POINTE-AUX-CHENES, La. — On a boat ride along a bayou that shares the name of his Native American tribe, Donald Dardar points to a cross marking his ancestors’ south Louisiana burial ground — a place he fears will disappear.
He points to the partly submerged stumps of oak trees killed by salt water on land where he rode horses as a kid, and to his mother’s home, gutted by Hurricane Ida. He and his wife have a mission: protecting Pointe-aux-Chenes and other communities at risk in a state that loses about a football field’s worth of wetlands every 100 minutes.
For years, Donald and Theresa Dardar have joined forces with the Rev. Kristina Peterson. Working with scientists and members of Pointe-au-Chien and two other tribes, they’ve set out thousands of oyster shells to protect sacred mounds, obtained financing to refill abandoned oil field canals and built an elevated greenhouse to save their plants and medicinal herbs from flooding.
“It’s saving what we know that’s going to be destroyed from both the change of the heat and the rising of the water,” said Peterson, the pastor of Bayou Blue Presbyterian Church in Gray, La., and a former professor of environmental planning at the University of New Orleans.
Their vital work to save their bayou home and heritage is part of a broader trend around the world of faith leaders and environmental activists increasingly joining the fight against climate change. From Hindu groups joining river cleanups and Sikh temples growing pesticide-free food, to Muslim imams and Buddhist monks organizing tree-planting campaigns, the movement knows no denominational boundaries but shares as a driving force a moral imperative to preserve what they see as a divinely given environment for future generations.
But some of them believe systemic change to protect those most vulnerable to the climate crisis must also come from world leaders.
“It’s up to them to step up to the plate and do what they’re supposed to do,” Theresa Dardar said at the tribal center where she handed out supplies to members of her tribe and others who lost their homes after Hurricane Ida hit the small fishing community 80 miles southwest of New Orleans.
“It’s up to you not to just give lip service, but to take action against climate change and sea level rise,” said Dardar, a longtime religion teacher at a local Catholic church and head of the environmental nonprofit Lowlander Center.
Louisiana holds 40 percent of U.S. wetlands, but they’re disappearing fast — about 2,000 square miles of the state have been lost since the 1930s. That’s about 80 percent of the nation’s wetland losses, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Peterson arrived in Pointe-aux-Chenes in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew, following a call to link scientists with communities hit by storms, sinking land and sea rise from climate change. Through the Lowlander Center that she co-founded, she worked to protect sacred sites from coastal erosion, refill canals dug by oil companies that allow for saltwater intrusion and build the greenhouse which was set to open in October. Instead, it was repurposed as a food pantry supply room after Ida.
“There’s been so much that has been interrupted … and these are all critical, critical things,” Peterson said.
“We’re not going to wait on world leaders to take action. We’re doing it now,” she said. With Theresa Dardar, they’re part of the Greater New Orleans Interfaith Climate Change Coalition, which includes Buddhist, Baha’i, Christian, Jewish and other faith leaders.
They’ve also worked closely with Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. She’s the first woman to lead her tribe and the only Indigenous woman on the Louisiana governor’s climate change task force. In 2020, her tribe and Pointe-au-Chien were among those that filed a formal complaint to the U.N. in Geneva, saying the U.S. government violated their human rights by failing to act on climate change.
“We should be caring for Mother Earth, not abusing her. This is a result of all of the abuse that we’ve done to her,” she said, tearing up and pointing to her home, destroyed by Ida. “If we don’t listen to the science, if we don’t listen to the wisdom of the elders, we’re going to … keep seeing these massive amounts of destruction.”
Religious communities are crucial in the fight against climate change, said Nathan Jessee, a researcher at Princeton’s High Meadows Environmental Institute who has worked with the area’s Indigenous communities.
“There’s a long history of faith-based leaders and Indigenous peoples being at the forefront of these struggles for environmental justice,” Jessee said. Together, he said, they’ve demonstrated the fight for clean air and water is a moral and spiritual struggle.
For many faith leaders, preserving the environment is part of their mandate to care for communities most vulnerable to climate change. It’s a call that Pope Francis has made often, most broadly in a 2015 encyclical, “Praised Be.” It has been echoed by imams, rabbis, patriarchs and pastors who share how their faith traditions interpreted the call.
People of color, the poor, women, children and the elderly suffer the worst climate change impacts, said the Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest, and executive director of GreenFaith, a global multi-faith environmental organization based in New York. “For religious people, that is utterly unacceptable,” he said.