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Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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Jan. 14, 2011


Dearest friends,

I think that we have begun a watershed year – one of those years where so much happens that we never forget this year, for better and worse. Does this resonate with you at all? I know that for all of us committed to ending mountaintop removal, this year has already been full of intensity, and it has just begun.

A little over a week or so one of the most powerful leaders in the movement, Judy Bonds, died from a coal-related cancer at the age of 58. As you can imagine, the grief, anger and sorrow are palpable. Judy Bonds grew up in the Coal River Valley in West Virginia where her family had lived since settling nine generations back, and was forced off her ancestral land in Marfork Hollow after Massey Coal company began filling in the hollow as a valley fill. She helped begin and lead the Coal River Mountain Watch which group makes the world’s coolest tee-shirts that say, “End Mountaintop Removal – Save the Endangered Hillbilly.” Among the many things Judy did in this world, one was to help mountain people restore pride in mountain culture, to reclaim “hillbilly” as a complement, and through that source of pride in place and culture, an awareness throughout West Virginia, Appalachia and the country grew about the importance of ending the great tragedy that is mountaintop removal and valley fills.

Sage has shared many stories with me of the days when they were forming Mountain Justice, and how excited, proud and enthused Judy Bonds was. When there were tensions about inviting ‘outsiders’ (mainly from other parts of Appalachia) into the Coal River Valley, it was Judy who always would bridge the divide, use her fierce and loving voice to help people unite in  common causes, to de-escalate the polarities and focus on the mutual love of place and culture. When I met Judy, seemed like a living embodiment of Mother Jones – short in height and looming in stature.  Last weekend at the annual meeting for Mountain Justice I was able to help convene a wake in honor of Judy, which lasted until near midnight with stories and songs, tears and laughter and so many memories. Tomorrow is her public memorial in Beckley, WV. If you have a story about Judy that you want to share, or want to know more, please go to www.jodybondsmemorial.com

Meanwhile, through the tears and grieving, there was in incredible victory in the long haul towards ending mountaintop removal, and it too deserves honoring. Yesterday, the EPA vetoed the largest proposed valley fill and mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history! The Spruce Number 1 Mine proposal which many of you have received letters on was finally vetoed! Yes! In facebook world, many of you wrote “Thank-you Judy for getting this work done from Heaven.”

As far as I understand it, the EPA vetoed this permit after conducting the FIRST EVER full environmental impact statement in regard to valley fills and mountaintop removal. (Yes Dad – I can imagine your eyebrows raised, I really did say that this was the first time a full Environmental Impact Statement was done.) And yes, the result from the science showed that the impact would negatively impact southern West Virginia, fill in more watersheds and destroy a way of life. And yes, the EPA received over 50,000 comments on this single mine site proposal and will probably get huge political blowback for doing their job, so please thank them or acknowledge them if you feel so inclined.

At the same time, the mountain where the miners marched in the epic battle to form the United Mine Workers back in 1921, Blair Mountain, is on the chopping block from the coal companies. Can you believe it? So in the midst of grieving and memorializing Judy’s life this weekend, and celebrating the reprieve with Spruce No. 1, many of us will be going to Logan County, WV for a community meeting about efforts to bring together the local residents, national and international labor community and environmentalists to save Blair Mountain.

 I will write more about Blair Mountain next week, I am really just mentioning it now to explain what I mean by this being a watershed year. Sometimes this movement feels so strong, like when we marched together in Washington DC and Appalachia was Rising, and other times it feels like everyone needs a personal eco-chaplain just to receive enough empathy to get through the week! Mostly, both are always true. The Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative easily has its work cut out for it, so I thank all of you for your support.

 If any of you are interested in receiving personal pastoral support from me or know someone who may, please call. If your organization is interested in facilitated work with burn-out recovery/prevention, self-care support, mediation/conflict transformation or to do the Work that Reconnects, please write me at sarah@ecochaplaincy.net or call my cell: 304-640-7960 or home phone: 828-296-7514. This is one of those big times where the more support, the stronger we all are.

I have also heard that Sage is featured prominently in the March issue of Backpacker Magazine with his work with Christians for the Mountains, although we have been so busy traveling to Virginia and now West Virginia that we haven’t seen it yet. If you think the article was worth my mentioning, let me know!

I send love to all of you. Judy’s passing is a big reminder that no matter how effective our organizing is, or how hard we fight, we still each die – it is the only thing we actually know for certain. Many of my friends are responding to her death saying it is time to “Fight Harder,” and while it is certainly time to end the atrocity of mountaintop removal, valley-fills, and coal-related pollution, it is also be time to reflect on what brings us the most joy in life, on those we love,  with the land we love, and spend some time seeped in gratitude for this moment, for the opportunity to know one another and work together, for those who have come and gone, and for those who are to come.

I love you all.


Sarah Vekasi-Phillips, M.Div.