“God Was in the Driver’s Seat”—An Interview with Sharon Lavigne
The annual Goldman Environmental Prizes, the world’s most prestigious awards for environmental activists, were presented last week in a virtual ceremony hosted by Jane Fonda. For the continent of North America, this year’s winner was Sharon Lavigne, a retired special education teacher who became the founding director of a faith-based organization known as RISE St. James. Lavigne has been a guest on the UCC’s Creation Justice Webinar program discussing her work in Cancer Alley, a heavily polluted part of Louisiana that stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. For decades Cancer Alley has been a poster child of environmental racism due to the high concentration of toxic industrial plants near communities that are predominantly Black and low-income. Earlier this year, I recorded a conversation with Lavigne, as she connected the Bible to her own life. I had asked Sharon if she might reflect for me on the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-17) in relationship to her environmental justice activism.
Prior to the interview, I knew little about Lavigne’s life beyond what I read in newspaper articles about her work. From the start of the interview, it quickly became apparent to me that Lavigne strongly identified herself with Moses, who resisted being called to deliver the Hebrew people from slavery, because he “had never been eloquent” or skilled in public speaking (Ex. 4:10). Lavigne told her own story as a modern-day exodus story. Because little prompting was needed from me as she spoke, I present her story here without my occasional questions. I have edited the text for clarity.
I feel like God chose me same the way He chose Moses. That’s what I think. I think Moses was humble. I was humble. Moses didn’t speak up, and God chose him to speak in the same way God chose me to speak. God knew I wasn’t a public speaker. I didn’t do anything in the public, so He chose a little wretch like me. On a visit to California, my cousin told me I should do something about the plastics plant they planned to build. I said, ‘Not me.’ I said, ‘I’m not a public speaker.’ All I did was just teach school. I didn’t do anything in public. That wasn’t my thing, and I didn’t want to get in public and say the wrong things and mess up. I never was a public speaker. I think God did the same thing with me as He did with Moses.
Just like Moses said, “Let my people go,” I’m going to say, “Save the lives of these people.” This is my community, and the community wants to live. I’m the spokesperson for St. James. I’ve gotten phone calls from people telling me that they are glad I’m speaking up for us in St. James, because we have enough chemical plants here. Some people tell me that when they think about Moses they think about me. I hadn’t even thought about it like that until somebody brought that to my attention.
The Call to Act
A few years ago I would attend a local organization’s meetings. I would learn about what was happening with the plant, and it depressed me. I would cry at night, lay in my bed and cry, because that wasn’t what I wanted. I felt like I had to move, because we can’t take any more of the chemicals that we breathe every day, so that’s when I asked them to do a march on September 8, 2018. They did. After the march, I said, “Where are we going to go from here?” Nobody had an answer.
In the meantime, I’d been praying, and I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed. It looked like I prayed, but I didn’t listen until one day when I was sitting on my porch. I prayed, and I listened, because I was crying, and that’s when God spoke to me. That’s when I got my answer. He told me to fight. That was the answer. I didn’t know how to fight. I didn’t know what to do. I never was in politics. I never was nothing in the public. I didn’t even go to a Parish Council meeting until all this started.
Because the local organization did not continue to act after the march, I decided to call a meeting on my own. We had almost ten in my den. The next meeting was in my garage. I asked the NAACP to come down. They were going to help me, teach me how to organize. I had almost 20 people in my garage. I said, ‘We’re not going to just have meetings. We want to do things.’ So, we planned a march. We decided to do it only two weeks later. It was that fast.
After we did the march, then we went from there, and we met with other people in nearby communities. We met with people like Robert Taylor from St. James Parish. We formed a coalition, and we called it the Coalition Against Death Alley. We had called it Cancer Alley. I wanted to call it Coalition Against Death Row, because I feel like we are on death row. If nobody rescues us, we are going to die. We are already dying. We are already sick, so I feel this is like a death sentence. That’s what is coming, if we don’t do something about it.
As we organized, time just flew. I can’t tell you how. It looked like God was in the driver’s seat and was making us go. It just makes me cry when I talk about it, because I knew it was God, God made this go. I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing sometimes, but He leads me, and He tells me what to do.
Life in Egypt
When you come to St. James and you stay for two hours during a certain time of the day, you either leave with a headache or a stomachache. The smell is so great that sometimes it smells like oil in the air. One time at five o’clock in the evening, I went outside, and I had to go back inside, because it smelled like oil, crude oil. Oh, it smelled so strong. If you pass by certain industries at certain times of the day, you can smell it. I used to write down when I smelled it, but I smelled it so often, I got tired of writing it down, and I just stopped. The pollution is so strong and so many people are dying with cancer. I was diagnosed with pre-cervic cancer. I have two brothers with cancer, prostate cancer. They worked in industry.
The elected officials, our Governor and our Councilmen, are the Pharaoh here. The Councilmen can stop it, and the Governor can stop it, but they won’t. We asked them. We had meetings. We went to the Parish Council meeting, and I talked to the Governor for about two minutes. I asked him if would he stop it, and he said he’s going to do a health study. That made me feel hurt and depressed, because he don’t care if we live or die. I’m pretty sure he knows the effects of these chemicals. I’m more than sure. I would assume he knows the effects of all of these things. If he doesn’t know the effects of it, he should have read up on it first before he approved the industry that came into our neighborhood. All the chemicals they will be making and using and producing. He should have done his research before he approved this industry, so I’m just going to assume he knew, and he didn’t care. He didn’t care about the people’s lives. The corporations that come here are just the same. They don’t care about the people. All they care about is making money to line their pockets. They don’t care who dies from it.
A Long History of Suffering and Death
Look how many years these industries have been coming into Death Alley, and look how many years they have been coming into St. James. They started coming into St. James in the late ‘60s, and the people in St. James thought it was wonderful. I thought it was, too, because it brought jobs, but they didn’t tell us about the pollution that came with those jobs. They didn’t tell us that. They painted the picture so pretty before the public officials voted for it. Look, 50 years later, look how we are suffering, and look how we are dying so rapid. If somebody don’t do something, St. James is going to be wiped out with deaths, because a lot of people are poor. They don’t have the funds to pack up and leave, so it’s like a death sentence.
The Promised Land
The current battle is to stop Formosa from building a plastics plant. Stopping Formosa is the Promised Land right now. After that, the other plants are going to follow.
The Promised Land is when we’ll be able to breathe clean air. The children will be able to go outside and play for a long period of time without getting rashes, without being sick. We’ll have less people with asthma, less people with cancer. We’ll have clean water, because they won’t be able to dump the chemicals in our drinking water. Our water is so dirty. We’ll have productive soil where we can plant a fig tree, and it would grow. Our pecan trees would bear, and our blackberry vines would bear. We would have a better life, if these plants would just go away.
I have two persimmon trees. I love persimmons, and it hurts me that I don’t get my persimmons. They only bear once a year. I had an orange tree that died. I had a fig tree that died. My pecan trees, they bear every other year now. They used to bear every year, and they were plentiful. We would sell pecans. The trees bear, and they shut down after about a month or so. Before, they would bear the whole season. I love figs. I don’t have a fig tree anymore. The plants are killing our fig trees because of the pollution. That hurts, because we live off the land. We don’t live off the land anymore. Can’t even get a blackberry.
Justice Will Prevail
When Moses saw the burning bush and God spoke to Moses, it is just like when God spoke to me. I think justice will prevail. I really do. It’s a fight, but it’s going to happen. I really do believe that it’s going to happen.