As a minister, I am constantly learning, and sometimes learning about completely unexpected things. At my congregation, my summer worship services have used movies that are currently in the theaters as the text. I chose the films by reading reviews and story lines online. I chose them before seeing them and sometimes before they were released. The movies have led me to new learning. This week, the text is the independent film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Many critics have praised it as mythical and as fantasy, but my research has led me to believe that it is not fantasy. Indeed, filmmaker Benh Zeitlin said in an interview posted in a Patheos blog, “I don’t think of the film as a fantasy film, I think about it like what it’s like to be six. There’s no real separation between reality and fantasy a lot of the time.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk/2012/06/interview-benh-zeitlin-on-beasts-of-the-southern-wild-falling-in-love-with-louisiana-and-prehistoric-monsters/)
What my research showed me was that the film was made on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. The people of the island are indigenous and Cajun, and their island home is literally disappearing. The story of this island and its people is not at all mythical. The people of this real and highly endangered community jokingly call the community “the Bathtub” which is the name Zeitlin chose for his fictional community. It is a very real, very troubling and very urgent tale of environmental racism, climate change and loss. It’s a true tale of loss of culture, loss of home, loss of livelihood and loss of community. It was once a rich and fertile ecosystem for farming and fishing. As we can see in the movie, it is still a beautiful place.
Before 1953, the only way to reach the island was by boat; in 1953, a road was built through marshland. Now, the marshland has turned into open water and the road is often flooded and inaccessible. The island was 11 miles long and 5 miles wide in the 1950s; now it is only 2 miles long and a quarter mile wide. Climate change has led to rising sea levels. Saltwater has killed the forests and made the land infertile. Saltwater flooding is due to the construction of levee systems to protect Louisiana and the canal dredging for the oil industry. State and Army Corps of Engineers decisions left Isle de Jean Charles outside of the levee system because of the cost. Fishing is decreased in part due to the BP oil spill. Once a thriving small community of 400 people, now about 70 people remain, and the tribal chief, Albert Naquin, has urged folks to leave the island. He is hoping that they could sustain their native culture on higher ground. They are probably the nation’s first climate change refugees.
Just like the fictional residents of “the bathtub,” many residents defend their right to stay in their homes. Edison Dardar, Jr. has posted a sign, “Island is not for sale. If you don’t like the island, stay off. Don’t give up. Fight for your rights. It’s worth saving.” Another resident, Delores Naquin, said, “You can’t just uproot – like this oak tree – you uproot it and it will die.” They’ve seen so many hurricanes that some the storms as an annual ordeal to endure in order to keep their connection to their home.
The people of the Isle de Jean Charles may be the first North American climate refugees but they are unlikely to be the last. It is troubling to witness people losing their homes and communities; all the more so because so much of the reason is due to human actions. They need help to find a new home and to sustain their community and culture.
“My tribal council and I have been traveling far and wide to meet with government officials to ask for help in finding a place for our community to live together again. They all want to listen to our cry, and then we never see or hear from them again. Yes, I get mad and frustrated but we will not give up the fight and ask for your prayers and support and ask that you spread the word about the plight of our community and hundreds of other communities just like us along the Gulf Coast that will soon lose our land, our home and sadly, our culture.” Albert Naquin, Chief Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw
This community is no fantasy. My theology says that we owe these people and their culture respect as all people have worth and deserve respect. They deserve to flourish as human beings. I believe that we are responsible to help each other. We need to listen to each other about how we can help. Climate change is no myth. We are also responsible to the earth. We must address climate change now. There is no time to wait.
(See http://www.isledejeancharles.com/island.php and http://www.pbs.org/newshour/multimedia/isle-de-jean-charles/ and Can’t Stop the Water on facebook)