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Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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Dearest friends,

            My heart is full unto bursting and I want to share it with you. I just had the incredible honor to be a part of an inspirational and demanding fifty mile march through West Virginia. We walked and worked our way through an onslaught of obstacles, and let me tell you, there were many times that we could have turned back, or stopped because the coal industry came at us with the might and brute it is famous for. But we did not. We kept walking. We could have fallen apart into the demoralizing tangle of stress and interpersonal communication tensions brought about by sleep-deprivation and difficult conditions, but we did not. We kept walking. Every single resting place was taken away by us due to politicking and coal company intimidation on our march. Every single place the organizing body had secured for us to sleep for the week fell through. So did we quit? Did we give up in exhaustion or internal collapse? No. We kept marching. I just marched in 90-100 degree weather with 200-300 brave and tolerant people through unbelievable conditions. We walked past organized groups of people yelling at us to go home, and get a job, and unfortunate slurs that do not need to be repeated, yet did we give up? No. We did more than just keep marching, we marched with our hearts open and heads held high and stayed committed to our agreements of nonviolence. We marched with our hearts open and honestly, received far more support than opposition from the communities we walked through. We often walked in a solemn and proud single file down narrow and windy roads while people walked from the hollows out to watch us go by, to take our photos or offer water, to sit on a four-wheeler with a sign that said simply “thank-you,” and to join us.  We walked and we worked and we let our sweat consecrate our shared intention of ending mountaintop removal coal mining, creating a diverse and sustainable local economy in the region, and honoring the history of those who have always expressed our shared need for dignity, honor, respect and justice by protecting Blair Mountain. That was why we walked. And that is why we did not give up and are not going to give up.

            On Sunday, we offered over ten hours of trainings to prepare together for this march. The practice of nonviolence requires a great deal of patience, tenacity, endurance, integrity and respect, and we dedicated the entire orientation day to trainings that would help us stay safe and connected to the big picture of what we were about to do. I helped begin the morning by leading a worship service with Robin Blakeman, who works for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) and Denise Giardina, author of Storming Heaven and the Unquiet Earth (must reads if you have not already). I think I was already living into the fullness of time when our service began because there was not a moment I was not aware of how beautiful it was to return to history with women leading a worship service from a variety of traditions and a general sense of inclusiveness. Some things were the same as in 1921 – we encountered incredible obstacles and we marched the same march, and some things have changed a lot. We dedicated our whole orientation to the skills and tactics of nonviolence, and were lead by women and men and those in between, and our body included people from all walks of life – local to places both near and far, young and old, union organizers and environmentalists, tree-huggers and mountaineers, together for a common cause.

And this is what we lifted up that Sunday morning, and continued to throughout the week. In our de-escalation training we emphasized that we were not marching to educate anyone about this issue, because it is understood that the many local people who saw us understand the conditions of the situation intimately, and do not need anyone assuming to know better or otherwise. Nor were we interested in engaging in the nuances of a debate sponsored by coal-propaganda and industry supported interest groups. We knew why we were marching, and we shared skills to help us do that in the safest and most skillful ways possible since the ramifications of our march will be felt for at least ninety more years, as the march to Blair Mountain in 1921 was and is.

            Sunday night, after all the hours of trainings and talks, after a beautiful concert by Music Loves Mountains with Tim O’Brien and more, and trainings for all the teams of peacekeepers and medics, march marshalls and water crew and kitchen crew and whatnot, just when we were about to go to bed, we found out that two more of our camping places along the route had fallen through and we had nowhere to sleep. As an organizing body, it seemed unfair to wake everyone up in the morning and begin marching without full disclosure of the unfolding situation. Organizers had been working on this for months, and there was tangible distress and disappointment because it seemed like we couldn’t even begin the march. So we gathered everyone, and gave the hard news - that we could leave in the morning yet halfway there we no longer had anywhere to sleep. (Little did we know then that we didn’t even have a place for the first night!)  I helped us get into pairs to process the information and process our feelings and what we each wanted to do going forward. There were some decisions to be made but it was important for everyone to know that no matter what each individual wanted to do, they were already part of this big and beautiful movement. And it was okay to not go forward. It wasn’t intended to be a rallying moment, and yet it was. The pairs got into groups of eight to share and before I knew it, the groups were giving hugs and singing and when we got all together again the energy in the room was high. Coal was not going to stop us. We were marching to Blair Mountain. We came together to show strength of solidarity for a sustainable economy in Appalachia and to end mountaintop removal coal mining and save Blair Mountain, and by God, we were going forward.

