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Engaging the community rather than the corporation


Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment swaps the boardroom for the bayou

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Tyronne Edwards, pastor of Zion Travelers Baptist Church in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, briefed the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment last week. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

NEW ORLEANS — Members of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) spend much of their time engaging corporations with whom the Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation has about $12 billion invested. Its shareholder engagement process seeks to get companies to comply with General Assembly criteria on corporate environmental responsibility, peace, justice for people of color and for women, and other directives.

MRTI points to a number of successes over the years, including putting pressure on companies to cut ties with Apartheid South Africa, encouraging them to increase human trafficking prevention efforts, to end predatory lending practices and to improve human rights and supply chain transparency.

But last week committee members took a different approach, trading in their pumps and wingtips for comfortable shoes to see firsthand how bayou residents are coping with rusting oil pipelines, terrible storms, fisheries that don’t produce what they used to and other economic calamities.

Beginning Wednesday evening and concluding Saturday morning, committee members and staff from the PC(USA)’s Office of Faith-Based Investing and Corporate Engagement heard directly from New Orleans-area residents. People there have been affected by everything from the practices of energy companies and the disaster that followed the Deepwater Horizon Spill to the destructiveness of Hurricane Katrina and even a few unnamed storms before and since.

On Friday, committee members met the Rev. Tyronne Edwards, the pastor of Zion Travelers Baptist Church in Plaquemines Parish, about an hour southeast of New Orleans along the Mississippi River near the Gulf of Mexico. Katrina, the August 2005 hurricane that killed more than 1,200 people and did $125 billion in damage to communities from Texas to Florida, brought water nearly to the church’s ceiling, Edwards said.

While the church rebuilt, with financial help from the Unitarian-Universalists, “we still had our service with no electricity,” he said. “We didn’t have windows, but we still had our church service.”

“We’ve got to evacuate even for tropical storms, because you never know what will be the next Katrina,” said Darilyn Turner, executive director of the nearby Zion Travelers Cooperative Center, a community development and educational agency near the church. The massive storm left behind some surprising consequences, she said: lightning bugs now make rare appearances, and alligators emerge earlier in the year than they used to. “And it never used to rain this much,” she said. “Climate change is real and that’s why we try to educate our people.”

Climate change and energy company practices have rocked the commercial fishing industry in Plaquemines Parish and other spots in South Louisiana. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

Edwards grew up in Plaquemines Parish during the 1950s. In those days, he said, farmers could predict how the growing season would proceed based on the dew on the ground. “Now they can’t tell when to plant their crops,” he said.

“Everybody wants to tell us what to do,” Turner said. “Come down and help us – don’t tell us. You can’t tell me what to do in my community. The Mississippi River is touching the top of the levy even as we speak.”

The cooperative center’s focus is on the environment, she said. Children — hers were in attendance Friday — plant trees and help operate a community garden. Even the youth aren’t shy about letting local officials know what they need, she said.

“Parish government can open doors at the state level,” she said.

Edwards said he hopes one of Turner’s children can be trained as a drone pilot. Aerial maps that detail erosion can help prevent further erosion, he said.

“We’re trying to bring power to truth, not truth to power,” he said. “That’s what we need if our community is going to survive.”

The Rev. Tyronne Edwards speaks to members of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment at a nearly abandoned marina Friday. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

A bus trip to a formerly thriving marina drove home how difficult life along the bayou has become. Two decades ago, fishing operations routinely produced six-figure incomes, Edwards said. Now only a few fishing vessels remain.

“This was the lifeblood for generations and generations of fishermen,” he said.

Asked what he’d like to see for his community, Edwards had a ready answer: “Fishermen who can make a living,” he said.


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