In April, the Environmental Protection Agency announced rules that could significantly reduce mountaintop-removal mining in the U.S. For longtime activists like Allen Johnson, co-founder of the group Christians for the Mountains (CFTM), it’s proof that “hope is not always in vain”—but only one step of a long journey towards environmental and economic justice in coal-mining areas of Appalachia.
Hope has long been kept alive by people like Kayford, West Virginia’s Larry Gibson, who hasn’t been afraid to stand up to the principalities and powers to protect his family’s mountain. Gibson has literally put his life on the line, facing gunshots, death threats from coal company supporters, and even the killing of his dogs.
According to Gibson, mountaintop removal, in which companies blow up mountains with dynamite to access coal, “destroyed over 3 million acres of mountains, 1.5 million in West Virginia alone.” Gibson calls the boundary between his property and the area destroyed by mountaintop removal “Hell’s Gate,” because no one can live on the other side.
Though the EPA ruling may prevent most new mountaintop-removal mines for now, it could still be overturned in the future, according to Rebekah Epling, communications and capacity-building volunteer with CFTM, unless it’s made into enforceable law through the proposed Clean Water Protection Act and the Appalachia Restoration Act. And, “though the ruling is a great victory, there still needs to be restoration of the mountains and communities,” says Epling.
Last August I spent a week in West Virginia—which competes with Mississippi for the ranking of poorest state in the Union—with a delegation of 200 international poverty activists organized by Union Theological Seminary’s Poverty Initiative. As an African American from the inner city, I saw common threads between the environmental injustices faced in my community and the struggles of people in coal country.
Historically, coal miners’ lives had similarities to those of sharecroppers, from whom many African-American inner-city residents are descended. Miners went into a constant cycle of debt because they lived in houses owned by the company and could only shop at stores owned by the company. According to Allen Johnson, who co-founded the ecumenical CFTM five years ago at a meeting hosted by Gibson, the many decades of mono-economy can’t be ignored: “When generations of parents have not been able to get a decent job without Dad dropping out of school at 16 to get a job in the coal mine, and Grandpa was that way, as well as Great-Granddad, we are dealing with a generational thing. It’s a little like racism, where many African Americans are trying to climb out of generations that didn’t have an opportunity to get an education.”
Today, like inner-city community members, the residents of coal fields have to deal with substandard living conditions. They live in dust-covered homes; sludge from the coal mining process makes it into their water, causing cancer, gallbladder disease, and a host of other health problems. West Virginia ranks dead last on Forbes’ list of cleanest states (and near the bottom of its list of best states for business); the lifespan of a woman in the coal fields is a decade shorter than the U.S. average. The injustice of poverty is expressed through the degradation of the environment.
It's not just an economic and environmental problem, Johnson says, but a spiritual one: “Principalities want to be worshipped and looked up to as saviors. People feel they need to worship what is oppressing them and destroying their future—which is what I mean by principality.”
Case in point: Johnson describes an area where mining has made well water “very toxic,” to the point that residents are losing hair, a sign of high arsenic levels. A Lutheran church is offering barrels of clean water to locals, but “about half the people won’t take the water because it offends the coal industry. That’s the insidious thing; if you offend the coal industry, you may lose your job or your brother may lose his job.”
“You make bricks for Pharaoh, and if you complain he’ll take the straw out,” says Johnson. “You bow your knee to Pharaoh Coal, even though West Virginia is vying with Mississippi for the ranking of 50th in quality of life in the United States.”
We are all involved. Even if you have never been to Appalachia, know that we all benefit from coal every time we heat our homes or use electricity: According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, “almost half of the energy used to generate electricity in the United States comes from burning coal.”
Is there a faithful prophetic response? The activists at Christians for the Mountains say yes. CFTM advocates locally and nationally around the issues of coal country; it also administers healthcare assessments and runs an intentional community where volunteers live and serve together. According to field organizer Robert “Sage” Phillips Russo, faith is a driving force behind the group’s work: “There are many groups that are out there to politically organize and strategize. While we are doing that as well, it’s important that we are here to talk about theology”—and to “pray for one another about illnesses, our kids, the movement, and our future.”
As I spoke to Russo and others, I found a deep love for the mountains and a commitment to living out the gospel. Russo, born in Brooklyn but raised in Appalachia, felt led “to serve the land and the people.” Rebekah Epling also spoke of the role faith plays in her organizing work: “Doing this work has made me grow in my prayer life. I think about why people are reacting the way they are. In the Bible, Jesus went to the root of an issue.
