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Letters by Sarah Vekasi
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September 6, 2011


Dear friends,

            What a weekend! I returned last night through Lee’s torrential rains from West Virginia where I was lucky enough to spend the weekend with many friends up on Kayford Mountain for a gospel weekend hosted by Carol and Larry Gibson and the Keepers of the Mountains, and then over in Logan County where we inaugurated the Blair Community Center and Museum in the old church that was donated by the late Winnie Fox when we all marched to Blair Mountain in June.

            Let me tell you why this weekend mattered. It was particularly poignant because our gospel sing on Kayford Mountain happened during the same time that the two most popular football teams in West Virginia played off in the ‘Coal Bowl,’ which of course is sponsored by the industry front group the Friends of Coal, and this year took an insidious tone by moving the game to take place on the day of Christian Sabbath and featured a large lump of coal purportedly taken from the Upper Big Branch Mine in the Coal River Valley where 29 miners lost their lives in a horrific fire two years ago. The football players were asked to run on the field and touch the coal before the game. Meanwhile, the former traveling chaplain of the WVU Football team, Father Dan Pisano wrote a sermon for the gospel weekend at Kayford instead. It is riveting and worthy of sharing in its entirety, so if you want a copy, let me know. He ended by saying:

“’The “Friends of Coal Bowl’ is now playing out in Morgantown.  Do the students know that the friends are really not our friends, but merely frauds?  Do the students know that there is even a “Friends of Coal Women’s Auxiliary” who are responsible for education?  Do they ever show the films that inform about the destructiveness of strip mining?  Let us pray that they be fair and show both sides of the story.  It is our right to demand and expect that of them. 

     I pray that one day the mountains will once again sing. I don’t care how surface mined mountains are “reclaimed.”  Nothing that is gone can ever be reclaimed.  Only God can do that.  And so I pray for you who stand here today and practice your right and responsibility to protest.  May someone out there in the West Virginia or Federal Government hear your voices and my prayer that one day, one day…………God’s creation will not be taken from us!  God bless all of West Virginia.  God bless you. Be at Peace with Your Consciences!”

            Yes. May we all live our lives in sync with our values and moral compass so as to be at peace with our conscious. Yes, may we all gather around food and song and spirit and build up communities together!

            After feasting on the fried chicken from Carol Gibson and the homemade barbeque beef Wendy Johnston and her family brought made from their locally raised cows, and after selling a basket full of pottery, we headed down the mountain into the Coal River Valley and out toward Logan County to get to Blair. We drove part of the same route we all marched in June and let me tell you, me heart sang in connection to the land and people, I felt at home in such an intimate way.

The work to protect the battlefield site and the integrity of Blair Mountain is ongoing and aided in great part by the newly formed Blair Community Center and Museum just a bit down the road from Blair Mountain. Dustin Steele and Eliot Grace and many others have worked tirelessly since our march to create a peoples museum of the history of Blair Mountain and the Mine Wars and develop a community gathering space in that former church. The inauguration was historical and to say the very least, inspirational. Close to 150 people came throughout the course of the evening, most of whom live in the surrounding community! We had talks from Dr. Harvard Ayers and Jesse Johnson and music from Saro Lynch Thomason and Carrie and Michael Kline, and tours of the newly opened museum. There were many hugs of recognition from fellow marchers, and words shared of gratitude from locals for all of us who marched. It was a night to remember!

During the singing and the speeches and the delicious hotdog and hamburger barbeque celebration going on, I noticed several younger people sitting in pain. One was a young girl, who I had met earlier in the evening. When we first talked she was buoyant and full of life in a normal 11 year old sort of way, and this time when I saw her she was doubled over in tears and pain. I sat down with her and asked her what was wrong and if I could help her out. She looked at me so sad and said that it was her gallbladder, that she had been in the hospital all last week and that it was acting up again. I asked the most natural question you ask in the coalfields which is, ‘do you still have your gallbladder?’ and she actually did, but who knows how long she will. She showed me where it hurt and I sat with her. She took it easy for a while and I saw her cartwheeling a bit later, so the pain evidently had subsided. Later in the evening, a young woman sitting next to me began rocking in pain, and again, when I asked if I could help, she told me that no – her gallbladder was just ‘acting up again.’ She was maybe 20 years old. It was a big reminder even that sweet evening that the cost of coal mining to the mountain communities of central Appalachia is brutal, unfair and disproportionate. The beauty of the new Community Center and Museum is one big step in the long process of healing for the region.

            I drove up to Kayford with the dear Saro Lynch-Thomason who is doing a great project called Blair Pathways (http://www.blairpathways.com/)  by creating lesson plans about the whole story of labor struggles and the Battle of Blair Mountain and producing a cd of songs that tell the story. Hence, we sang all the way up to the mountain, and shared what we knew of the history all the way home again.  We had the honor of staying with Wilma and Terry Steele In Meador in Mingo County, just south of Matewan on Sunday night, so we celebrated labor day by going to the site of the famous shootout in 1920 that sparked the miners march a year later which resulted in the big battle on Blair Mountain. If you don’t know what I am talking about, watch the brilliant and oh so true film called “Matewan” and let me know what you think!

            I love hearing from yall and appreciate it anytime and every time that you feel moved enough to help support me in working as an eco-chaplain currently here in the movement to end mountaintop removal coal mining. This work takes many forms, in the field, and also at home where I have begun writing and pulling together what I have learned and what I mean by eco-chaplaincy. I am scheduling about a half of my working time for providing eco-chaplaincy to people and organizations and half for writing and working on curriculum and what not. I would love to work with you individu­­ally or as an organization or group as an eco-chaplain, and am trying to fill in a fall and winter schedule at the moment. Please contact me if you are interested and want to talk about it through e mail (sarahsunshine@riseup.net) or phone (304-640-7960).

            If you are able to donate, please know that I am deeply grateful! Send any tax-deductible donations in the mail to the Eco-Chaplaincy Initiative, PO Box 890, Swannanoa, NC 28778 or donate online through paypal at the donate page at www.ecochaplaincy.net . All donations over $150 receive homemade pottery from me as well.


Love and solidarity,