Oil vacuums and ministry

When I interviewed Craig Taffaro, the president of St. Bernard Parish, La., about the impact of the BP oil disaster on his parish, I asked (the obvious question) what his greatest need was. That was June 8 and he said, "Primarily we just need some additional resources to fight the oil as it approaches … we want to be able to actively attack it in the water and not wait for it to get near shore or on our shorelines."

A week later, in a written response to President Obama's national address on the oil disaster, Taffaro said much the same: "First and foremost, we are grateful that the president has made four trips to this region and I believe he's engaged. But part of what we continue to fight is a lack of actual resources on the ground to be able to attack this oil in the water … I think [Obama] understands [the situation], but we need to have the resources."

This week, more resources are beginning to arrive. Tuesday St. Bernard Parish took possession of two "Shallow Water Barge Recovery Systems," which are basically giant shop-vacs. Each can vacuum and store or transport up to 6,000 gallons of oil-water mixture. The news release from the parish says the machines are useful in shallow water and marshes where most large skimming vessels can’t operate.

Taffaro called the acquisition "a positive step in the right direction … to see that we are prepared for [a] worst case scenario.”

I would have liked to spend more time with Taffaro. His would be an interesting profile to write. Taffaro is a Catholic, which isn't unusual in Louisiana, but he seems to take his faith seriously. He is a eucharistic minister for his home church and has been a natural family planning instructor for the New Orleans archdiocese.

Taffaro drew a little attention from outside his parish this past Holy Week, when he went through the offices of the local government complex washing the feet of government employees. Answering questions from a Times-Picayune reporter, Taffaro dismissed the idea that the principle of church-state separation had been violated.

He called foot washing "an appropriate gesture" and a universal symbol of humility. He was also clearly concerned that his actions would be labeled an attempt at publicity. "It's very uncomfortable to me to take an act of humility and make it a public statement," Taffaro said.

The state American Civil Liberties Union chapter filed a complaint against him for the foot washing.

Taffaro begins his days now in a makeshift office at the parish oil disaster response staging area with scripture and inspiration reading. He told me that the reading from the day before I interviewed him was from The Purpose Driven Life and titled, “You Bring God Glory by Serving Others.”

"That pretty much sums up what we’re doing," he told me. "He didn’t give us our abilities for selfish purposes. So that’s the mindset."

"From a Catholic standpoint, we’re called to minister and I don’t see a clear delineation of how you separate those two things out. When we’re serving people, we’re serving people."

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