            We were about to sleep with the taste of unifying solidarity on our lips and dreams of marching to Blair Mountain in the morning, when we learned of some very serious threats of violence headed our way. Imagine that day! We had already had a huge day, and were ready for much needed sleep, yet when we learned that a mob was headed our way, what were we to do? Let everyone sleep until the windows were smashed? So the night was long, and we became strong and stronger as a community because we were met with intense challenges from the beginning. When it came to pass that the mob was not headed our way after all, there were some sore feelings about all the unnecessary stress, and yet….what if. We were unified and prepared, and we did in fact meet every single obstacle with nonviolence. By the morning, I was ready for half of the people to leave. But did they? No. We woke at 6:30 and by 8 or 9 gathered in Marmet for a rally to begin our march.

            Monday we walked through Marmet all together, and then through Lens Creek in single file, staying at all times to the left of the white line so as not to break the law. The state police followed us the whole way and did their job. What I mean by that is that the police in many ways kept us safe, although at times the demands were frustrating. There was a big police presence throughout the march, which most likely prevented direct acts of violence. We walked 200-3000 strong single file down small coal roads, and no one was hit by a car or shot. We walked to the left of the white line at all times to abide by the law, because our action was to Save Blair Mountain and End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining and inspire a sustainable economic transition for the region, not to pick a fight about the letter of the law or even to irritate counter-protesters.

After walking all day and figuring out a way to shuttle over Lens Creek Mountain, we made it into the town of Racine where our incredible base camp team had delivered all of our camping gear and the kitchen crew and water crew were ready. We walked past a rowdy and painfully loud group of people rallying on behalf of the coal-industry, and once we made it to our campsite, the protesters came to the edge of the camp with big signs that said ‘honk if you love coal’ and things that do not need to be repeated and proceeded to escalate the situation by getting louder and louder. Our marchers set up our tents, soaked feet in the creek, played Frisbee and sang songs. We had a whole program of evening entertainment after a delicious dinner, and then, just when it seemed to be time to go to bed, the Boone County Commissioners, who had originally given us permission to camp in the park, came and said we had to leave and if we didn’t we would be trespassing. Politicking is never all that attractive, and this time it seemed ugly. Yet we gathered as a group, decided that this was not our fight, and figured out how to logistically move all 200 of us to another place to sleep. The last marchers came back to Marmet by 3:00 am.

            We all woke up a bit later on Tuesday and began the work of shuttling all 200 of us back to Boone County to continue the march. Just after the first group of shuttles left, we learned that our campsite for that night was no longer an option. There were 100 people en route to a march and 100 still waiting by the time we decided that we would continue to sleep in Marmet each night and shuttle to the march every morning. The hundred of us still in Marmet gathered in a circle, and again we processed as we had on Sunday about how we felt, what we wanted to do and what we needed to do to take care of ourselves. We shared in pairs and then in eights and by the time we were ready to meet as a large group, I had to step out a facilitation role and hop in the first car available to tell the other half of the march body the news, since there is no cell phone service along the route that day. The marchers told me that just before the resting place where we met up, they had passed an elementary school where all the kids came outside with the teachers and watched. Imagine that. Imagine being 6 or 8 or 10 and seeing 100-150 people march in a dignified strength, single file, with signs commemorating mountains that have fallen and signs declaring our shared intentions.

            In the weeks and months before this march, organizers had actually gone door to door to nearly every home and business along the route to tell them about the march, invite anyone and everyone to join that was willing to abide by the protocols of nonviolence and to learn about the neighborhoods we were walking through. When the kids came out of that school to greet the march, it was not out of surprise, but to see history in motion.

            It just so happened, that as the marchers learned that we could not camp Tuesday night, a large hail storm threatened to roll in, so we decided not to continue on any further for the day due to safety concerns, and began the long process of shuttling back to Marmet. It was a hard moment. It was our night to decide if we had it inside us to continue or not. I know I went to sleep wondering if our group morale would rise with sun for another day or be done. Walking down the road towards the county seat of Boone set my heart at ease.  Wednesday we decided we would always march altogether, not separate like the day before, and once our moving port-a-johns arrived and we were together strong, we walked past Danville, and into the heart of Madison, West Virginia. We had been hearing that there would be a show down in Madison, that there were all sorts of coal trucks parked and blocking the road, and protesters assembled, but do you want to know what really happened? We walked all 200-300 proud through Madison and the streets were filled with people watching us and photographing us, some cheering us, and we had a delicious lunch by the river in the town and at the end the Mayor himself helped Randal Pfleger, bottom-liner of our beautiful water crew, fill up our large water tanks with town water.

            My experience of walking through the county all day and shuttling back at night was one of profound integration. I really worked as an eco-chaplain this week. When I wasn’t marching, and even sometimes while I was, I was helping mediate tensions as they erupted, helping people vent when necessary or problem solve inter-personal crisis in the midst of a big picture playing out, as well as facilitating group meetings and whole group processes, so needless to say, I was personally very busy. And yet through it all, I was able to really connect to the narrative of what we were doing and why we were doing it in part because of going across the same route each day, and becoming attuned to the place.

