I spent the
past week camping in Kentucky
with nearly two-hundred of my newest friends at Mountain Justice Summer – an
annual camp in its sixth year organized to mobilize awareness about and
resistance to mountaintop removal coal mining and the subsequent horrors
wrought by coal processing on the communities and environment of Appalachia.
The very first day I opened camp
with a workshop/ training on Activist Self Care. I spoke about burn out and how
to prevent or recover from it, and techniques for daily self-care and renewal.
We went around the circle to share strategies that help us stay sane
(journaling, knitting, mountain-biking, playing music) and I spoke of the
importance of making room for emotions and creating healthy outlets for those
emotions so we don’t play out our distress on one another, as so often is the
case. Later I led workshops on Conflict Resolution techniques and Peace-Keeping
and made myself available for reflective listening and pastoral support to anyone
who requested it (and rejoiced when people did!).
It was a great joy to be available
to others in this way at Mountain Justice camp. There is nothing more
satisfying, and energizing, than living into a calling. After nearly a year
living and breathing the ins and outs of the movement to end mountaintop
removal I am ready to focus my attention and energy specifically into the
creation and implementation of eco-chaplaincy.
You probably are asking “haven’t
you been doing this all along Sarah?”
Well yes and no. I have been living
and breathing through this movement to end mountaintop removal, and don’t
regret a single day. I moved out here nearly a year ago called to the region
with the clear mandate to be available to work as an eco-chaplain, but no specific
work plan or idea how to go about it. When I arrived, I quickly realized the
importance of patience as I immersed myself into my community and the movement.
My work throughout this year has been to keep my eyes open to the people and
land around me and discern when, where and how to participate. I had no idea
where this journey would lead me! An interesting thing about creating a new
field of pastoral care (eco-chaplaincy) is that I can not just arrive and say
“here I am – utilize me” – I have to demonstrate what it even means, and teach
people how to use me. I am daily becoming aware that there is nothing more in
the world I want to do and that now, after a year of acclimating to place,
developing a relationship and developing trust and community I am ready, and we
are all ready here for me to step even more fully into this call.
It was exactly a year ago today
that I first learned about mountaintop removal coal mining and felt the
undeniable call to move out to Appalachia. Many of you
remember the journey, as I have been writing about it all these months now.…I
was in Boulder, Colorado,
wondering how to give my heart and work to the world when I had the idea to
explore military chaplaincy. I had lived without sufficient income for years
and felt eager to utilize my chaplain skills more fully so the idea occurred to
me to enlist in the armed services as a chaplain so as to offer interfaith
pastoral support to the young and old troops confronting unbelievable horrors
through war, and in the meantime finally make above poverty wage. I doubt I
ever would have made it to a recruiting office, but I didn’t have to because as
I was investigating military chaplain positions online, an e-mail arrived from
my dear friend in Olympia, Rachel Goeke with a link to Mountain Justicelink. and a link to a
video about mountaintop removal. Well – that video was the turning point for
me. If you have not watched it yet, please do – here is the
The video takes place in the town
of Ansted and highlights the
struggle to save GauleyMountain
and the horrors of mountaintop removal coal mining. Those five minutes changed
my life because I knew that now that I knew
about it, I had to do something. The video ends with my friend Cary Huffman, a
retired coal miner looking into the camera and saying, “If you want to help us,
we’d sure love to have you, come to Ansted, West
Virginia.” And so….I did.
I wrote to many of you and raised
donations to move, (thank-you!), packed up and moved out of my home, and by
July 4thKayfordMountain with two Episcopal priests
and their families where we met Larry and Carol Gibson in their home and bore
witness to the unbelievable scale of mountaintop removal. That night, like so
many after it, has helped stretch and open my heart and mind ever more to the
heartbreak wrought by the coal industry throughout the “coalfields” of
Appalachia. was on the road. Two weeks later I found myself sitting in
the Parish Hall at the Episcopal Church with the Ansted Historical Preservation
Council – meeting all of the people in the film. That was the same night I met
Sage, my future fiancé, and had already been up to
I never imagined the
scope of environmental devastation that I have witnessed and experienced since
moving to West Virginia. It isn’t
just that entire mountains are flattened (which they are), it is that the
valleys in between have been filled in. Headwater streams have been covered
over and obliterated. What used to be a diverse and living forested mountain
with freshwater streams and waterfalls and a whole host of birds, animals and fish
has become a flattened unstable “prairie” which barely supports life.
