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What is Eco-Chaplaincy?
Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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Dearest friends,
      It is so nice to write to you again! Some of you are probably wondering what happened to my letters? What happened to the ideas of eco-chaplaincy? The Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative? The updates and action alerts regarding the movement to end mountaintop removal coal mining? A few more of you are just now receiving your first letter even though you asked me to send you one two months or two weeks ago! Well, here it is, after a summer of soaking up love and commitment, and focusing on creating a foundation for a family, I am writing again!
    I am writing first to tell you that during my absentia from writing I married a wonderful partner named Robert Sage on July 17th. To all of you who celebrated with us in person or spirit, thank you! Even the President of the United States,  Barack Obama and the first family witnessed our wedding! I kid you not - they were vacationing on Mt. Desert Island, in Maine, at the exact same time, and they actually drove by and waved right when Sage put the ring on my finger after our vows! Ha! We have stories to share forever now…
        We’ve spent a great deal of the summer traveling between West Virginia (where we lived and celebrated) and Maine (where we married), and then topped it off by moving further south to Swannanoa, North Carolina, just outside of Asheville. After a lot of discussions (some painful, some hilarious), we landed on Swannanoa as a place to build our first home together, which meant moving from Ansted, and our great community there. I am still grieving, as West Virginia is an important part of my heart, and I am committed to working there. However, we decided to move because of what Swannanoa offers: a diverse and thriving community near enough to the coalfields to make it possible to continue working throughout the region, while living in a place where Sage and I are able to grow together spiritually as an inter-faith couple, and hopefully find more sustainable economic support.
         Living in Ansted and in West Virginia for a year was an incredible experience, and I hope I get many opportunities to continue working there. Meanwhile, I love Swannanoa! I am getting to do something that was really hard in the midst of the coal region, which is to deeply fall in love with Appalachia! We live on a small farm next to the National Forest, on the crest of the Blue Ridge and the Smoky Mountains. What a treat! These mountains are ancient and the result is a phenomenally biodiverse eco-system. I knew this of course, and could sense it in West Virginia, but what a difference no coal makes! You would (or ideally should) think that having coal would make communities richer, and this isolated mountainous area of North Carolina would be in rough economic shape, but of course, greed has worked its horrid hand in the coal-fields and the areas that are supplying the world with coal have higher poverty rates and less healthy communities than nearly anywhere else. Ugh.
        So I am still committed to following the calling that brought me to Appalachia in the first place – to help bring attention to the atrocity known as mountaintop removal coal mining where entire mountains are literally being blown up and dumped into valleys for the sake of profit and cheaper energy; and offer myself to the many members of this inspirational and strong community-based movement through the profession I coined “eco-chaplaincy.”
        Soldiers at war have military chaplains who can listen to their fears and prayers, sit in silence or guide them in meditation. Patients in hospitals have chaplains who will sit at their bedside holding their hand, providing presence, or maybe reading holy texts or offering services. Veterans have chaplains who facilitate groups about post-tramatic stress disorder (ptsd) and have individual listening sessions. So now environmental social justice activists and engaged community members have their eco-chaplain who can walk beside them, listen deeply, help mediate conflict or facilitate group dialogue and help bring the work that reconnects into our movements. The movement to end mountaintop removal coal mining has their very own eco-chaplain, through the support of all of you, and I hope to really dive into this role throughout these next many years.
        Like I wrote in my last letter, (all my letters are online at www.ecochaplaincy.net/svletters), my calling has matured and with it the focus is more clear. I am happy to announce that Sage and I are really close to launching the Eco-Chaplaincy Inititive officially! By ‘officially’ I mean with fiscal sponsorship while we await our own non-profit status, which means that all donations should be tax deductible by the end of the month! I will write you as soon as this is a reality. It also means that in order to be able to fully follow through on this vision and calling, your generosity is very much appreciated. Seriously. Thank you!
        Nearly a month ago Sage and I facilitated a workshop on conflict transformation at a weekend training for organizers, put on by the Alliance for Appalachia. The response was inspiring. It seemed both useful and needed and left me determined to offer myself as a trainer and facilitator/mediator more within the general movement using the skills I learned while in seminary, including organizing and facilitating community based restorative justice circles Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. Sage and I have begun to talk about planning seasonal series’ that we can take to different organizations and communities in the region about conflict transformation, restorative communication, and peace-keeping. We are putting together interactive workshops designed for local coalfield community groups and environmental groups to help transform our culture of conflict avoidance and escalation to one of healthy conflict transformation through communication. We also are pursuing a collaborative project with the group Sage works for, Christians for the Mountains, (www.christainsforthemountains.org), which we named the “Healthy Hearts, Healthy Homes, Healthy Hills” program to organize and facilitate spiritual renewal and soul care retreats for weary activists and community members.
        Also as I write one of the largest mobilizations yet to end this devastating practice is quickly approaching. Appalachia Rising is coming up two weekends from now in Washington D.C. September 25-27th. The weekend, September 25-26 is called “Voices From the Mountains,” and is full of workshops and trainings about the issue, as well as nonviolent direct action. I will be helping out with some of the panels and around to provide pastoral support. On Monday, September 27th, there is a large public demonstration planned, calling on the EPA and the President to end mountaintop removal. If you can come, great! If you want to help from home, please consider calling the White House and your senators and representatives to ask them to end mountaintop removal coal mining that day, and/or donating to help Sage and I get there through paypal at www.ecochaplaincy.net/donate. I will send out information about how to join in solidarity that week as well. The link to Appalachia Rising is at www.appalachiarising.org.
I promise, you’ll be hearing from me a lot more often again, well, once a month or every few weeks. If you are glad to hear from me, thanks! If you want to forward this or any other letter, please do an
d send me the address so I can include your friends in the future. If you don’t wish to receive any more of these updates, fear not, just send me quick note and I will remove you from my list. Again, all of my past letters are on my website at www.ecochaplaincy.net/svletters as well.
        I am working on writing grants and seeking collaborative funding through working with other organizations and of course will keep you all posted. Sage and I head up to Kentucky in the morning for a three-day training at Berea College at the Brushy Fork Institute about non-profit leadership and web design! We will be taking what we learn and combining it with what we know to help Christians for the Mountains and to also officially launch the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative by the end of the month!
        If you are able, will you please consider donating money toward this work so that I can continue to focus on supporting the movement to end mountaintop removal and working as an eco-chaplain? Your support means everything to me and to the people I have the honor to work with (many of whom – you – are reading this :)
I have a donation link through paypal on my website which can take credit or debit cards, and can do monthly donations starting at $25/month, as well as one-time donations. The address is www.ecochaplaincy.net/donate.      If you would rather send a check in the mail, my new address is PO Box 890, Swannanoa, NC 28778. In order to survive here I have to raise at least $2000/month now, so please donate if you can. I have applied to four jobs at local grocery stores as backup, but in my heart of hearts, I really want to focus on eco-chaplaincy as much as possible.

        For now, good night dear friends. The moon is out over the field below our cabin, and the stars are out. The local blackbear is probably over feasting on the dead trout from the trout farm our neighbor/landlords run. I leave with the Celtic blessing our guests sang during our wedding:

May the longtime sun shine upon you,
All love surround you,

And guide your way on.

Love and Solidarity,

Sarah Vekasi-Phillips (my new last name!)


Sarah M. Vekasi-Phillips, M.Div.

PO Box 890

Swannanoa, NC 28778


304-640-7960 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              304-640-7960      end_of_the_skype_highlighting (cell)