A Pastor Takes on BP in New Orleans

“Nobody messes with Father Vien. He tends to get what he wants.”

So said President Obama in a speech on May 24 after being introduced, just moments earlier, by Reverend Vien Nguyen, pastor of the Mary Queen Viet Nam Church in eastern New Orleans.

Nguyen had introduced the president with a swift overture that gestured toward gratitude without sounding awestruck. His stance and tone was not one of a guest who felt lucky to be there, but someone who belonged there—a true American worthy of sharing the podium with the leader of the free world.

Obama acknowledged as much in his speech, referring to Nguyen’s role as a spiritual advisor and community organizer during Hurricane Katrina, when he sheltered hundreds of Vietnamese families in his church and remained with them during the floods until the last family was rescued. Now with the BP oil spill creeping onto Louisiana’s coast, dismantling the lives of thousands of fishers, shrimpers, and oyster harvesters, many of whom are Vietnamese, Nguyen is in the position of miracle-maker once again. It’s not a question of what Father Vien wants—it’s a question of finding out what a community needs.

“He’s advocating on behalf of the many Vietnamese and Cambodian Americans and others who make their living shrimping and fishing,” said the president, “and I want him to know that we are going to be tireless in working to do everything we can to support the community and everybody whose livelihoods have been imperiled down in the region.”

Lost in Translation

Today, every nautical mile the oil spill pollutes claims with it the lives of those who lived off of the sea. At least a third of the Gulf fishers affected are Vietnamese, people who brought their fishing skills with them when escaping from their native land during the Vietnam War, and who’ve survived off these skills ever since. Nguyen, as the recognized figurehead for these workers and their families, has been facing off again with disaster response bumblers, only this time against the mega-corporation BP.

Right now roughly a third of all Gulf of Mexico areas available for commercial fishing (where roughly a third of the US mainland’s seafood comes from) are closed. The impact of this, according to a report from the Mississippi Coalition of Vietnamese American Fisherfolk and Families, is that 80 percent of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian families in the Gulf will feel some economic squeeze. Of the 40,000 Vietnamese families living in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, one in three works in the seafood industry.

For Louisiana, most of the Vietnamese fishermen affected live in New Orleans East, in the communities of Versailles and Village L’est, both served by the Mary Queen of Viet Nam church. According to Census figures, 75% of Vietnamese-American adults don’t speak fluent English, and this issue presented itself at a town hall meeting held at the church featuring speakers from BP, the US Coast Guard, and the EPA.

During that meeting, Nguyen suggested that BP hold trainings at the church—which is more like a community center—to employ out-of-work fishers in oil clean-up. By the end of the meeting he was announcing that BP had agreed to this. Like Obama said, Father Vien gets what he wants.

But the training was a bust, mainly due to the language complications. BP brought in two interpreters who not only couldn’t translate the technical terms of the hazardous material curriculum, but also used a dialect unintelligible to the fishers. Adding insult, the interpreters were using communist phrases (according to those present) offensive to this community made up of refugees from south Vietnam, which was militarily overtaken by northern communist forces during the war.

Rep. Joseph Cao, the first Vietnamese American voted to Congress, has since filled in with a “Rapid Response Team” equipped with culturally competent translators to help the fishers with filing claims and finding employment. One of the recommendations from the Mississippi Coalition report is to identify transitional jobs and also long-term workforce opportunities for those laid off by BP’s accident. It also asks for a study that would examine any work skills from the fishers that might be transferable to other types of available labor, and to “build on the best practices learned from Katrina and Rita.”

A United Neighborhoods Approach

Some of those best practices were honed at the Mary Queen Viet Nam church, where those helping to rebuild gathered, eating together from their own hands for months in the flood’s aftermath. They didn’t stop at bricks and mortar; community activism gave birth to organizations such as the Mary Queen Viet Nam Community Development Corporation, and the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association [VAYLA]. The CDC began planning for a charter school (now open), an urban farm (now under production), and for the development of hundreds of units of housing for the elderly and low-income.

They’ve also partnered with community organizations such as the Micah Project and PICO Louisiana (both faith-based organizer networks). And they’ve taken a special interest in collaborating with environmental groups such as the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, the Sierra Club, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

The Deep South Center connection was crucial as many of its leaders are African Americans who reside in the New Orleans East neighborhood where the Vietnamese community is found. New Orleans East is a historically and predominantly African-American region—the largest in the city—so the prospects of cooperation between the two communities was vital.

“Both communities have been willing to be in a relationship; it’s just that [the] process has needed assistance, and that was vision of Father Vien,” says Denise Graves, an African-American community organizer for the Micah Project. “He was in the middle of a black community but they weren’t having much interaction except during celebrations and when their kids went to school. He wanted to change that.”

What grew from the church’s post-Katrina resurgence wasn’t just a community, but more like a United Nations, or rather United Neighborhoods. And like many civic-minded organizations in New Orleans, they took citizen participation and equity as their bottom-line terms and conditions.

Former Mayor Ray Nagin learned as much when in 2006 he opened a landfill to store Katrina debris less than two miles from Village L’est, which is shared by Vietnamese- and African-American families. New Orleans East is home to 23 illegal dump sites and two toxic landfills. It’s also home to the Central Wetlands and the Bayou Savage Wildlife Refuge, both plentiful with photogenic birds and sparkling fish.

Officials from the city and the Louisiana Department of Quality plead (incorrectly) that the unlined landfill posed no health hazards, but the community didn’t want to take that risk. Residents of all races and backgrounds demonstrated for months against it. VAYLA organizer Minh Nguyen told Colorlines magazine that “it’s either going to be a community celebration or a protest with people getting arrested,” the day before the decision on the landfill was made. It ended up a celebration.

BP’s Empty Promises

With the BP oil spill there’s been nothing to celebrate, and much development has been arrested.

BP says it has paid 18,000 of 37,000 claims along the Gulf Coast, or about $46 million worth. Meanwhile, the value of seafood stock caught in the Gulf and sold at the docks in 2008 was $661 million.

Progress has been made, though punctuated with empty promises. BP has paid for 18 members of the Vietnamese community to be trained as translators, but have only hired six of them thus far. The Rapid Response Team is working to make sure the rest are hired and more are trained.

Meanwhile, more fishers are being hired for oil clean-up, but their incomes aren’t matching their expenses. There have been complaints from fishers who’ve gone through the BP training and then told to prep their boats—an expensive ritual—only to not be called in for work.

“One guy whose boat is docked in Plaquemines Parish, BP called him and said, ‘Go prep your boat and we’ll call you when you’re done prepping,’” says Tuan Nguyen, deputy director of MQVN CDC, and a Rapid Response Team member. “So he fuels his boat and buys groceries for a week or two and hires his deck-hands. They wait literally a week. He calls and calls and BP has no answer for him, so he ends up eating all of his expenses.”

Prepping even a small boat can run as much as $5,000. Nguyen and his colleagues at VAYLA have been traveling up and down the Gulf Coast talking to fishers—all fishers, not just Vietnamese—to gather for a report. That report will go not only to Congressman Cao, but also Father Vien, who’ll then see to it that the communities get what they need.

bmock77@gmail.com'

Brentin Mock is a New Orleans-based reporter working with The Lens, a project of the Open Society Institute. His work can also be found in The American Prospect, The Root, The Grio, GOOD, and The Daily Beast.