I have just returned from an inspiring, energizing and heart-braking week at Mountain Justice Camp in eastern Kentucky. Over a hundred people came from all over the US, and one woman from Australia and Canada too, for a week of trainings, workshops and community/movement building to help kick off another summer of resistance to mountaintop removal coal mining.
We have quite a summer planned, and the seventh Mountain Justice Summer Camp was a smashing success. The goal of the camp is to help provide the background about the issue, cultural awareness and self-care/movement skills to prepare people to stay for the whole summer in internships or volunteer positions, as well as to have a place for seasoned activists to come together and share lessons from the year. I lead workshops on conflict transformation and activist self-care and was on-call for mediation and conflict resolution support and group facilitation.
Every time I participate in one of these big events I am reminded of why I set out to create eco-chaplaincy, because I am filled with awe with the bright-eyes and big benevolent intentions the organizers and participants have, and I want to use the skills I have to support organizers and activists through the long haul, sustaining vision, preventing and recovering from burn-out, transforming conflicts, expressing grief and rage and hurt in healthy ways, etc. At this camp I re-remembered something else too, and this is where the heart-ache came in. Our camp was located outside of Whitesburg, KY on an old strip mine looking out across at Pine Mountain, the tallest mountain in Kentucky. Each day around four in the afternoon the ground shook and there was a huge sound, seemingly like thunder, but when we looked, it was Pine Mountain being blown up for coal. I forgot how ugly it sounds, since I have been living in the Smokies which don’t have coal. The blast would go off and a huge plume of smoke rose, and we would all stop whatever we were doing. It is hard to describe watching a mountain being blown up – the scale is so big and my emotions are so large. I feel a deadening sense of anger, overwhelming grief, and a bitterness that isn’t really directed at any person, but certainly at greed, at systems that foster greed, and the ignorance which manifests itself so grim that people can be brought to thinking we are separate from our mountains and our land. It hurts. It aches. And it continues to happen.
At the end of the week, we were invited into the town of Appalachia, Virginia by the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, www.samsva.org, to participate in a rally through town to draw attention to a pending mining permit for Ison Rock Ridge, which is literally right above the town. If the EPA passes this permit, this town will in fact be forever devastated. Seven years ago, Mountain Justice began after a rock fell down off an un-permitted surface mine just outside of Appalachia and rolled through a trailer killing three year old Jeremy Davidson in the middle of the night. The people in town were outraged and gathered together for a spontaneous march through town and invited activists from Asheville and Knoxville and other larger areas nearby to come help out. Seven years later, we all marched through town again. On the drive from eastern Kentucky over Black Mountain into Virginia, I saw one of the biggest mountaintop removal mine sights I have ever witnessed. The Kentucky side of the mountain is still standing, so you drive up, up, up a long windy road and then at the top, where the state line is, there is a horrific view of rampant devastation. As we drove down the windy road next to the site, we came into neighborhoods and town all too quickly. The mining is literally right above town, and now, the coal company wants to mine the next ridge over, Ison Rock Ridge. So we marched, and we celebrated the community organizing the local folks have been doing with the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, and we had a fish-fry where we all talked and danced and made sure we would see one another next week in West Virginia for the march on Blair Mountain…..which is what I wanted to write about.
My 500 newest friends and I are going to be marching from Marmet, WV to Logan County, and up to Blair Mountain all of next week (June 5-11). In fact, the trainings for the march occur on the two-year anniversary of the day I learned about mountaintop removal coal mining, and was called to Appalachia. The weather forecast for next week shows a lot of heat and thunderstorms, but weather is not our only concern. We are re-enacting a march that the United Mine Workers of America took in 1921 in an attempt to force the union to be recognized in the southern counties of the state. The anti-union violence was extreme and the miners’ living conditions were hard, to understate it. The miners marched the sixty miles until they reached Blair Mountain, which stood between the unionized mines and the nonunion ones, where the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency ran wild with gun-thugs and Sheriff Don Chafin had deputized armed militias. The coal companies had the fire-power and had already forced their employees to build bunkers on Blair Mountain and built hand-made bombs. The union was out-numbered and heavily out-armed, but they still marched. What resulted was the largest armed-insurrection in American history, with over a million rounds fired. The miners lost, and it wasn’t until 1933 that the union was fully recognized in West Virginia. Who knows when the living conditions would have improved if not for those painful efforts in 1921?
You can still see the bunkers and find the bullet shells and artifacts if you look on Blair Mountain. But not for long, because for some reason, the coal companies managed to get it de-listed from the register of Historical Places, and it is actively being mined for coal from the top down. There are something like twelve permits for surface mining on Blair at the moment, and a lot of the descendants of the Miner’s March, and current union folks, and all of us good people fighting mountaintop removal coal mining think that is outrageous. It is a line in the sand, and we are marching yet again to draw attention to the need for reliable jobs throughout central Appalachia that do not require blowing up ones homeland and polluting the nation’s water supply, and the need to end mountaintop removal coal mining.
So we are marching, and Appalachia is Rising, and let me tell you, in case you were already thinking it or wondering if we were all insane, yes, this is scary. And yes, we are nervous, because the resistance was so forceful last time, and this issue is so polarized in West Virginia. And at the same time, this historical mountain is about to be blown up and lost forever, and the interplay between urgency and strategy is on point. Where we have fear, we also have courage, including the courage to take the risks into account and organize safety to the best of our ability, and when we feel nervous, we remember the big picture, our intention, and the importance of working across boundaries of all kinds, and possessing inner dignity at all times. I will be working as an eco-chaplain all week, offering my ear for listening, heart for empathy, voice for peace-keeping, mind for mediation, etc. and I couldn’t continue doing this without your support, so thank you so very much, all of you.
Thank you to each of you who have donated to the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative. I am only able to participate in this movement because of your financial contributions. If you are willing or able to donate, and want to sign up to be a monthly donor, or make single contributions using a credit card, please go online to www.ecochaplaincy.net/donate. Checks or money orders can be sent to: The Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative, PO Box 890, Swannanoa, NC 28778. Any donations over $150 receive a homemade piece of pottery by yours truly, and all donations of $25 or more are included in a drawing by July 4th for a piece of pottery. If you are interested in supporting me by purchasing pottery, please see my website at www.etsy.com/people/sarahsunshinestudio
I look forward to writing to you with stories worthy of a campfire or made into ballads when I return from West Virginia and the March on Blair Mountain. In the meantime, please be well and love all those around you, because this is a big time we live in and there is always room for more kindness.
Love and Solidarity,
Sarah Vekasi, M.Div.
PO Box 890
Swannanoa, NC 28778