The assistant pastor at the Fishermen Baptist Church in Bon Secour, Ala., asked the men of the congregation to come forward for a prayer.
After the singing of the opening hymn, “Ring the Bells of Heaven,” and the announcement that an engaged couple was now registered at Wal-Mart, the preacher read aloud a proclamation from Gov. Bob Riley that declared this to be a “day of prayer” — a day of entreaties to address the ominous threat to the way of life just outside the church’s white doors.
Whereas, and whereas, and whereas, the proclamation read. People of Alabama, please pray for your fellow citizens, for other states hurt by this disaster, for all those who are responding. And pray “that a solution that stops the oil leak is completed soon.”
In other words, dear God, thank you for your blessings and guidance. And one other thing, dear God:
The governor’s words hung a moment in the fan-turned air. Then the preacher, Shawn Major, summoned the men of the church to the front to “ask God to do something special.”
Two dozen men, many of them wearing short-sleeve shirts in summery colors, knelt and sat with heads bowed and eyes closed, while a half-mile down the street, other men — and women — underwent training in the use of a more secular form of hope, the laying of boom.
The wall between church and state came a-tumbling down on Sunday, as elected leaders from the five states on the Gulf of Mexico issued proclamations declaring it to be a day of prayer. Although days of prayer are not uncommon here — Governor Riley declared one asking for rain to relieve a drought a few years ago — these proclamations conveyed the sense that at this late date, salvation from the spill all but requires divine intervention.
In the two months since the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion began a ceaseless leak of oil into the gulf, damaging the ecosystem and disrupting the economy, the efforts by mortals to stem the flow have failed. Robots and golf balls and even the massive capping dome all seem small in retrospect.
So, then, a supplementary method was attempted: coordinated prayer.
In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry encouraged Texans to ask God “for his merciful intervention and healing in this time of crisis.” In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour declared that prayer “allows us an opportunity to reflect and to seek guidance, strength, comfort and inspiration from Almighty God.” In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal invoked the word “whereas” a dozen times — as well as the state bird, the brown pelican — but made no direct mention of God. In Florida, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp asked people to pray that God “would guide and direct our civil leaders and provide them with wisdom and divinely inspired solutions.”
The suggestion by government to beseech God for help — to petition a power higher than any elected official — rang out in churches and halls from Pensacola, Fla., to Galveston, Tex., as well as here, in Bon Secour, where Brother Harry prayed with head bowed.
The Fishermen Baptist Church has been in this village, whose name means safe harbor, since 1989. An anchor is planted in its front lawn. Its walls are adorned with paintings of nautical scenes. Its collection boxes are a miniature lighthouse and a treasure chest. The dock across the street is used for baptisms and fishing.
These are all reflections of the church’s founder and pastor, Wayne Mund, who grew up here. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were fishermen, and so was he, until the age of 21, when he dropped his nets and went off to Bible school.
Pastor Mund, 66, lanky and proud to call himself a Bible Baptist, works hard to incorporate his seafaring past into his mission. He sees the Bible, from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, as a nautical book, and the sea as a mesmerizing draw. He will end conversation by warning that those who do not climb aboard God’s boat of salvation “will drown in a sea of sin and despair.”
And now the oily despair in the sea is affecting his small church, his community. Fewer envelopes are being slipped into the treasure chest and lighthouse at the back of the room because some of his 200 congregants can no longer afford to tithe. Fewer people are attending service because fishermen, who normally take Sundays off, are now working for BP to help clean up its goo, which is washing up in Gulf Shores and Mobile Bay.
“The sea, the sea, the sea,” Pastor Mund says. “It has to do with the sea.”
Pastor Mund expected to be out of town on Sunday, so he assigned an associate pastor, Mr. Major, to preside over the 10:30 service. Mr. Major is 46, stocky and more apt to smile than his boss when proselytizing. The spill affecting the river, the world, has been difficult for him to fathom, and he expects that the human toll will not be felt for another year.
Mr. Major spent Saturday with 70 men and women, all learning the proper way to lay boom. But now he was with 70 other men and women, all praying from nine wooden pews; all saying amen to his assertion that “We are still a Christian nation”; all nodding when he said that everyone knew “who ultimately will stop” the spill.
A missionary about to leave for Brazil was waiting to make a multimedia presentation, but first these kneeling men, led by Brother Harry — Harry Mund, a relative of the pastor’s — needed to finish their prayer.
Please God, help us with “this awful oil spill,” he said. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The men rose from their knees and returned to their pews, a couple of them rubbing the salty wet from their eyes.