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  • David Carlson

Day 228: Friday October 30th: RISE!

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

Sharon Lavigne's fighting faith on the bayou

Black Catholic woman leads battle against giant plastics plant in Louisiana

WELCOME, LOUISIANA — On the day she turned 69, Sharon Lavigne and three Protestant pastors hiked the levee beside the Mississippi River and looked across the highway at the lush sugarcane fields and wetlands where Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group planned to build one of the largest plastics factories in the world.

The 2,400-acre, 14-plant complex would worsen the area's existing pollution overload, spewing cancer-causing chemicals into the air. Opponents say its environmental permits would allow it to emit greenhouse gases equivalent to the output of three and a half coal-fired power plants.

The complex would also disturb or destroy graves of enslaved Black people who were buried on the property, which was once a plantation.

A mile downriver from the Formosa site stands an elementary school, and a mile beyond that, Lavigne's home.

Standing atop the levee, she and her companions recalled the Old Testament story in which Joshua circled the ancient city of Jericho and caused its walls to tumble. Lavigne and the pastors walked six times in a circle, reciting Psalm 23, and on the seventh, they raised their arms skyward and begged God almighty to stop Formosa.

A devout Catholic, Lavigne is at the forefront of a campaign to thwart construction of the plastics complex. Two years ago, she founded Rise St. James, a faith-based, grassroots group made up of residents of the Fifth District of St. James Parish, an area of sugarcane fields and historically black hamlets interlaced with pipelines and industrial facilities.

Backed by environmentalists and community organizations, the group is speaking out for Black communities in St. James that face a new wave of industrial pollution.

The group started with protest marches. When the coronavirus pandemic erupted, the activists adapted their strategies and message, pointing out that theirs is a struggle against environmental racism and linking it to national calls for racial justice.

She often mentions God.

"If you are Christians, if you believe in God, change this," Lavigne says in a Sept. 1 Facebook post. "I know you can't sleep at night because you live in St. James, too. When I am poisoned, you will be poisoned, too. So I ask you to go back, to get on your knees and pray and ask God to put it in your hearts to go back and rescind this decision."

The Formosa complex represents "an assault on human life at all of its stages," says Jesuit Deacon Chris Kellerman of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans.

"And all of this without the express consent of the people," wrote Kellerman, who urged local officials to "find other alternative ways of investing in St. James that won't pose such an antilife, racist and existential threat to the parish."

In Louisiana, government officials have enthusiastically backed the $9.4 billion Formosa venture, saying it would bring much-needed jobs and revenue to a struggling region. State and local governments offered the petrochemical company $1.5 billion in incentives, mainly property tax exemptions.

The density of industrial plants is especially high in the Fifth District, where the population is 85% Black and where about one-third of residents have an income below the poverty line. In 2014, a parish land-use plan changed its designation from "residential" to "residential/future industrial," unleashing an influx of new plants and an expansion of old ones.

After the parish council voted for the new complex, many people in the community considered it a done deal.

"Everything was can't, can't. I don't believe in that. Let's find a solution," said the mother of six and former schoolteacher. Yet she too struggled with defeatism. One tearful afternoon, she asked God what she should do. The answer Lavigne heard was, "Fight!"

On Sept. 8, 2018, Lavigne and her daughter organized a march to a local park. That evening, 10 people showed up in her living room, asking what they could do. The next month, 20 people gathered and organized a second march, held in November 2018.

"It was my first time getting on the bullhorn," Lavigne said. "We talked and we sang. I didn't know this would go further. One man said he could 'see the Spirit' in me."

Since then, Rise St. James has joined a coalition of environmental and community groups staging protests along Cancer Alley, and Lavigne has testified before a U.S. congressional committee.

Campaigns like Lavigne's are not uncommon along Cancer Alley. Environmentalists say national and state environmental agencies have done little to protect residents from toxic emissions, leaving communities to fend for themselves.

"We as a people are fighting Formosa. We should be fighting our local government for not stopping industry," said Harry Joseph of Mount Triumph Baptist Church, one of the pastors who joined Lavigne on the levee last May.

Joseph is among a handful of male Protestant pastors in the Fifth District who support Rise St. James and whose congregations consist mainly of Black women. Some ministers are keeping silent, he thinks, because they have family members or congregants who work in chemical plants.

"What good is something helping you, if that thing is also killing you?" he asked.

Last summer, after a judge ruled that Rise St. James could host a Juneteenth commemoration at the Formosa site despite the company's opposition, Fr. Vincent Dufresne, a Catholic priest, accepted Lavigne's invitation to bless the graves of the formerly enslaved people buried there.

"I am not opposed to industry for the sake of industry," said Dufresne. "As a civil parish, we need the revenue of industry for infrastructure, but industry needs to be a good neighbor. That's where I support Rise St. James. Formosa has a history, as a corporation, of not being as community-sensitive as they claim to be."

In Vietnam, toxic waste from a Formosa steel facility contaminated 125 miles of coast in 2016, decimating fisheries and leaving 40,000 people jobless. Victims still await compensation. Catholic bishops and priests spoke out against the company and the government, which they said impeded the investigation, and a Catholic activist was sentenced to nine years in prison for subversion after filming protesting fishermen.

Rise St. James and its allies have also faced pushback. During a protest in October 2019, Baton Rouge police arrested the Rev. Gregory Manning, a Lutheran minister from New Orleans and a leader in the struggle along Cancer Alley, and charged him with inciting a riot.

The bow-tied pastor, who is legally blind, said he could not see the uniform on the man who ordered him and his fellow activists to leave the building where the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry was meeting. The charges were later dropped.

Construction at the Formosa site is now on hold. Last January, environmental groups filed a lawsuit challenging the project's federal permits, which resulted in Formosa agreeing to delay major construction until early 2021. On Oct. 25, the company announced it would now defer "major construction until the pandemic has subsided and/or an effective vaccine is widely available."

Nevertheless, Lavigne continues to fight, pray and add new allies to the struggle. At her invitation, Catholic Bishop Michael Duca of Baton Rouge will preside over a service at the Formosa site on Oct. 31, the eve of All Saints Day. There, he will pray for the dead buried beneath the sugarcane fields over which Lavigne hurled her Jericho Wall prayer last May.

"The more focus we can keep on that property, the more confident I feel that we are going to win," she said. "[Formosa] is going to see how much we care about it and eventually will back


This is an edited version of the article from

From National Catholic Reporter EarthBeat

Read the whole story at

Sharon Lavigne's fighting faith on the bayou

Oct 30, 2020

by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy Leaders

[Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, a freelance writer, lives and works at the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Massachusetts.]


A Love Poem

My heart longs to write you Love poems like Rumi, like Hafiz. But my creativity and Divine Bliss connection seems much too limited. But what i do know is that if i had a way to wave a magic wand with words, you would feel more seen, more appreciated, more loved, more cared for than you ever have before. Not because i want to be a comparison, but because you inspire my heart, my soul, my very being to long to caress your soul, your heart, your body, your being with such bliss and love that you experience yourself as the total magical, amazing, Divine gift with which i experience you. You inspire me to want to be the person that has you experience yourself as this beautiful, Sacred. oh, so Sacred altar to which i bow in reverence and gratitude and purest loving devotion to. Because i do.

copyright juliabutterflyhill 2010


O Healing River by Lloyd Kauffman

i shall not be moved - Mississippi John Hurt

The Spinners - Sadie

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