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"Almost Heaven... West Virginia"

By Rev. Mindi

I am a fifth generation ordained American Baptist pastor. My grandfather, his brothers, my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were all Baptist ministers in West Virginia.  Though I’ve only been to the state a handful of times over the years, there are certain things that stick out in my mind. Getting carsick on the winding back roads in the mountains. The blue sky. The high bridges over the deep rivers cutting through this Appalachian state. The number of churches.  The green rolling fields. Now, all those generations before me are buried back in West Virginia. And the mountains—my God, the mountains. While I grew up in Alaska with Denali practically in my backyard, the mountains of West Virginia, much, much older—both geologically speaking and in my connection with them.

Coal is part of West Virginia.  Outside of my extended family, just about everyone I have known in West Virginia worked in a coal mine or for a coal company or had a family member who did so. Many of the members of my family’s churches were workers in the coal mines or worked for the coal companies in some way. They provide most of the jobs there. Coal provides, but coal takes away. Just do a quick Google search for Coal Mining in West Virginia and these are the photos that come up. Entire mountains have been taken down by the coal mines.  And of course, for years the coal companies paid their workers in script that could only be used at the company store.  I know of at least one story in my family that my grandfather got into trouble for trying to help miners organize within his church.

So this latest tragedy—300,000 people now without access to water, having to purchase bottled water or have it sent in from the National Guard—has me fuming. It’s not only not drinkable, but residents have been advised not to bathe in it, brush their teeth in it—basically, they should not touch it.

West Virginia is Baptist Country. My great-great-grandfather was the Director of Religious Education for the West Virginia Baptist Convention for over thirty years in the early 1900's, my great-grandfather was president of the state convention in 1948. The river is the place you go in your white robes to be baptized as a believer by immersion.  I can’t sing “Shall We Gather At The River?” without thinking of the cool waters pouring down from the Appalachians.

Water is the symbol of our life as Christians. We celebrated the Baptism of the Lord last Sunday (if you follow the Revised Common Lectionary), where Jesus goes to John at the River Jordan to be baptized.  Right now, you cannot get baptized in much of West Virginia. You cannot gather at the river because we’ve allowed it to be poisoned.

The company that stored the chemicals was never inspected or tested because it only stored the chemicals, it didn’t create them, so therefore they were exempt from the Department of Environmental Protection regulations.  And because of so little oversight and the loopholes, scientists don’t even know what exactly was leaked, how bad it is for us and other creatures, or what the long-term damage might be. Scary.

So what is our call as Christians?

We need to work on strengthening environmental protections and regulations. Look into your own state’s environmental protections, call your legislators and ask what needs to be done to make sure this doesn’t happen elsewhere. Take up the call for environmental justice in your church because environmental justice affects all of us. This is not something that can afford to be a liberal issue, this must be an issue of health and safety for all of us and for God’s Green Earth. 

Pray for the people of West Virginia. If you have connections regionally or locally with other churches, ask about sending funds or bottled water to help. And bring about resolutions or statements, however your denomination works, to address these kind of issues so that the church also is heard. Give the church a voice that speaks out for environmental justice nationally.

One industry should not have that much power in one place. One industry should not hold the jobs, the mountains and the water supply hostage, directly or indirectly.  As Christians, we need to be speaking up and taking a stand.

Lectionary Reflectionary: Syria

By Rev. Mindi

 

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. ~Luke 14:25-33

 

The lectionary isn’t always this timely, but it does seem to happen now and then. As we are on the verge of war with Syria, I wonder if we have truly weighed the cost. Having lived in Oklahoma for almost three years, we came to know many families who had a loved one serving in Iraq and Afghanistan; sadly, I knew many children through the preschool I worked at and later in the public schools whose parent had been killed in action.

Have we truly weighed the cost as a nation considering war? We have seen the bodies of children after the chemical weapons attack; how many more bodies will be added to that from our strikes? For surely we cannot guarantee a school or daycare or homes will not be destroyed. We cannot guarantee more children’s bodies will be added to the pyre. What kind of deterrence will missile strikes make? Or will it just make a new generation of people in another land hate us?

I could go on and on. But Church, we’re the one that needs to weigh the cost:

What are we holding on to when we don’t speak up against war? Fear of rocking the boat? Fear of offending those who have served before?

What is possessing us that we step out of the conversation and instead stick to preaching personal salvation? A false sense of security that we are doing the right thing and not becoming political?

If we truly are to carry our cross—the instrument of death—what is it that we need to put to death to follow Jesus?  Is it our fears? Our need to fit in? Our need to keep the “peace” with the people around us even if it means the silent majority outside of our relationships will suffer?

My mother and stepfather love bumper stickers. My mother has lots of peace-related bumper stickers on her car. She has twice been almost run off the road because of her bumper-sticker statements. Once I was in the car with her and two men yelled from their truck on the highway, showing her their dog tags, and then violently turned their car into her lane. My stepfather, who did two tours in Korea and Vietnam, proudly has "Veterans for Peace" bumper stickers on his truck. He also has had threats, but not quite as severe.   

Peace is not the easy way out. Peace is hard. Peace is the way of the cross, to meet the world's violence with nonviolence. Peace is the way of Jesus, who calls us to put away the sword. 

We need to sit down and weigh the cost—in other words, we have to stop being wishy-washy. Are we going to stand, or are we going to be silent?

Church, we need to stand up and demand that our leaders seek peace. There is still time to call your Senators and Representatives. There is still time to have prayer vigils for peace. There is still time to work with other peacemaking organizations and join up in your local community.

There is still time for peace.  Maybe, just maybe, this time can be different. We can actually weigh the cost of our silence and weigh the cost of war, and say, “no more.”