I am writing to let you know that I am moving from Boulder, CO to southern Appalachia. I am following a call to help end mountain top removal by working as an eco-chaplain in support of the many people in environmental and rural community groups organized to save their homes and watersheds. I want to let you know my plans and to ask for your support with this endeavor as I am about to participate full time in a cause run by volunteers and need help to do it.
Mountain top removal, or mountain range removal, is exactly what it says – the complete removal of the tops of coal-bearing mountains by way of dynamite! Once the forest is clear-cut and the mountain top blasted off, the coal is dug out, extracted and processed, while the debris and waste fills in the valley below, blocking streams and polluting the ground water and air with highly toxic waste. The process was legalized and set into motion about thirty years ago and the consequences are devastating and enduring. Members of countless rural communities throughout southern Appalachia are literally fighting for their lives. I have been aware of mountain top removal for some time, but it really sank in a few weeks ago when I watched a short video featuring Ansted, West Virginia and GauleyMountain. I was moved to tears. Within minutes I knew my calling: move to southern Appalachia to offer eco-chaplaincy for the people fighting the war on their mountains and communities.
I followed a similar path in 1998 when the United Steelworkers in Tacoma, WA went on strike against Kaiser Aluminum, owned by Charles Hurwitz, the CEO of Pacific Lumber in northern California. I helped organize a coalition of 35 labor and environmental groups including Earth First! to stand in solidarity with the union. The coalition created the ground for the incredible labor-environmental solidarity a year later at the protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. In 1999, I initiated a successful campaign to protect WatchMountain in Randle, WA from a federally legislated land exchange by combining direct action with rural community organizing, popular education, coalition building and legislative work. I lived 200 feet up in an old growth tree and learned to let WatchMountain speak through me. It is the experience of the Watch Mountain Campaign: working in the timber town of Randle and bridging the politically polarized divide between ‘working people’ and ‘activists’ (emphasized to highlight the stereotype) that I know will benefit the movement to end mountain top removal. There is a direct action campaign escalating and the local communities stand to lose everything. The need for true solidarity in the coalition work is tremendous and I want to help foster that through eco-chaplaincy.
Several years after the WatchMountain campaign, the voice of the mountain guided me from my dream job and on a spiritual journey I never dreamed I would take. I traveled throughout Asia and moved into a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan for nearly two years. In 2005, I enrolled in divinity school at NaropaUniversity in Boulder, CO. I was determined to synchronize my experience as a popular-education style organizer with what I had learned in meditation. I learned the skill set of a chaplain and coined the term eco-chaplaincy. During the spring of my first year I met Joanna Macy who inspired me to the core. She is a good friend and mentor and her work has greatly influenced my ideas.
Eco-chaplaincy is an idea I coined while a student in divinity school at NaropaUniversity, stemming from my history of community based environmental activism and contemplative practice. It is a form of inter-religious and secular ‘spiritual’ support for people engaged in environmental and social justice work to help prevent burn-out and sustain long-term vision. While chaplains provide spiritual support to any member of the institution they are employed – be it the military, a hospital, prison, or hospice, eco-chaplains provide spiritual support for organizations, communities and individuals working on behalf of Earth. In this case, I want to be of service to the many people trying to stop mountain top removal.
My calling is clear, the logistics are not. This is where my supplication for your help comes in. First and foremost I am in need of financial assistance. If you can donate any money toward this cause, or point me towards someone who can, I would be extremely grateful. I need to raise $3000 to move and an additional $12,000 for living money to sustain me financially for half a year while I establish myself. Checks, cash, gas cards,etc. can be sent to my address: Sarah Vekasi, PO Box 765 Ansted, West Virginia, 25812, or by credit card through paypal. Any connections you can share with me in terms of people to meet, places to live, and organizations to work with are also highly appreciated. Please help me spread the word.
I look forward to hearing from you. I know this is an unusual letter, written during uncertain times. Any support you can offer will be received with a grateful heart. Thank you so much!