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Oregonians will shine light on gulf tragedy

MYVIEW • Oil spill disaster links all of us to the nation's watery 'back yard'
by: Cheryl Gerber, Papa Tom Bonnecaze serves jambalaya at an event for fishermen and families in Louisiana. A group of 20 Oregonians travels to the Gulf Coast next month to document the impact the BP oil spill has had on the lives of gulf residents.

During the second week in August, 20 Portlanders with a wealth of compassion, community service experience and technical expertise will show the nation what the Gulf Coast disaster looks like from inside the gulf.

We will tour those communities that have been hardest hit. We will shine a sustained light on what our neighbors need to survive and what the environment needs to recover.

When we return, we will create a book, a photo essay, a video and audio record of the experiences of our neighbors and what we have witnessed. We will begin a dialogue of personal responsibility and change.

Recently, there has been much more attention to our project and thus, many more questions. Why are we going? Who is going? What do we hope to accomplish? Are we going to help with the cleanup? Every one of these questions is relevant and important and I've been quietly pondering them.

I believe people are deeply saddened and overwhelmed by this crisis. They truly want to help.

I understand why this crisis brings people to tears and anger so quickly. I understand why parents of small children feel an added responsibility of how to explain this to them, the inheritors of this catastrophe.

When we stop thinking too deeply about this, we realize that we all have a hand in this. We have soiled a region of the country, one of unique beauty and environmental bounty. We are watching it die and we know repair is not an achievable outcome. We know that though the Gulf Coast has fed us, provided us respite though its beauty and fueled our prosperity, we have neglected it.

Even after Hurricane Katrina, we were slow to help, our attention span was short, and overall we wished for resiliency in the gulf but were not successful in contributing to it. And, regardless of our ineffectiveness, the Gulf Coast was rising from its ashes and there was promise, just this summer, of a season that would pull it's populace back into the realm of hope. We know we caused this disaster and another is imminent unless we behave differently.

My friend and adviser to this project, Rabbi Ariel Stone had this to say: 'We are connected by the very same earthly umbilical cord, to every struggling Gulf Coast resident and every suffering bird, fish and plant in the swamps and streams and gulf. The spill destroys the environment we all share and depend upon for our very lives. There can be no relief that 'this did not happen in my back yard;' the waters of our planet are interconnected, and we all inhabit the same back yard.'

Sports Illustrated reporter Gary Smith, in his recent article, 'Seven Days in the Life of a Catastrophe,' (July 5) captured this thought from Vietnamese monk and Gulf Coast resident Wutthichai Phojhachai when he pondered, 'What is needed now?':

'If you stay still and take a breath you can begin to see everything moving around you. The answer will come if you just watch it. The problem has already occurred, so now is not the time for blame. That is wasted time. Involve yourself. Do what you can. So many families with four people - and four cars. Can you drop each other off on the way to work and school? Can you push for new forms of energy? You have to think of action and reaction. You have to see all the links in the chain.'

So we are going to witness this, accept responsibility for this disaster and work to create change when we return. Here are just a few of the key people making the journey:

• Jennifer Anderson, reporter for the Portland Tribune. As a reporter she will document our activities and seek out related stories. She will write a daily account of our trip for the Tribune's website.

• Anna A. Berardi, George Fox University associate professor and director of the school's Trauma Response Institute. She will help us understand the psychological stress of our neighbors and how they can move from despair to hope.

nSerena Talcott Baughman, Northwest ecology teacher at Cleveland High School. Serena will develop curriculum based on this trip that will serve Cleveland and high school students across the city.

nMike Houck, executive director of Urban Greenspaces Institute, author and world class birder. Mike is dedicated to enhancing and connecting nature and the urban environment and will compel us to see what the Gulf Coast communities are losing.

• Ariana Longanecker, creation care team leader for the Imago Dei Community Church. The faith-based community has a unique role in teaching us about our spiritual connection to this great loss and the capacity to work with and inspire many like-minded congregants to sustained change and action. Ariana will be our guide.

• Sarah Menzies, volunteer and outreach coordinator of the Northwest Earth Institute. Sarah will use existing Northwest Earth Institute teaching modules to help us understand the connection between our daily lives and what's happening in the gulf.

• Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland. Bob will guide us through the difficult task of comprehending the ongoing destruction of the spill to the Gulf Coast ecosystem.

• Stiv Wilson, communications director of 5 Gyres. He will guide us through the connection between petroleum extraction, plastic proliferation, waste and dumping.

Mike Rosen is the organizer of the Join Together for the Gulf group. He lives in Southeast Portland.