7:00 A.M. EST July 16, 2010 | DULAC, La. (UMNS)
The Rev. Kirby Verett says the Houma people are deeply tied to the
unique ecosystem found in Lousiana’s coastal estuaries. UMNS photos by
View in Photo Gallery
Modest wooden houses and mobile homes on pilings tower over bright green lawns on both sides of Highway 57.
Pickup trucks sit in the shade under the houses and shrimp boats
gently rock on the bayou that snakes along one side of the two-lane
In this small fishing town, Clanton Chapel United Methodist Church
has been an anchor through many storms. But the latest disaster—the
Deep Horizon oil rig explosion—may be the greatest threat to the
faithful people who have lived in and loved this coastal region for
hundreds of years.
Clanton Chapel, established in the 1880s, is the only Native
American United Methodist congregation in Louisiana. Members of the
United Houma Nation have fought back from crippling hurricanes, racism
and poverty since the explorer Robert La Salle discovered them in 1682.
Just down the road from the church, Destry Verdin, a lifelong United
Methodist and a tribe member, is on his front porch swing with his
wife and brother. An electric fan stirs the hot air and a small
television punctuates the morning with screaming contestants on “The
Price is Right.”
The explosion and massive oil spill happened just as the 2010 shrimp
season was getting started. Verdin and many of his neighbors depend on
shrimping in the spring and summer for their annual income.
For the past several years, Gulf Coast shrimpers have faced tough
competition from foreign imports, bringing the price of domestic shrimp
below $2 a pound. However, this year, the price is up to $4 a pound.
“We haven’t seen prices this good for a long while,” Verdin says.
“Right now, we would be making a lot more money than we made last year.
We have to make all the money we can between the seasons to pay our
bills in the winter.”
Verdin worries about the spill reaching the estuaries near Dulac. He
also fears the oil spill will create a dead zone in the Gulf that will
destroy shrimp, crabs, oysters and fish for years to come. But despite
the damage, he doesn’t blame the oil industry.
“They are trying (to clean up the spill),” he says. “We can’t get mad at them; accidents happen.”
Marie Dean, who is nationally recognized for her skill in weaving
palmetto fronds into baskets and hats, says she is reluctant to leave
her Dulac, La., home during the area's frequent bouts with storms and
View in Photo Gallery
The Rev. Kirby Verett, pastor of Clanton Chapel, understands that
sentiment. It is not as easy as deciding between protecting God’s
creation and big business, he reasons.
“As one person told me, as bad as this BP spill is, shrimping cannot
support this community, and without oil industry jobs, this area would
not survive,” Verett says.
“Jesus said the poor will always be with us. But did Jesus believe
some people are meant to be poor all their lives? Jesus meant for us to
help people out of poverty by education, spiritual uplifting and
whatever we can do to help someone help themselves.”
Tied to the water
According to the earliest history, the United Houma Nation has
always lived on the east bank of the Mississippi River. They are
recognized by the state of Louisiana as a tribe; however, they have
waited more than 30 years to be recognized as a federal tribe by the
Bureau of Indian Affairs. More than 17,000 live in six parishes in
The tribe’s history, culture and livelihoods are deeply tied to the water.
Verett points to the rolling fields of tall slender marsh grass. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Among the soft reeds, tiny shrimp, oysters, crabs, fish and more
than 700 species of birds, reptiles and mammals are cradled safely in
the protective arms of nature’s incubator.
Salt water from the Gulf of Mexico and fresh water from the
Mississippi River mix beneath miles-long fingers of dark green grass to
provide a safe haven for sea creatures to grow up in before facing
their wilder, tougher parent in the open gulf.
The estuaries winding along the coast of Louisiana have faced many
enemies over the years. Hurricanes have battered and destroyed the
delicate shores while manmade barriers and structures have altered the
natural flow of the Mississippi River.
No one wants the oil to make it into the estuaries. But a moratorium
on the oil industry will also be a killing blow to the economy, they
Weathering strong winds
Located near the coastline of Louisiana, Dulac regularly gets pummeled by hurricanes.
Most of the homes are in some stage of recovering from past storms.
United Methodist youth and other volunteer teams come often to work on
homes. Verdin’s family is just moving back into their home after living
in a FEMA trailer for three years.
Today, a team of young people from Grace Community United Methodist
Church in Shreveport, La., is sitting on top of the house, in the
blazing sun, replacing the tin roof.
Verdin points to several water stained spots on the ceiling in his
living room. When asked what happened, he smiles and says,
“hurricanes.” Even with this constant threat, he says there is no place
he would rather be. His wife, Rebecca, and brother, Gabe, agree.
“Anywhere you go there could be a flood or a tornado or an
earthquake,” Verdin adds. “I have lived here all my life. Dulac is an
outdoor thing – if you want fish or shrimp for dinner, you just go out
and catch them.”
Oddly enough, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 didn’t really hit Dulac as
much as other parts of the state. But a month later, her twisted sister
Rita left behind a lot of the damage that people are still recovering
from. Gustav and Ike in 2008 added to the destruction.
