I had a hard time breathing when I saw those pictures; my chest began heaving when I realized those were birds covered in oil. I felt as if the soul of our nation was drowning in the muck, along with our precious wildlife. You see, for my first job out of seminary, I decided to serve a tiny church in the swamps of Louisiana. I moved to the heart of Cajun country while I was still in my twenties and became a solo pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Abbeville.
I was warned before moving there. Many of my friends worried that my liberal politics and theology would never be tolerated in the town. I considered all of the cautions carefully and tucked them into my pocket when I visited. Then I saw the tangled moss dripping from the trees, the grand oaks hovering over the dirt, and the swampland situated around us. I felt drawn there. Inexplicably, it was as if the land itself was calling me. Of course, it could have just been me. I love the swamps. After growing up in Florida and visiting relatives in South Carolina, the musty smell and damp air feels like home. I tear up every time “Seminole Wind” comes on the radio. I relish Carl Hiaasen’s novels, because they seem to play out all of my very non-pastoral fantasies of extraordinary torment heaped upon those who have unjustly developed that sacred Florida land. For me, the books are like those Psalms in the Bible, the ones that I tremble to utter, because they ask that God will do violence upon our enemies. I learned my primary spiritual discipline in the wetlands: walking meditation. So, in a particular way, I imagine God lives in the swamps.
As I spent the next three years in Louisiana, I found people who sang and danced every chance they got. Art seemed to flow out of their pores, and church potlucks were made up of the best food I’ve ever tasted. When I got sick, I was encouraged to go to the doctor and the traiteur, the healer who lived in the swamps, who used herbs and magical prayers. I learned the poetic expressions that Cajuns and Creoles utter. For instance, if there was a gentle snow on the ground, they would say, “It looks like the baker and his wife got in a fight last night.” I listened to beautiful stories and consumed the great literature that was written in sole of that Louisiana boot. I even experienced my own religion more fully there, because everyone seemed to live by the Liturgical Calendar–the one that marks our church days. To visitors, Mardi Gras may seem like a cheap trick to attract tourists, but once you spend a couple of years there, you realize that it is a celebration that honors a sacred transition. And though I felt like an outsider most of the time, we seemed to share something important — my new friends were bound to the land. There were Cajuns and Creoles who lived in stilted houses, in the midst of the swamps, collecting alligator teeth for jewelry and painting cypress knees.
When I went back to Florida and explained the difficult economic position that many people in South Louisiana are mired in, with oil booms and bust and with hurricanes blowing through, my family and friends would shrug and say, “Why don’t they just move?” I tried to communicate that James Carville is an anomaly. Most Cajuns and Creoles don’t just move. Those swamps have fed their families for hundreds of years. Everyone knows everyone else’s “Mama.” It’s difficult for most of us in the United States to understand people who are driven by something other than economic opportunity. But they are. Cajuns and Creoles have an intimate bond that has been kept alive by deep tradition, loving families, incredible music, flowing art, and that land. Though there are many cultural practices that horrified me, I cannot help but think that South Louisiana, at its creative best, is not just the sole of Louisiana, but the soul of the U.S.
Looking at those white graceful egrets covered in slick, black oil reminds me of what we have done. There is something majestic hidden in that marshland, something that we have destroyed. In many ways, our soul lives there, and it is irreparably damaged. As we struggle to stop the oil from spewing into the Gulf, it will be a task on which every brilliant mind in our country needs to concentrate. As soon as that fatal flow stops and we begin to collect the bodies of the dead wildlife and fish, when we attempt to clean up this disaster, we will have to reflect on our own spirits and our addiction to oil. Why, when we know how much damage our dependence on petroleum causes our earth, do we not concentrate more creativity on developing other means of energy? Why, when we realize that the rapid urbanization of China and India will be an increased strain on our global resources, are we not figuring out ways to drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels? Crying out “Drill, baby, drill” in this phase of our history feels to me like begging “More cigarettes, please!” while dying of lung cancer. And like every addiction, it is a reminder that we will need to find physical, as well as spiritual, solutions to our problems. We can no longer neglect our soul.