In the meantime, the process of
blasting mountains apart and filling in valleys results in a whole mess of
effects – heavy metals such as mercury, selenium, manganese and lead are released into the
air and water. The coal that is mined has to be washed out with a toxic slurry
before it can be processed, which results in the huge toxic lakes called slurry
impoundments, held for eternity with the hope that the dam never breaks, or
injected into abandoned underground mines which then seeps into wells and the
water table. My friends who live downstream of these impoundments have children
who literally sleep with their shoes on in fear of having to run in the middle
of the night in case a dam breaks.
My partner Sage and I think twice
about showering and never take a bath since soaking in the water can cause cancer.
Some of the homes I go to have faucets that run red, or black, or yellow. While
in the ground, coal acted like a giant natural charcoal filter. Many of my
friends here have the cultural memory of their homeplace spanning generations
back, and talk about how sweet and pure the water was. Now, we all struggle to
find drinkable water.
As you know, the coal industry
readily employs heavy-handed tactics to ensure its dominance, which most
infamously includes pitting neighbor against neighbor by keeping a strangle
hold on the economy so that the only well paying jobs around are in the coal
industry. That said, the mechanization and large draglines and whatnot used in
mountaintop removal surface mining have resulted in catastrophic unemployment
and underemployment rates since one machine can do the work of hundreds of
people. The scale and scope of the mining has increased while employment has
shrunk to a minority of the jobs available.
Standing up against the
coal industry in the coal regions takes admirable strength. Awkwardly,
organizing for clean drinking water and healthy living conditions is a direct
threat to the coal industry out here. Like it or not, something as common and
humane as staking a claim on behalf of the land your family has lived on for
generations can be a line in the sand.
I have met some of the bravest
people I’ve ever known this past year. To say the least, it is an honor to be
here. At the same time, it has been hard. I’ve spent this year learning the
issues from the inside out – attending meetings when invited, speaking at
hearings even when I have to go through a mob to get inside, and experiencing
in small part the struggle surrounding the people born and raised in Appalachia.
Any time a blast goes off on the mountain near my cabin, the floor shakes and
the walls rattle. It fills me with horror and sadness. I am overwhelmed at the
depth of toxicity surrounding us and the learned hopelessness throughout the
region which says “this is just how it is….” Meanwhile, the call in me has
grown and matured. I am getting married soon and with it comes undeniable
changes. We plan to move and settle and while Sage continues his seminary
studies to be a pastor I am going to focus wholeheartedly on developing what we
like to call the Eco-Chaplaincy
As this call matures, so do I.
The time is right for the
Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative. My cousin who is training to be a lawyer is helping
me establish non-profit status, and I am developing a work plan and business
plan, a mission, vision, and board, etc. Meanwhile, I am itching to organize
community activist listening circles, and organization or movement wide
workshops of the Work that Reconnects. I want to design, organize and
facilitate soul-care / renewal retreats for the brave community activists
living in the midst of this intensity, and Sage and I have begun to write up
proposals to do so. I yearn to sit one on one with these hardworking organizers
so they have an ear to be heard and a place to pour out their feelings. I savor
the idea of working with organizations as their group eco-chaplain, being
around to listen, help facilitate and encourage the development of individual
self-care strategies and group-care or movement-care methods. This summer is
bound to be fast since the middle is filled up with wedding plans already, so I
am giving myself the next five months to develop my plans and outreach
materials and plan to continue to participate in all the ways I have been
throughout these months of course.
If you can believe it, I have been
able to survive from the generosity of all of you this entire year! Aided by a
simple lifestyle and low cost of living, I have made it through three seasons
and would love to be able to make it though several more as I write grants and
implement more financially solvent plans. I know that my presence has helped
those around me, and hence – your support has had tangible effects. Thank you.
I am asking again for donations to
support thus work through me, this time specifically for me to focus in on
developing eco-chaplaincy so I can implement it even more fully. You can donate
online with a credit card through paypal here,
or through my website, http://www.ecochaplaincy.net/donate.html.
You can also now sign up for recurring monthly donations through the paypal site which would
help me know I can pay rent each month. My mailing address is PO
Box 765, Ansted, WV25812.
I will keep you all updated as the
process unfolds and am open to any advice or
resources you may have to help aid this endeavor.
In closing, let me invite you out
to West Virginia before I forget.
There are two events this summer not to miss. The first is the Keepers of the
Mountains Gathering on KayfordMountain
hosted by Larry and Carol Gibson over the 4th of July weekend. For
information and directions please go to www.mountainkeeper.org.
Secondly is our Wedding Hoe-Down Celebration at BabcockState Park on Wednesday, August 4th,
at during the start of Clifftop
– the Appalachian String Band Festival. I hope to see you there!