July 8th, 2010
07:46 AM ET
Editor's Note: CNN Senior Producer Tristan Smith and CNN Correspondent Brooke Baldwin went out with faith leaders to tour the damage from the oil spill. Smith filed this report. You can also see their TV piece below.
There were only five small boats, 20 to 25 feet long, quietly moving through the water, barely making a ripple in the area designated as a “No Wake Zone."
It was part show and tell, part media circus, part holy pilgrimage. On board the boats were a dozen high-profile American religious leaders, representing the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths. Their mission: to see first hand the devastation wrought by the spilled BP oil to the marshlands of Barataria Bay, just west of Port Sulphur, Louisiana.
On board with them were a dozen or so print, radio and television news reporters and producers. The outing was sponsored by the Sierra Club, and was part of a three-day trip that included an interfaith prayer vigil on Wednesday night, Thursday’s boat trip, and a Friday teleconference and meeting with those directly affected by the spill in Louisiana.
On my boat, Tom Costanza, Executive Director of Catholic Charities for the New Orleans Archdiocese, wanted to see and experience what so many of those he is trying to help are experiencing.
“These are people who love life,” said Costanza. “Who love their way of life."
Jim Wallis, President and CEO of the Washington-based progressive group Sojourners, agrees. “You have to see it, listen and you gotta feel it,” he said. “Part of religious organization is to testify," he said. "We testify to what we’ve seen.”
I asked Wallis if this oil spill was part of some grand plan by God. “No, this is human sinfulness and disobedience. This isn’t God’s plan,” he said. “If we’re angry, just think of how angry God is. If we are sad think about much sadder God must be. I believe in a God that stands with suffering people, that suffers with his people. This wasn’t God’s doing.”
The sky was full of large thunder clouds, threatening a heavy deluge like they have for much of the week. The water is choppy, and a strong wind blows in from the east, a remnant from Hurricane Alex. Perhaps because of that weather event we don’t see any oil this day in the waters of Barataria Bay. The waves and high tide have washed away some of the oil from the marshy islands that dot this waterway.
On one of the other boats, Sayyid M. Sayeed watches the workers tasked with the clean up run shiploads of boom and other supplies through the narrow watery cuts. He is the national director for the Islamic Society of North America, and said this is not the first time his organization has tried to help the citizens of Louisiana. He said his organization, with the help of Muslims from around the world, helped raise one billion dollars in direct aid after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.
“Muslims are very concerned because for us, as is our belief, the entire creation is the family of God,” he said. “So we share the responsibility with the rest of creation whether it is human beings, fish, animals, birds. So these things have a tremendous appeal, and a tremendous sense of empathy and commiseration.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is the vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. She agreed it will take a will take a unified response to overcome this disaster.
“Ultimately the issues do not rest with the people of the Gulf alone," she said. "It does not rest with BP alone. It does not rest with our government and administration alone. It rests with people of conscience saying we are busy, we lead lives busy with stress but I will give my attention here. I will give some of my attention here.”
Wallis thinks the lesson of the spill will be wasted if we don't learn from it. “Epiphany is the religious term for waking up,” he said. “Something hits us and we feel something completely new to us. It’s like conversion. If this doesn’t lead to conversion, then all the suffering and pain will be in vain.”
On the way back to the marina we stopped by a small community on the bay. Homes held up on stilts sit a few feet above the water. It’s a chance for the religious leaders to meet with those who are directly impacted.
Vanasa Bartholomew’s family has lived here for generations. Vanasa is checking in on her elderly mother today. She said faith plays a large part in her life. She’s asked if she prays about the oil spill. “Oh, I pray“ she says. “I truly believe that if we come together like God wants us to come together, I think God would see where BP could stop this oil and it wouldn’t be such a big disaster.”
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.