"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.

Recovering Eden by Assault

“For a long time now we have understood ourselves as traveling toward some sort of industrial paradise, some new Eden conceived and constructed entirely by human ingenuity.  And we have thought ourselves free to use and abuse nature in any way that might further this enterprise.  Now we face overwhelming evidence that we are not smart enough to recover Eden by assault, and that nature does not tolerate or excuse abuses.  If in spite of the evidence against us, we are finding it hard to relinquish our old ambition, we are also seeing more clearly every day how that ambition has reduced and enslaved us.  We see how everything—the whole world—is belittled by the idea that all creation is moving or ought to move toward an end that some body, some human body, has thought up.  To be free of that end and that ambition would be a delightful and precious thing.  Once free of it, we might again go about our work and our lives with a seriousness and pleasure denied to us when we merely submit to a fate already determined by gigantic politics, economics, and technology” (Wendell Berry, What are People For?, 209-10).

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:19-23).

I must confess that environmentalism has not traditionally been one of the issues about which I have generally gotten exercised. Part of the reason I’m not usually attuned to environmental issues is that I’m so deeply entrenched in an economic system that causes those problems; and quite frankly, I like the convenience it affords me.  Oh, I try to do my own small part.  But when it comes right down to making decisions, concern for creation has not usually high on the list of criteria I use to decide.  I am, when I’m honest with myself, more a part of the problem than the solution in this case.

The problem for me, though, is that I know my inattention to creation is merely a matter of convenience, not a matter of a studied reflection on discipleship.  That is to say, I claim to live by the conviction that the determinative factor in my life is my attachment to the community of the baptized; I am a part of a group of pilgrims whose lives are shaped by their relationship to Jesus.  But when it comes to creation, I have conveniently exempted myself from having to take my faith seriously when it comes to making decisions that impact the very world for which Christ died; and that’s not right.

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” Paul says.  He seems to be talking about what Ireneaus called the recapitulation of creation, in which everything will be redeemed in the end by Christ and his return in glory.  But I also think Paul is talking about our inexorable relationship to that which God has created right now.  Perhaps creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” not just at some eschatological point in the future.  Perhaps creation “waits with eager longing for” the children of God to take seriously their link with God’s creation right now.  Perhaps it’s not enough to admit that we’re a part of the problem; maybe what is necessary as followers of Jesus is to begin taking seriously our responsibilities as providers of hope for the world in the present by the way we make decisions.

If as followers of Jesus, Christ ought to be the ultimate shaper of our lives, then even little decisions about our relationship to creation have eternal implications.  The only Eden we care anything about isn’t one we could recover by assault anyway.

Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell loves Count Chocula and break dancing to Montovani records (Yeah, that's right, records . . . the old black vinyl that doubled as frisbees).