            On Thursday we marched from Boone County into Logan County. I will never ever forget walking past the man I mentioned before who drove his four wheeler to the end of his road and places a vase of flowers on his vehicle next to a sign that read “Thank-You.” When we entered the county line, there were a number of people assemble and jeering at us, and I drank water from a local resident who had ice water waiting for us and walked past signs that said, “Welcome Blair Mountain Marchers,” in red, white and blue. We walked through some very tense places that day and my heart was swollen in pride at how peacefully and proud our marchers continued. We did not shout or sing loudly or drum through towns as we often do in demonstrations, because the power of our numbers and the act of marching through was enough. We did not engage in the counter-protests, but when whole families came to the road to wave to us, you better believe it lifted our spirits and we all waved back. I hope those four and six and eight year olds will never forget us.

By Thursday, I was deep in the story of what we were accomplishing, and after I had gathered everyone in a large circle, it was shared that we had just had lunch in the same field where the miners ate in 1921. I will never forget the chills through my spine, the living shadows of spirits around me as I helped the group process and share what this moment was like together. The beauty of de-centralized organizing really shows in the eloquence that comes from openly processing by lifting up the voices of one another rather than telling anyone what the experience should be. Our group was easily 250 strong by then, but I could feel the strength of the 12,000 who marched and ate right there ninety years before. By Thursday night our numbers began to swell and an incredible thing happened where people began to gather in Logan as well at a different site to have another set of trainings so as to join the march at a large rally on Saturday. I think Thursday night was the first time I honestly thought we were going to make it. What a feeling.

Friday we all woke up early as usual and shuttled back to where we had left off. Some of the local people from Logan County who had seen us the day before joined us. We walked past a large coal mining operation and the locals who had just joined that I was walking with showed me where the Spruce Number 1 mountaintop removal mine was permitted at the end of the hollow. They told me how that was once the prettiest place around and how glad they were that the EPA had vetoed that permit. I told them about how many of you had written letters and helped encourage the EPA to do its job, and we all enjoyed one another as we continued to march. We walked on into Blair and ate lunch at a church right before our camping site. At the end of lunch, we gathered together again for the last time before we made it. All week I would do a call and response, “Where are we going?”, “Blair Mountain!”, “Where?”, “Blair Mountain!”….etc. and all of a sudden we were about to make it. So we gathered. And we breathed together and saw one another and then really saw one another.

Chuck Keaney, the great-grandson of Frank Keaney who was the president of the local United Mine Workers of America that lead the march in 1921 told us about the history of the march and what it meant to be where we were, and then Jimmy Weekly, a leader and grand-father of the movement who has helped hold off the devastation of Blair mountain and the Spruce No. 1 mine and so much more told us how proud he was of  us all, to which more people than just me cried, and we filled ourselves with the knowledge that our sweat was worth it, our enduring efforts worth it. We walked the last half mile as one mind through the final gauntlet which was a public access road to our camping site which was also the driveway to a strip-miners home who most likely would have lost his job if he had not put up a fight.

Our final moments of a march body were beautiful because we all understood by then the pressures each person had from their employer and we walked proudly through the long driveway careful not to touch the grass into a field of cheering and celebrating.

We slept at the base of Blair Mountain, and for the only time on the march, we slept outside. After hours of chaplaining and meetings and facilitating our closing circle, I went to sleep listening to a Mom reading “When Miner’s March,” a narrative of the march in 1921, tor her son in the tent right next to me.

Saturday, we rose again early and took down our tents, because we were expecting our numbers to grow. While we had been marching, many more were preparing to come to a big rally on Saturday with headliner speakers such as Bobby Kennedy Jr., Ken Hechler and Kathy Mattea. By ten in the morning, our numbers rose to nearly twelve hundred people! We heard music and stories and celebrated the beauty of the march altogether. I tied red blessing cords of connection around many a wrist to help us remember the moment, remember how wer are all connected on all sides of this issue since what we want is a future, is clean water and air and a way to live, and to never forget how strong this moment feels. Tears flowed, hugs were shared. And strength was evident for the long haul.