According to Russo, most of the Christians who get involved from outside of the coal fields are part of more socially progressive churches. Epling spoke of the contribution young evangelicals make: “I had this idea that it was going to be more liberal, service-oriented denominations like Quakers and Mennonites who would be primarily involved, but it’s been really interesting for me to meet lots of different types of evangelical college students; it’s been eye-opening.”
Within the coal areas themselves, Russo sees more Pentecostal and charismatic preachers grab onto the fact that “the destruction of God’s creation is an atrocity, and we have to get involved.” One such preacher told him, “I know God when I go walking into these mountains. I know the Spirit is alive here and that the destruction of the area is blasphemous to God.” Johnson sums up CFTM’s philosophy in the organization’s founding scripture, Psalm 24:1: “‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; the world and all that live upon it.’ God’s the property owner, and we get the privilege to live on it.”
Ultimately, Russo says, “this isn’t a political issue where you take the Republican or Democrat, right or left, swing. This is about surviving, health, clean water, and clean air.”
Survival is at stake in more than one way. According to Johnson, “Larry Gibson faces constant threats; the violence level is scary.”
But even as Gibson is steadfast in his opposition to the principalities of old King Coal, he still expresses love for the human beings who have taken on the role of his enemies: “I have nothing but compassion for these people. I consider these people my people.”
Onleilove Alston, a Sojourners contributing writer, is a student at Columbia University School of Social Work and Union Theological Seminary.
Fault Lines in Coal Country
An interview with Allen Johnson, co-founder of Christians for the Mountains.
Interview by Onleilove Alston
Onleilove Alston: How did your faith journey lead you to Christians for the Mountains?
Allen Johnson: In 1968, while students were protesting the Vietnam War, I went with other students to protest against them and somehow—it was a God thing—I saw the darkness in my own heart. In the late 1970s, the charismatic movement made a big impact on me. I am with a pretty conservative charismatic church, but they like what I do. I ended up in Appalachia because I had a heart for the mountains. God led me here, if I can use that language. In May 2005 we invited Christian environmentalists from North Carolina, Kentucky, and West Virginia up to Larry Gibson’s place. Out of that came Christians for the Mountains.
How did the coal system get started?
When the coal barons came here in the late 1800s, early 1900s, they bought up mineral rights from people because the people were functionally illiterate. Over the decades, the high coal-producing areas became a mono-economy. You didn’t need education if you wanted to mine coal, and if a person did not want to mine they tended to leave because there wasn’t much else there. We had a talent drain. The industry pits the poor against the poor. That’s a common tactic of industries: divide and conquer. After the Civil War, they pitted the poor whites against poor blacks—that’s really what’s happening in the coal fields.
Is there such a thing as “clean coal”?
The industry says there is, and they are willing to take billions of dollars in government stimulus money. There is a lot of pressure on the coal industry because of global climate concerns and because of the mercury contamination. Basically, all fish on the East Coast [are] considered unsafe for women of childbearing age. That’s a good pro-life argument—there are babies being born with neurological damage due to mercury, which causes a four- or five-point IQ drop.
What are some issues for churches that work with your organization?
It is hard getting into the churches in the coal fields. You have someone who is driving a truck for the coal company in one pew, and in another pew you have someone whose life is being messed up by the effects of mining. What do you do as a pastor? You ignore that issue and just pray for people to get to heaven. I think that happens with a lot of social justice issues—the culture tends to trap the churches.
What can the average Christian do?
Understand that energy conservation has moral implications. Watch your energy use; turn off your lights, use Energy Star [appliances], and insulate your houses. Congregations can do energy audits.
What resistance have you met?
The Kentucky Coal Association put out a statement saying Christians don’t have any purpose dealing with the coal industry. We were offered a scripture from Isaiah: “Every mountain should be brought low and every valley should be lifted up.” As a whole, they tried to leave us alone, because they didn’t have anything to justify mountaintop removal, except that people need jobs. The church can’t just say that any job is a good job. For example, I don’t think the church would support the sex industry just because you can make more money in that industry than flipping hamburgers. Coal has fueled the industrial revolution in the U.S., which led to us becoming a prosperous nation—without this area becoming prosperous. I would like to see green jobs come to this area.