We are all West Virginia, Like It Or Not

As I write I’m sitting in a hotel room in Atlanta where I’m participating in a Forum on Christian Leadership sponsored by the Forum for Theological Exploration.  It’s a powerful Spirit-filled event.  It’s also 90 degrees outside and there’s a bad air pollution warning.  Inside though the cool air wafts through monstrous air ducts so that we can all think straight and not be drenched in our own perspiration.  This will become important in a few paragraphs.

Two weeks ago I set out from Drew Seminary in New Jersey, a co-teacher on a pilgrimage with several bright, wonderful seminarians.  We were doing a Cross Cultural Immersion class on Appalachia and our specific focus during our time in West Virginia was water as seen through the lenses of Art, Education, and Energy.

The next 14 days was spent wandering that beautiful jewel of a state.  Our other co-leaders, the Rev. Dr. Heather Murray Elkins and Rev. Jeffrey Allen had arranged a magical tour.  Up and down hills we went, surrounded by green.  Forests, fields, ‘hollars, these unfolded before our eyes like so many hidden gems.  And as we wandered we met people.  Lots and lots of wonderful people.  People who loved the land, loved storytelling, loved their place.

Here are some of the things we heard and saw.

West Virginia is treated as a third world  country in the sense that it is mostly used for extraction of resources.  Timber, coal, and now natural gas are extracted from the state, with little objective gain to the population, and sent elsewhere to be used by urban and suburban populations.  Mountain top removal (MTR), the latest and greatest mining technology, has resulted in the desolation of enough land that if you laid out all the areas of wasteland end to end you would have a tract eight tenths of a mile wide that stretches from Washington DC to San Francisco.  Fracked gas is eviscerating entire communities with its 25 acre drilling platforms, mining roads, thousands of miles of pipeline, and tens of millions of gallons of radioactive, toxic frack water.

And what has this left the population with?  You now can no longer safely eat the fish out of any of West Virginia’s thousands of streams and rivers.  The average life expectancy of a person living near an MTR site is 15 years less than the national average due to the toxic water and air created by the mining.  West Virginia ranks at or near the bottom in numerous categories of health and wellness for its citizens.  And two years ago 300,000 people were suddenly left without safe water when a chemical tank ruptured and spilled two toxic chemicals into the river upstream from the Charleston water plant.

Yet this story of environmental devastation is largely invisible to the rest of the country in part because the stereotypes of Appalachia are so devastatingly negative.  Our students encountered this full force as they went to the student health center to get their trip forms filled out.  There the staff told them that they needed special immunizations to visit the state.  They were told not to bathe during the trip because the water was so toxic.  They were told to fear the people and not walk alone.  The staff said they would never go there.  All of these ‘facts’ and ‘concerns,’ as we learned from our experience were wrong.  Yet they serve as a powerful force to keep West Virginia isolated and separated, an invisible space for exploitation.

But are we separate?  The gas and coal from the leveled mountains, where does it go?  Well much of it goes east to power the East Coast electric grid.  I’m cool in Atlanta because a mountain got blown up in West Virginia.

And then where does the coal and gas go?  Into the air.  And as it does, we are warming the planet and creating an ecological devastation that we cannot even comprehend.

Both the Cross Cultural Class and the Forum are related to the training of spiritual leaders.  Historically the dominant Christian narrative in relation to the environment has been that creation is ours to use and throw away.  God created humans as special, separate beings and gave them the earth to have “dominion” over.  Ironically Dominion is the name of the company that builds the biggest fracked gas pipelines.

Thankfully there has been another stream of theology, one that is growing, which refutes this narrative.  It recognizes that God has created an interdependent ecology of billions of beings who all depend upon each other for life.  Human aren’t separate from nature, we are nature.  And everything we do with and to any part of the natural world effects every other part.  Spiritual leaders who will lead differently will recognize this reality and work to overcome the barriers and stereotypes and lies that keep us from knowing and caring about the whole of creation.

Because like it or not, every time we turn on our lights or our gas, we are all West Virginia.