All of the speeches were engaging and yet our work was not done. Those that were ready and able to walk or by driven in shuttles up the mountain then assembled, and we all continued in a large and powerful mass of people committed to nonviolence in order to End Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining, Create a Sustainable Economy in Appalachia and Save Blair Mountain, walked a little over two miles up the sleep road. We walked again in single file, so we stretched out a good portion of those two miles. Near the top, a group of 150 or so people went out to see the mine site that is encroaching on the battlefield. When describing it as a group in our last closing circle, I heard that it was so beautiful finally walking in the woods after being on the road so much, and that it was a relief to be in an ecosystem again where there was no poison ivy from the disturbance of roads and development, and in short, it was beautiful. However, the tears began to flow on the inside and out when the strip mining became visible – it was ugly, and rough and made people feel angry, sad, overwhelmed and furious. Unfortunately, the police arrived right around that time, so there wasn’t a lot more time to process feelings before having to evacuate due to it being ‘coal-company property.’ It should be a national historic site and a National Park, so everyone can enjoy that beautiful ecosystem and learn the powerful history of the battle for the union in 1921 and against mountaintop removal coal mining in 2011, not ‘coal-company property.’

This point was lifted as well as many others at the top of the mountain where the rest of our march body gathered for a final rally. I was the emcee of our nearly spontaneous rally, which meant that I had the incredible experience of gathering everyone together at the top and looking out over the crowd of all of us – all of the union organizers and college students, local residents, environmentalists, artists, singers, community builders, etc. I will never forget what I saw, our strength as a movement, our deep commitment coupled with intensity, the longing for a more just future and determination to help shape it. We pulled off an audacious march, and the joy was evident. Our signs waved high and we sang in one voice. Saro Lynch-Thomason lead us all in “Which Side Are you On” while we erected a monument to the fallen miners on Blair Mountain from their march in 1921, and many leaders including Junior Walk, Maria Gunnoe, Jimmie Weekly and the dear Brandon Nida, organizer/archeaologist and local man.  We celebrated history in the making by our very presence. I felt again the great fullness of time, and I was so glad to be a part of it.

We all walked down Blair Mountain too, and went through the chaos of shuttling home and exhaustion that is only natural after walking that far in that kind of heat. When all the shuttles had left for the campsite in Logan and we were waiting for shuttles back to Marmet, I opened our final circle. We looked around at one another and shared what words we could find to express the enormity of what we all did together. There were expressions of awe and gratitude and outright celebration. We shared what happened in both places on top of the mountain since there were two simultaneous actions. It was all music in an exquisite orchestra piece of movement building and history in action. I asked the group if anyone cried during the week, and I am not sure there were any hands still in laps.

Then I asked the most important question, “Would you do it again? Knowing all that you now know, would you do this again?” And you know what? Every single had was raised. The heat, the stress, the waiting and rushing, going, and stopping, singing and shushing, all of it, we would all do it again. So we breathed it in and let it permeate us, because this is what a movement feels like, and if we can do this, we can do anything. So we each individually committed to something we would do in the next week, and shared some of them, and then in the next year. Things that were ‘smart’ – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely J. We shared some of our commitments out loud and closed with our hearts wide open and connections together so tangible I could taste its sweetness. We closed just in time for the first round of shuttles back to Charleston and Marmet.

All of the people who drove their vehicles and provided shuttles were incredible! I took one of the first shuttles back to Charleston and left for home yesterday morning, and I know that there are people still in Marmet cleaning and sorting and working away. The organizing body was phenomenal, and also stretched to about as thin as I’ve ever seen it without breaking. Whether it will ever come back together again or not, well, some sleep and some serious de-briefing and healing has to occur before we will see. Even if it never comes together again, we made it through the week and into history through enormous odds. And you know what? Everyone cares so deeply about a future and this issue, that I bet we will continue. Appalachia is still Rising.

This week was affirming to say the least that there is a role for eco-chaplaincy in this type of organizing. I left for Marmet on the two-year anniversary of the day I learned about mountaintop removal coal mining and felt the call to Appalachia. I could not have ever moved to Ansted or done any of this work without the support I have received from each of you – financial support, emotional support, encouragement, etc. As y’all know, I am at a  crossroads in my own life, and this week has taught me many things, one of which is that the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative is a thoroughly good idea that deserves to grow and flourish. I welcome all forms of support for this, especially financial support or organizing support for places for me to work, facilitate or speak. Online donations can be made at www.ecochaplaincy.net/donate or in the mail through Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative, PO Box 890, Swannanoa, NC 28778. Any donations over $150 receive a home-made piece of pottery by yours truly and to see what I mean, check out www.etsy.com/people/sarahsunshinestudio.

Going forward, there is a lot of work to be done to stop mountaintop removal, save Blair Mountain from being destroyed forever, and transitioning to a more just economy for a more sustainable Appalachia, and you know what?  I think we all are doing it the best we can, and will continue to. Working as an eco-chaplain to help organizers and organizations with mediation and facilitation and to recover from and prevent burn-out, transform conflicts into opportunities, and implement self-care and group-care strategies for the long-haul is one of the most inspiring ways I have ever spent my time. Thank you so much to each of you for helping me do that.


Love and Solidarity,