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June 4, 2010

 

June 4, 2010

Dearest friends,

            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 Gauley Mountain 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 4thKayford Mountain 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 Initiative.

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, WV 25812.

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 Kayford Mountain 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 Babcock State Park on Wednesday, August 4th, at 4:00pm during the start of Clifftop – the Appalachian String Band Festival. I hope to see you there!

 

Love and Solidarity,

 

Sarah Vekasi, M.Div.

PO Box 765

Ansted, WV 25812

304-640-7960

sarah@ecochaplaincy.net

www.ecochaplaincy.net