I was out of the country for much of June for academic conferences and a friend's wedding, so I have some catching up to do with Cindy's travels. Luckily, there are only two main trips to give you updates about: Cindy's visit to the Presbytery of South Louisiana and vacation with her husband to Peru. So come to learn about what is happening in some Presbyterian churches in Louisiana, and stay for pretty pictures of Peru!
My trip to Louisiana began with host Nanette driving and Ann Philbrick joining us for the adventure. Our first stop was the Bayou Blue Presbyterian Church in Houma.
Bayou Blue was started as a mission to the French speaking people in the area, who were originally 100% Catholic. When the mission started, there were sugar cane farms all around, and that’s how the families made their living. In a move that certainly distinguished the Presbyterians from the Catholic neighbors, the first congregation met in half of a dance hall. The current church was built in 1926 after the first building was destroyed in a hurricane, a common theme in South Louisiana. Oil companies moved into the area in the fifties, shifting the economy significantly. It had been a very poor area before that, relying on farming as the major industry. Now farming at any large scale is almost impossible, so the local economy ebbs and falls as the oil industry ebbs and falls. Another newer industry moving in is the medical industry, due to the exceptionally high rate of cancer through the area.
Part of our time at the church was hearing from Kris Peterson from the Lowlander Center. She is working tirelessly to raise awareness of the issues in the area related to climate change and the process through which oil and natural gas are extracted. I’m hoping that we will be able to do a more extensive story on the Lowlander Center and the indigenous people whose land is literally disappearing out from under their feet in order to share the depth of the work and need in the area.
From the church, we headed to Hammonds Air Field where we met founder and pilot Charlie Hammonds. He’s been flying planes since he was 19 years old and has built a substantial career in the area. Charlie took us up in a single propeller airplane for an aerial view of the effects of climate change and oil extraction. From the air, we could see areas of marsh that have been infiltrated by salt water because of the ways canals are cut in search for oil and because of how the storms push salt water over the natural and human made barriers. We saw some healthy marshes where the trees are growing and birds could be seen, but there’s not a lot separating them from the unhealthy marshes. We could see the levee systems, and also the fact that there was no levee system protecting one native community who is having the hard conversation about whether or not to abandon their homes and move to safer ground. The next major storm could wipe their spit of land out.
Another factor is where Louisiana sits in relation to the major rivers that run through the heart of the country and empty into the Gulf of Mexico. “Louisiana acts as the kidneys for the country; all the water filters through the land here.” So all of the toxins entering the water north of Louisiana end up in the marshes and swamps here, further impacting the lives of those who make a living on the water and contributing to the rise in rates of cancer. It was sobering and beautiful, seeing the land and water spread out below us. We learned that this whole area used to be land, marshes and swamps, not the vast expanse of water. Land is lost due to subsidence, the process of land settling into the places where oil and gas have been extracted. The combination of drilling and climate change have had a devastating impact on the local culture and people, the geography, and the wildlife.
After our aerial tour, we met two tribal leaders of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, Donald and Theresa Dardar. Donald was coming in off a night of shrimping where he caught a “decent” haul of around 500 pounds of shrimp. Theresa is the current President of the Lowlander Center, and is active in many native and local organizations. I invite you to google her name to learn more than I can include here about the challenges facing the tribes in Louisiana. It was a full morning and afternoon, topped off with a great dinner and a Q&A time at Parkway Presbyterian Church, where the Presbytery would be meeting on Tuesday. A pretty good crowd showed up and asked questions about vital congregations, small congregations (not mutually exclusive!), the pastoral search process, how to reach people in a new community, and how to reach out to people who have been wounded by the church. It was a far-reaching conversation, drawing on my experience as presbyter and pastor as much as what I’ve seen in serving for almost a year as co-moderator.
The assembly meeting of the Presbytery of South Louisiana convened in the fellowship hall of Parkway Presbyterian Church. That meant we were meeting around tables, and looking at one another instead of the backs of each other’s heads. It also meant that, once the Presbytery gathered, we filled with space with chatter, laughter, and singing. I know the congregation had hoped to have us in the sanctuary, but the energy in the fellowship hall was fantastic! It was my honor to preach at the meeting, and then officiate at the table for communion. After some advance conversation with the Moderator of the Presbytery, I decided to focus on Mark 4:30-32 for the sermon:
Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Remembering that Amy-Jill Levine wrote about this parable in her book, “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,” I quickly re-skimmed the chapter, which gave me my framework. And if you haven’t picked up this book, it’s a must for a deeper look at the parables!
