'Everything we came to Grand Isle for is gone'

McClatchy NewspapersMay 30, 2010 

GRAND ISLE, La. — The Rev. Mike Tran has seen the tears and heard the frustration of a congregation that's so tied to the water that the stained glass windows of his parish church are marked with starfish, seashells and sand dollars.

On Sunday, with the latest effort to cap the gushing geyser offshore yet another failure _ and the next best solution an even bigger uncertainty _ Tran tried to offer solace to a congregation in pain. A congregation, he said, that would love to "give a piece of our mind to BP.

"His faith falls upon us as we walk in this journey," said Tran, the pastor at Our Lady of the Isle on Grand Isle, one of the barrier islands that so far have borne the brunt of the nation's largest environmental disaster. Fishermen can't fish, the beaches are closed and vacation rental houses are occupied by National Guard troops helping to clean the beaches.

"I challenge you to live the same message," Tran said to a full house of congregants, many of whom make their livings from the water. "To live with patience, to live reaching out to one another during this time . . . . We need to be even more faithful to the word of God. We need to support each other."

Father Tran arrived on Grand Isle in July 2005, two months before Hurricane Katrina did. The community took a wallop from Katrina, followed by her siblings Rita, Gustav and Ike, he said, and on June 11, the parish will mark a day of prayer and fasting "for a hurricane-free season."

This man-made disaster is different, however.

"Hurricanes pass through," Tran said after the service, clasping the hands of parishioners and dispensing prayers. "We don't know when this will ever be over. It's a way of life that's under assault, and people don't when their next paycheck is going to be."

Sermons at Our Lady of the Isle's weekly 8 a.m. masses are now focused on the spill. "A speedy recovery and the safety of all working on the oil spill" is Monday's theme.

Counselors are available, and the church has teamed up with other congregations and with the Catholic Charity Social Service of Houma-Thibodaux to help serve the island's needs.

Tran told his congregation that he's worried that the "anger and frustration that we have experienced could spill over to one another, especially in this community," and he reminded them that they'd survived other challenges.

Still, it's hard to shake the foreboding about a curtain of oil somewhere offshore, and for many parishioners the outlook is bleak.

"It's hard for us to understand, and it's hard on us to figure out what we're going to do next and how we're going to recover," said Ronald Sampey, 67, who's been summering on Grand Isle his entire life.

"Immediately, it's no more fishing, no more crabbing, no more swimming, no more walking on the beach," said Marie Michel, 55, who's been vacationing on Grand Isle since she was a child. "Everything we came to Grand Isle for is gone."

Becky Jones LeBlanc, an English teacher at nearby Nicholls State University, has been coming to Grand Isle for 50 years _ "all seven of us kids" _ and she said she's not prepared to give up.

"I know the oil is out there, but the water is still beautiful, we can see the trout shimmering at night," she said. "It gives us hope. We're praying they get a solution this week."

Her husband, Mike, said it's far too early to write the region's obituary.

"They talk about an indomitable spirit, and that's the Cajuns," the Thibodaux dentist said. "We depend on oil, so this is like a sucker punch, but it's not going to count us out."

Rev. Tran said he sees signs of encouragement amid the despair.

"Many families are putting up inflatable pools," he told worshipers to some laughter. "That's very good, very great to lift spirits. If we can't fish, we can't swim, we must make do."

Steve Johnson of the Miami Herald contributed to this report.

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