Orlando Sentinel | October 18, 2010 | By Edwin Goldberg & Russell L. Meyer | Guest columnists
Nearly six months after the BP oil spill began, the images of oil-soaked birds struggling for survival remain fresh in our minds. These pictures are unforgettable; they formed the centerpiece of many stories about the spill.
Yet, we rarely see images of the damage that will last even longer than the effects of oil on wildlife: communities teeming with people whose primary “feathers” have also been clipped — steady income, physical and mental health, and food security.
A bird drenched in oil conveys a clear message, but it is more difficult to capture the human aspect of the Gulf Coast oil spill. It will take serious and sustained efforts to make the human impact right again.
How do you capture joblessness in a photograph, or convey the difficulty that non-English speakers have had in navigating the BP claims process? The overwhelming human needs in the Gulf Coast are not easily revealed by a camera or distributed by the media, but they tug on our heartstrings nevertheless.
Gulf Coast communities continue to struggle with the lasting — often invisible — consequences of the spill. These stories remain largely unseen. These are not problems we can fix simply by providing food or rebuilding a bridge. So what are people of good will to do?
People of faith mobilize quickly in a time of need, often appearing first on the scene following a disaster. Our faith calls us not only to belief, but to action, so we provide, and we go to the affected communities. We saw the pictures of destroyed homes and schools across New Orleans and the families who had lost these homes.
We saw photos of Haitian children in a crumbling city, and Pakistani communities made homeless by unprecedented flooding, and we sent what we could. During these disasters, the photographs told stories of the suffering, and we responded.
When we see injustice — or know it is there even when cameras cannot capture it — we speak out. We demand an immediate response and urge systemic change far beyond what we as individuals or congregations can provide.
In responding to the oil-spill disaster, we can’t all go and get our hands dirty in the restoration process, which is toxic. Instead, we turn to those in power, seeking immediate change. We call for ongoing crisis management and long-term restoration. Congress must work to ensure that such a disaster never happens again.
Decision-makers must respond to long-term issues, such as unemployment, and short-term concerns of cleanup and safety. Our society needs to create livable circumstances for affected families. Elected officials must put partisanship aside and seize this opportunity to rebuild the treasure that is the Gulf Coast.
If a photograph won’t suffice, maybe painting a picture would be more helpful: Picture a Gulf Coast fisherman whose livelihood has been wiped out. Or a woman trying to find work with hazardous-waste cleanup being made to wait weeks for her safety-certification papers. Or the restaurateurs who sit staring at empty tables, crippled by a dying tourist industry.
There is oil in our feathers, but it’s not the kind you can see. Partisan responses won’t get the oil out; only acting together in shared citizenship as one community will remove the oil.
As communities of faith, we see the picture of great need. The time has come for our leaders to stand up and make a difference in the lives of innumerable people. They need our help.
Let’s picture this: a clean-up process that restores Gulf ecosystems and cares for the people living in the photograph of life every single day. We have faith in the possibility of that picture.
Edwin Goldberg is rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables. The Rev. Russell L. Meyer is executive director of the Florida Council of Churches.