Faithful pray for Pfiesteria solution

September 29, 1997|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

The members of the Rev. John Layton's country parish near Shelltown are mostly retirees who, unlike the area's watermen, fish merchants and chicken farmers, have been little affected by the problem of Pfiesteria piscicida.

It is a hard-to-miss problem, nevertheless.

Just down the road is the Fred Maddox family seafood business, which sounded the first alarms that something in the Pocomoke River seemed to be harming people and fish. Television news trucks and a stream of scientists and public health officers pass tiny Rehoboth Baptist Church on their way to the site where thousands of fish have died.

From his pulpit last week, Layton called on his congregation and the big thinkers in Annapolis to pray for a little divine guidance on the subject.

"Our leaders have no problem meeting at the table," he said. "They're going to spend the money and try to solve the problem, and they're going to find the answer some day.

"But I have yet to find where they're calling the right person to the table."

In churches, Bible classes and prayer groups on the Lower Shore, concerns about Pfiesteria -- the toxic microorganism blamed for health problems in humans and fish -- have ministers drawing on classic lessons about faith and trust in God, as well as man's responsibility to care for the Earth.

"I think it's foremost in folks' minds," said the Rev. David Parke, pastor of Rehoboth Presbyterian Church in Rehobeth. An issue at prayer time since early summer, the health of the local rivers was first on Parke's prayer list yesterday as he led his congregation in seeking answers and guidance.

"We need to pray that God continues to give those working on this problem the insight to see a solution," he said in church yesterday morning.

Parishioners on the Lower Shore have for generations lived with the ups and downs of the bay's productivity and are accustomed to bad years. Even so, the impact of Pfiesteria may exceed that of a single storm or one bad season.

No one knows what will happen next year. Or the next. The microbe inspires more questions than answers, leaving many with a feeling of helplessness.

"Churches all around here have been hit by this," said Cheryl Shores, who leads the Ladies Prayer Breakfast, a Tuesday-morning tradition in Crisfield.

The group, which has members from various denominations, gathers at 6: 30 a.m. at the Dockside Restaurant to pray for anyone in need. Prayer lists include the names of people who have become sick from apparent contact with Pfiesteria, as well as watermen, charter boat captains and local merchants with businesses on the brink of failure.

"There are many people who don't get up and go to church and say they're Christian who are saying to us 'You better pray, because this is bad,' " Shores said. "These watermen, whether Christians or not, are asking out."

It has surfaced, too, at Immanuel United Methodist Church in Crisfield, where parishioners are no strangers to hardship and the cycles of nature.

According to legend, the original members began meeting for services in 1857 on a barge used for shucking oysters. Fifty years later, the congregation -- intent on reflecting its ties to the sea -- built a graceful sanctuary with floors that slope to the sides like the deck of a ship. A stained-glass window depicts the story of the Apostle Peter, who sank into the sea for lack of faith after trying to walk on water at Christ's instruction.

Pfiesteria is a new twist on an old theme.

"In the face of these kinds of situations, we walk by faith and not by sight," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Donald O. Clendaniel. "It just goes to show that all these things that we have depended on can be taken away. We should be depending on God in the first place."

Beyond lessons in faith, however, Pfiesteria provides fresh territory for instruction about man's responsibility to care for the planet, pastors say.

"I don't want to be pointing fingers, but if we have been polluting, even unawares, then I think responsible citizens would certainly do whatever they could to correct our environment," Clendaniel said. "There is no question we as Christians believe we are placed here to be good stewards of God's Earth."

People tell stories of fishermen who have not reported their observations of sick fish in some waterways for fear of damaging business. Others say farmers and poultry companies have been less than forthcoming about the management of chicken manure fertilizing local crops. Runoff from those fields has become the chief suspect in the Pfiesteria outbreak.

Regardless, more is required than prayer, ministers agree.

"We will have to be willing to be part of the solution," said the Rev. Olivia Costango, pastor of Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church in Crisfield. "They should ask God, 'What would you have me do in this situation? How can I help?' "

People also need to be candid about what they've seen and done. Some have, but some have not, she said.

"These little bits of information can add up to a solution," Costango said. "We can't just say, 'You fix it.' When we line ourselves up with [God's] ways, He'll give us the wisdom to heal the land."

Pub Date: 9/29/97

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