Ask people which hurricanes were worst, and they all have a
different answer. In 2002, Hurricane Lila took out the preschool run by
the church. People remember how bad it was in 1984 when Juan destroyed
the Dulac Community Center. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew came along and
did the same thing.
The 2010 Atlantic hurricane season is forecast to be an active year
with some 16 to 18 storms predicted. The first hurricane of 2010, Alex,
missed the Louisiana coast, but everyone in Dulac knows that
eventually another hurricane will tear their community apart.
People cope. They know how to clean out the mud, lay their family photos in the sun to dry and replace roofs.
No place like home
It will take a mighty big storm to make Marie Dean, 94, leave again.
Her little blue house has been flooded three times. The water stayed
a long time the last time. “I raised my family in this house,” she
says, speaking in French.
Cleanup workers lay protective boom in an effort to keep oil from the
Deepwater Horizon accident from entering Caminada Bay in Grand Isle, La.
View in Photo Gallery
She acknowledges one of her daughters has a nice, elevated house
outside of Dulac that would probably weather the storms better.
“It’s nice, but it’s not home,” Dean says. Looking around, she adds, “It takes a lot to leave everything you got.”
Family photos are hung high on the blue paneling of her front room.
Among them is a framed certificate from the Smithsonian Institution
Office of Folklife Programs. Dean is a master palmetto-leaf weaver who
learned the art at the knees of her mother. She also makes dolls from
the Spanish moss that drapes most of the trees lining the bayou.
She received the certificate in 1989 in recognition of her
“exceptional contributions to the increase and diffusion of knowledge
about the cultural traditions which comprise the heritage of our nation
and of the world.”
Most days, Dean sits just inside her front door weaving. She can
look out the door and see everything happening on the road. She can
glance to her right and watch the boats go by on the bayou.
Verett says Dean is tough and he tells a story to back up his claim.
A few years ago, when she was 88, she wanted a fresh orange from the
tree in her backyard. She climbed up on a ladder, fell and broke her
knee. Instead of calling for help, she crawled back into her home. When
the pain was too much, she did have to go to the hospital and have
She points to the long scar, “I didn’t want anyone to know I fell,” she explains, shrugging her shoulder.
‘Don’t look back’
Growing up in nearby DuLarge, Verrett learned about racism early in life.
“We (Indians) knew our bounds. That was the way life was,” Verett
says of attitudes when he was growing up. “If you went into Houma, you
couldn’t walk on the main street or sit in movie houses; you couldn’t
vote. I mean people would flat out tell you, you can’t come in here.”
He remembers once as a young boy his family was targeted by an angry
crowd as his parents drove past a white high school when a football
game was just letting out.
“People recognized my parents to be Indian and they started throwing beer bottles at the car,” he says.
“God calls me to action,” said the 5-foot-five, 62-year-old,
gray-haired man who speaks with a distinct Cajun French accent. Like
the storms that frequently roll across his homeland, he is always
moving and almost never stops talking.
“Seems to me that my revelations in life all have to do with disaster and good coming out of it,” he says, laughing.
Verett knows his community is hurting. Most folks are shrimpers and
fishers, work in a seafood-related business or work for the oil
Many of the shrimpers like Verdin are being paid by British
Petroleum to use their boats to help in the cleanup efforts. The bright
blue and green “skimming” nets are being replaced temporarily by
orange and yellow booms that surround and soak up the oil.
Verett was happy to hear British Petroleum wanted access to the
large, centralized sewer system – built after Hurricane Juan in 1985 –
on the church’s property and space to house cleanup teams on church
grounds. They asked about bringing in 50 trailers.
After several hard days of clearing the land, however, Verett is
still waiting to hear if BP is going to follow through on its request.
The stress is taking its toll.
He was in the hospital for three days recently with chest pains. A
follow-up angiogram showed five blockages that won’t require surgery or
stints at this time but will mean he will be on medication and needs
to curtail his activities. He knows he just avoided a heart attack.
The Rev. Kirby Verett leads children's worship at Clanton Chapel United Methodist Church in Dulac.
View in Photo Gallery
But a few days later, Verett is happily greeting the congregation as they come into church.
Joys and concerns are mixed with the oil spill and shrimping.
“Did you smell the oil last night? I did.”
This Sunday, the message is from Luke 9:62. He reads, “Jesus said to
him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for
the kingdom of God.’”
“Jesus says, ‘Don’t look back!’” he declares to the few scattered around the sanctuary.
At the end of the service, he greets each person. People linger to share their lives with each other.
“We do not have millionaires who are members here; we have good
loving, hospitable people that are faithful to the church,” he says.
“And out of that, good things keep coming.”
Verett believes in good things.
“I am living down the street here and it ain’t just a life, it’s an adventure.
“God has a better plan for all of us, if you are willing to give
into what God has planned for your life then you can be happy and
fulfilled and in easy and hard times he is going to lead you through.”
* Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.