods beloved. And where God’s beloved are in need, others of God’s beloved respond in grace and in love. The Area Cabinet’s VIA trip to Dulac, Louisiana was educational and eye-opening. Most of all it was a privilege to represent Christ and this annual conference. We touched lives and made a difference. We were touched and made different. I will always be grateful for the opportunity. 

By: Reverend Mark Marino On 2/15/2008