Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Out of Intensive Care
distributed 8/6/10 - ©2010

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by the Lynn-Palevsky Family of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, in honor of Jack Twombly. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

The blown-out Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico has finally been plugged. Three and a half months of damage and despair can move into a time of restoration and healing.

Now is an appropriate time for faith communities to mark the occasion with worship, prayer and action.

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Through these months, I have had a persistent feeling that is painfully familiar to many families and pastors. The days and weeks of helpless watching have felt like time in the hospital at the bedside of a critically injured patient.

To put one face on that image, in the film, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore reflects on the time when his six year old son was severely injured. "A machine breathed for him. We were possibly going to lose him," Gore says. They spent a month at the hospital, and nothing else mattered. (The clip is about 26 minutes into the film.)

This summer, we've been in a similar place. Day after day, the patient bleeds from severe wounds. The professionals in emergency care do all they can -- where surgery and drugs would be used in an actual hospital, hardware and chemicals have been deployed in the Gulf. As family and friends of the wounded, we can only watch and wait and pray.

Since April 20, the wound has poured out oil. That uncontrolled, then partially controlled bleeding out has poisoned and fouled the complex ecosystems of the ocean, beaches and marshes. The beloved Gulf, already weakened by decades of pollution and over-use, suffered under the onslaught of unimaginable quantities of petroleum and dispersants.

Since springtime, we have hovered outside the emergency room and the intensive care ward, anxious and grieving. We have been wracked with uncertainty and anxiety, not knowing when the damaging flood might end, not knowing what sort of devastation the spreading toxins might cause.

The emotions I have felt during this time of prayerful vigil -- emotions that resonate with others that I've talked to through this time -- explain the introspective response that many of us have had. When someone you love is in intensive care, the family is not likely to organize protest events about a larger cause -- drunk driving, or gun violence, or whatever. That may come later, but activism does not sit comfortably with the time of prayer and waiting. So, too, the family at the hospital bedside, watching the fluctuating vital signs, unsure of the outcome, is hesitant to plan for either a celebration or a memorial service. Those plans are made after the most critical stages, for good or ill.

It is only when the patient stabilizes that it is possible to look more broadly, and to think about the future. Once the family can step away from their round-the-clock presence -- once they can go home for a good night's sleep, a shower, and a decent meal -- only then can some of the processing and planning begin.

The Gulf of Mexico is moving out of intensive care, but not out of the hospital. There is a long path ahead of treatment, therapy and recovery. We are yet to discover how much disability will linger, and where there will be permanent damage. This crisis is not over, not by a long shot, but we have reached an important transition point.

Now, at last, we can step back from the immediacy of the trauma, and open ourselves to the essential tasks of healing and response. Now that the well is sealed, we can know how to pray, and we can be passionate in our action and advocacy.

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Local churches can address the Gulf tragedy in their regular time of worship in the coming weeks. An entire service might be devoted to that theme, or there might be a focused time of liturgy within the service. (The church where I worship is including "prayers for the Gulf" in the annual blessing of the animals service later this month.) Ecumenical and interfaith groups can plan special events. (I know of large services planned by the United Church of Christ in Florida on August 22, and by a coalition including Green Faith in New Jersey on August 11.) The bulletin for the Florida service is available on-line. Those prayers, readings and a hymn can be used or adapted in other settings.

Now that the flood of oil has been stopped, what might our prayers and worship include?

  • We can give voice to our relief that the source of the damage has been closed. We can give thanks that no major storms blew across the affected area and pushed oil far back into coastal lands. We can rejoice in the resilience of the Gulf, which has managed to absorb and process astonishing quantities of oil. We should celebrate the people who have used great ingenuity and tireless work to close the well, capture and clean the oil, and care for damaged wildlife. We can, indeed, be grateful for life and health.

  • At the same time, we grieve and lament as we acknowledge great damage. We remember the 11 workers who died when the drilling rig exploded. We hold in prayer the human communities that have suffered deeply from lost jobs, closed fisheries, missing tourists, polluted air and water, and transformed identities. We mourn the loss of wildlife, the birds and turtles and fish, the marshes and coral beds, knowing that we have seen only a tiny fraction of what has been lost, and that will continue to be lost.

  • We can voice our anger at the sin which contributed to this tragedy. Corporations cut corners, took risks, and did not plan for disasters. Federal regulators did not do their jobs. If oil exploration is going to take place in harsh and dangerous settings, then prudence, ethics and stewardship demand that every possible action be taken to reduce risks and provide effective responses to failures. Anger and judgment are an essential part of faithful witness.

  • We must, we absolutely must, confess our complicity. The failed well was being drilled because our global society is addicted to oil. Our participation in this oil-infused culture makes us culpable. Heartfelt confession also demands honest promises of repentance and change. We must pledge, personally and collectively, to break the addiction, to change our lives, and to free ourselves from the fossil fuels that cause so many forms of damage.

  • We should pray for wisdom, strength and creativity. There is hard work ahead. Cleaning and restoration in the Gulf will continue for years. There are enormous legislative challenges around ecological preservation, drilling regulations and energy policy. Personally and as communities, we must be innovative and persistent as we work to build lives that are sustainable and just.

Some of these prayers were not appropriate or possible a month or two ago. They will not be meaningful and compelling a few months from now. The next few weeks are the time for us, as people of faith and as leaders in our communities, to plan worship and witness. Now is the time to provide emotional healing, and to call ourselves into action.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

On four occasions since April 20, I have reflected and commented on the Gulf crisis. Some of those Notes may help to inform your worship planning and social witness.
  • 4/30/10, Unacceptable Risk in the Gulf -- Ten days into the crisis, I asked, "How much risk is acceptable? How much damage should we tolerate as we feed our society's insatiable demand for oil?"
  • 5/7/10, NIMBY or NOPE -- Do we protect the Gulf by shifting oil production somewhere else, or does our concern lead us to protect all of God's creation?
  • 6/4/10, Deepwater Failure -- "I've come to the conclusion that the most important of the failures is of our worldview."
  • 6/25/10, Gulf Spill Lies -- "It is essential that we all speak out to rebut the distortions that try to portray the crisis as somehow 'OK'."

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