I started by asking the Presbytery about the purpose of stories. Anyone who has heard me speak recently knows that I’ve been stressing the importance of imagination as part of our Christian discipline. Stories are meant to spark our imagination, to help us think in new ways and expanded ways and creative ways about what is possible when God is at work. A story about the kingdom of God is meant to help us imagine something new.
We know the mustard seed is not the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; just think of the poppy seed on your bagel. And we know that it isn’t the greatest of all shrubs or trees; just look around at the cypress, the oaks, the maples, even cactus if you’re in the desert. Jesus isn’t saying something that is factually true in this story, and the disciples and those listening would have known that as well. No, Jesus is asking us to imagine what can happen when we start with something small that is rooted and grounded in the love of Christ. That small action, that small word, that small kindness can grow into something large and life-giving, providing for the shelter, nurture and fellowship of the children of God.
This is an important word for all of our congregations who feel that they’re too small to be true churches anymore. They feel like they’re lacking a “real” pastor, they don’t have “enough” resources, they can’t make a “big” difference. I’ve pastored a small church and currently provide leadership for two Presbyteries predominantly made up of small churches. Small can be mighty, when we step out in faith and hope, and the parable of the mustard seed proves it. What is true is that a tree or a shrub starts from something small, a small seed falling to the ground. Even the larger seeds are small compared to what they result in, trees bearing fruit, trees providing shade, trees providing places for nests. All these things start from something small and seemingly insignificant.
And Jesus says that’s how the kingdom of God starts. From small things, from little beginnings, from points of possibility that may be almost invisible but can spring up into a source of life and love and joy. We can all start from something small, and let it be a manifestation of the beloved community in our midst. The end result may not even be a towering achievement, but more like a shrub. Still, that shrub is like the kingdom of God when it welcomes all of God’s people in.
After the worship service, the meeting continued with celebrating the ministry of a pastor who was retiring, celebrating the ministry of a congregation that was closing, and celebrating the ministry of the seven Young Adult Volunteers who are finishing their year of service in July. Even with the congregation that closed, there was a sense of the Spirit moving, of gratitude for the ways God has been faithful, and hope for what the future will bring.
After the meeting, we had a few hours of downtime. I took a nap and relaxed before joining Nanette, Kim, and Ann for a fun evening together. A rooftop bar, a tiny Italian restaurant, and a creative ice cream shop closed out a wonderful day. After checking out from the hotel today, Nan and I headed to a coffee shop on the outskirts of the French Quarter to meet Hannah Quick for breakfast.
Hannah is the organizing pastor of Okra Abbey, one of our 1001 New Worshiping Communities. It started as a community garden with a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) overseeing the operations. It quickly became clear, however, that the community didn’t need a place to grow vegetables because people either didn’t have the time or the knowledge to take advantage of it. Instead, they needed people to grow vegetables for them and provide opportunities to gather and share a meal. That started happening informally until the Presbytery of South Louisiana decided to step out in faith and call an organizing pastor.
When Hannah arrived, there was already a community forming, and with the help of continued YAV support, she’s jumped into the organizational needs, which are numerous. Currently, Okra Abbey offers a lunch every Wednesday (Grace & Greens) and vegetables to the community (Peas & Love). A top-notch professional chef donates his time to make most of the Wednesday meals and a professional gardener oversees the garden. With these things in place, the predominant need is building more support in the professional community surrounding the area, establishing long-term financial backing, and creating a community board.
A meeting like this provides lots of opportunities to make connections locally and nationally. Because Hannah is building something from scratch, she’s interested in connecting with other non-profits that might have similar models or who might be able to offer their own stories of success and failure. After all, we learn as much, if not more, from the things we try that completely flop as any success! Nan and I were both able to offer some connections of people who could come alongside Okra Abbey as they gather every week. While I couldn’t join them for their Wednesday Grace & Greens meal, Hannah sent me some pictures so I could get a sense of what their gathering is like. A foretaste of the heavenly banquet? I think so.
That is all for Cindy's update from Louisiana. Now enjoy some of her vacation pictures from Peru!
Her trip started in Lima:
Salt fields and an ancient archeological site:
Her trip also marked the one-year anniversary of being elected with Vilmarie as co-moderators of the 223rd General Assembly, which Cindy marked at Lake Titicaca:
The Sacred Valley: