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Christians for the Mountains

Almost heaven. Courtesy Christians for the Mountains.

Hours have passed since the coal company blasted at the mining site, but dust still hangs in the air. Tonya Stanley climbs up a steep grade and slips underneath a fence.

“We love coming up here; it’s like a vacation,” she says. “It’s so peaceful. Even though we’re surrounded by mountaintop removal.”

When Tonya talks, she absentmindedly fingers a gold cross around her neck.

Arriving at the precipice, she stops before a steep decline to a deep pit. It looks like a bomb exploded. A few trees surround 900 acres of dirt, ash and rocks. Holes that look like white pin points mark where the miners will shove dynamite to blow away more earth — what coal companies call overburden. It calls to mind the scene in Apocalypse Now where the napalm scorched the Earth, making it resemble the moon.

Tonya’s husband, Leroy Stanley, is related to Larry Gibson, a powerhouse of a man that everyone in West Virginia knows by reputation if not by his trademark neon green shirts, declaring he is a keeper of the mountain. Only Stanley family heirs can build camps on Kayford Mountain, a mountain in the middle of so many flattened mountains. Gibson refused to sell Kayford in 1993 to Massey Coal Company, one of the largest employers in the state.

About four times a summer, Gibson hosts picnics on Kayford where he gathers supporters to enjoy food and mountain music. While Gibson is a one-man environmental movement, he also partners with organizations such as Christians for the Mountains.

Christians for the Mountains is a nonprofit organization in West Virginia preaching good environmentalism equals good Christianity. Allen Johnson and Robert Marshall founded the organization in 2005 to harness the support of the churches in West Virginia to oppose mountaintop removal.

“Destroying mountains is something I cannot support,” Johnson explains.

“[Mountaintop removal] is ugly. These are scars—these mountains are reduced down. There is tremendous biodiversity of plants in West Virginia and [mountaintop removal] reduces the ecosystems. It’s made into sterile land,” he continues. “It makes the land barren and I think it goes against God’s idea.”

The Earth is the Lords and everything in it— the world and all that lives upon it. -Psalms 24:1

According to the American Religious Identification study conducted in 2001 by researchers at New York University, 75 percent of the 1.8 million people in West Virginia identify as Christian. Only four percent of the state’s population subscribes to any other religion and the percentage of Jews and Muslims in the state is less than 0.5 percent.

Christians for the Mountains targets the state’s large Christian population and networks with local churches and congregations to gain supporters. Oftentimes pastors of churches from across West Virginia and other states visit the southern West Virginia mine sites. Seeing the barren landscape moves them to act and join with the Christians for the Mountains.

The group wanted others to experience mountaintop removal as West Virginians do. The organization partnered with filmmaker, B.J. Gudmundsson to create a DVD, titled Mountain Mourning. In the documentary, people like Larry Gibson and Marie Gunnoe show how mountaintop removal changed their property and their lives. Christians for the Mountains helps Gibson travel across the country to lecture on how mountaintop removal has destroyed his ancestral land.

“We’re in the business of getting the statement out,” Johnson explains.

The group doesn’t just distribute films — it also asks its membership to lobby legislators. One bill Christians for Mountains supports is Wild Monongahela: A National Legacy for West Virginia’s Wild Places. Introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, the bill increases wilderness areas in the Monongahela National Forest and includes four new areas — these areas would be safe from extraction and other incursions.

You cannot serve God and wealth -Matthew 6:24

In 1993, the Evangelical Environmental Network formed based on the idea that protecting the earth is serving God — and environmental damage oppresses many impoverished people that many Christians feel compelled to serve.

Soon after its founding, Johnson joined the Evangelical Environmental Network.

“When I was beginning to work with the evangelical environmental movement, it just felt like we were fighting for space—we couldn’t get into the mainstream Christian media,” he says “The politicians thought (environmentalism) was a soft issue. Everyone says we like clean air, but when push comes to shove they like a green dollar better.”

At the time, many religious groups did not talk about environmental issues because they still focused on social issues (such as abortion and marriage) favored by traditional religious organizations. Throughout the 1990s as more evidence surfaced about environmental problems, religious groups felt it was their moral duty to act. Johnson suggests one reason more religious groups speak up about environmental issues now is because of the rising price of oil and the realization the oil reserves will only last for so long.

“A number of prominent Christian people, who before had been silent, are speaking for the environmental protection,” he says. “Across the country there is a shift toward change.”

With the news about global warming also becoming more prominent in recent years, more denominations have joined in urging their members to be stewards of the Earth. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI warned a crowd in St. Peter’s Square to shun “fake freedoms, which destroy the environment and man.” Iranian Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei said it was the “duty of every Muslim” to protect the environment. Johnson’s former employer, the national Evangelical Environment Network, ran ads asking “What Would Jesus Drive?”

As with any movement, there are still detractors and often these naysayers grab the headlines. The Interfaith Stewardship Alliance—with members like James Dobson of Focus on the Family—claims the science isn’t definitive regarding global warming.

In West Virginia, Johnson and Gibson discovered that mining companies easily convince their employees that the environmentalists want to take away their jobs. Coal executives tell Christians for the Mountains to keep the religion in church (yet coal companies use religious terminology when it’s convenient for them—when a slurry pond flooded a community in Kentucky, the executives said it an act of God).

On a Saturday morning in April, about 50 people arrived at Fire Tower Mountain for a prayer vigil. Located in Ansted, WV, Fire Tower Mountain lies close to the New River Gorge National Recreation Area; mining companies are not supposed to mine in national parks, but they mine as close as they can.

The group of men and women in their 50s and 60s stood on a dirt road in front of a spray-painted No Trespassing sign that bars visitors from the mining site. Wearing his Episcopal collar with jeans and hiking boots, Reverend Roy Crist raised his arms to begin the opening prayer when the rumble of trucks exploded in the distance. Trucks tore across the dirt road, stopping beside the gathering. Men, women and children poured from the trucks. They began catcalling and booing the protesters.

Crist tried explaining they were worshipping in a peaceful manner, yet the miners screamed louder.

Why don’t you want us to work?

If you hate coal, why don’t you turn off your lights?

The priest tried praying through the disruption; Crist asked God to forgive humans for damaging the mountains and rivers—the coal miners laughed loudly. When another priest began discussing facts about mountaintop removal, an irate coal miner yelled:

I can’t listen to these lies!

As the coal miner’s anger flared, it seemed the vigil would have to end. Suddenly, someone began singing Amazing Grace. Soon all the protesters joined in and the coal miners became silent as the strains of the hymn floated through the air.

Following the song, the two sides were able to talk peacefully. The coal miners said they just want a job and the protesters tried explaining how mountaintop removal uses fewer employees than traditional mining. Johnson heard the frustration in the coal miners’ voices—they feel they have no other choice.

The land must not be sold permanently because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. -Leviticus 25:23

Christians for the Mountains participates in prayer groups and blessings of the mountains as a way to emphasize that West Virginia’s natural resources are God’s. Many local and national religious groups have issued statements supporting Christians for the Mountains and decrying mountaintop removal. The organizations include the National United Methodists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Nationwide Episcopal Church, the Commission on Religion in Appalachia and the West Virginia Council of Churches.

Younger Evangelical Christians seem drawn to protecting the environment. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that this demographic identifies with being socially conservative, but more are switching to the Democratic party or becoming Independent voters. One of the reasons for this change is that people perceive the Democrats as a party that cares for the environment.

Long-time environmentalists may wonder what religious groups add to the movement. Environmental studies researcher Angela Smith’s master’s thesis examines religious environmental movements and she found secular environmentalism failed to create deep-seeded changes in values and behaviors. Completed in 2006 while Smith was at Brown University, she found that religious environmental movements are better able to encourage activism because these groups connect caring for the earth with being a good person. Religious environmental groups shy away from talking about specific issues in terms of legislation and policy and their followers feel that saving the environment is a moral issue not a political one.

According to Smith’s research, more than 50 percent of the religious environmental groups collaborate with secular religious groups, taking the environmental issues into the churches, mosques and temples.

Christians for the Mountains’ partnerships are characteristic of how religious and secular environmental groups work together. Most religious groups have their membership write letters of support or recruit congregants to testify at hearings. Because Johnson and Marshall run Christians for the Mountains part-time, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition helped the group gain an intern who traveled to colleges, churches and community meetings to talk about mountaintop removal.

“We believe God created earth in such a way that we don’t have to destroy the earth to have a vibrant economy,” Johnson says. “People in the (rest of the) country think we should move somewhere else, where real American life is. They look at us like we’re dumb ignorant hillbillies and they just think, ‘We need your coal.’”

Meghan Holohan thanks the nuns at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral Grade School for frightening her into memorizing the rules of grammar - the knowledge helps her as she writes articles for Get Out!, mental_floss.com, Pittsburgh Professional magazine, Perspectives magazine and Carnegie magazine.