Eco-Chaplaincy - Two Letters for a True Calling
From Forest Activism to Zen Monastery to Divinity School to Ending Mountain Top Removal in Appalachia
There is an ancient saying attributed to Christ in the Gnostic Gospels that goes something like, “If you do that which is within you, it will save you. If you do not do that which is within you, it will destroy you.” There are some amongst us for whom this strange apocalyptic saying seems especially relevant. Sarah Vekasi is one of those people.
We live in a world in which human activity, especially our “economic” activity, makes a mess of things, even threatens to overwhelm the natural life support systems that sustain us. As Paul Hawken says in his Commencement (see page 23) “This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat, have been broken.” Strangely, such activity is deemed perfectly legal in our culture, with the result over time that our world is transformed and things recently plentiful are now in short supply, or gone forever. Forests and coral reefs and glaciers—disappearing; animals and plants who lived on Earth since forever—disappearing; native peoples and their indiginous ways—disappearing; and now even topsoil and aquifers and mountains are beginning to disappear.
There is something inside each of us that is linked to this human activity and to these effects. If we, as individuals, do not respond to that which is within us, it will surely destroy us, as the ancient saying predicts.
Sarah Vekasi has a calling, and is doing that which is within her, to save herself. All true chaplains do that, for themselves and for those who depend upon them in faith. In Sarah’s case, she does it for the Earth.
June 18, 2009
I am writing to let you know that I am moving from Boulder, CO to southern Appalachia. I am following a call to help end mountain top removal by working as an eco-chaplain in support of the many people in environmental and rural community groups organized to save their homes and watersheds. I want to let you know my plans and to ask for your support with this endeavor as I am about to participate full time in a cause run by volunteers and need help to do it.
Mountain top removal, or mountain range removal, is exactly what it says—the complete removal of the tops of coal-bearing mountains by way of dynamite! Once the forest is clear-cut and the mountain top blasted off, the coal is dug out, extracted and processed, while the debris and waste fills in the valley below, blocking streams and polluting the ground water and air with highly toxic waste. The process was legalized and set into motion about thirty years ago and the consequences are devastating and enduring. Members of countless rural communities throughout southern Appalachia are literally fighting for their lives.
I have been aware of mountain top removal for some time, but it really sank in a few weeks ago when I watched a short video featuring Ansted, West Virginia and Gauley Mountain. I was moved to tears. Within minutes I knew my calling: move to southern Appalachia to offer eco-chaplaincy for the people fighting the war on their mountains and communities.
I followed a similar path in 1998 when the United Steelworkers in Tacoma, WA went on strike against Kaiser Aluminum, owned by Charles Hurwitz, the CEO of Pacific Lumber in northern California. I helped organize a coalition of 35 labor and environmental groups including Earth First! to stand in solidarity with the union. The coalition created the ground for the incredible labor-environmental solidarity a year later at the protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. In 1999, I initiated a successful campaign to protect Watch Mountain in Randle, WA from a federally legislated land exchange by combining direct action with rural community organizing, popular education, coalition building and legislative work. I lived 200 feet up in an old growth tree and learned to let Watch Mountain speak through me. It is the experience of the Watch Mountain Campaign: working in the timber town of Randle and bridging the politically polarized divide between ‘working people’ and ‘activists’ (emphasized to highlight the stereotype) that I know will benefit the movement to end mountain top removal. There is a direct action campaign escalating and the local communities stand to lose everything. The need for true solidarity in the coalition work is tremendous and I want to help foster that through eco-chaplaincy.
Several years after the Watch Mountain campaign, the voice of the mountain guided me from my dream job and on a spiritual journey I never dreamed I would take. I traveled throughout Asia and moved into a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan for nearly two years. In 2005, I enrolled in divinity school at Naropa University in Boulder, CO. I was determined to synchronize my experience as a popular-education style organizer with what I had learned in meditation. I learned the skill set of a chaplain and coined the term eco-chaplaincy. During the spring of my first year I met Joanna Macy who inspired me to the core. She is a good friend and mentor and her work has greatly influenced my ideas.
Eco-chaplaincy is an idea I coined while a student in divinity school at Naropa University, stemming from my history of community based environmental activism and contemplative practice. It is a form of inter-religious and secular ‘spiritual’ support for people engaged in environmental and social justice work to help prevent burn-out and sustain long-term vision. While chaplains provide spiritual support to any member of the institution they are employed—be it the military, a hospital, prison, or hospice, eco-chaplains provide spiritual support for organizations, communities and individuals working on behalf of Earth. In this case, I want to be of service to the many people trying to stop mountain top removal.
My calling is clear, the logistics are not. This is where my supplication for your help comes in. First and foremost I am in need of financial assistance. If you can donate any money toward this cause, or point me towards someone who can, I would be extremely grateful. I need to raise $3000 to move and an additional $12,000 for living money to sustain me financially for half a year while I establish myself. Checks, cash, gas cards,etc. can be sent to my address: Sarah Vekasi, PO Box 765 Ansted, West Virginia, 25812, or by credit card through paypal. Any connections you can share with me in terms of people to meet, places to live, and organizations to work with are also highly appreciated. Please help me spread the word.
I look forward to hearing from you. I know this is an unusual letter, written during uncertain times. Any support you can offer will be received with a grateful heart. Thank you so much!
Sarah Vekasi, M.Div.
July 20, 2009
I finally made it to Appalachia! I left Boulder on the 4th of July and spent nearly a week and a half traveling across our beautiful country camping out in mountains and prairie, cities and in lightening storms! I decided to take my time moving out here to soak up the fullness of our continent and walk my talk as an eco-chaplain as I attempt to embody that which I hope to inspire: that how we go about our work is just as important as what it accomplishes. In this case—I tried to acknowledge the expense of the fossil fuels it took me to drive by enjoying the process of traveling and using the time to touch in to my heart, prepare for this new vocation and honor the land. It was a delightful journey.
I arrived in Appalachia last week and spent my first night in the region at the home of a man whose full time occupation is to educate people about mountain top removal! His name is Dave Cooper and his web page if you are interested in hosting his roadshow is http://mountainroadshow.com/ Dave took me hiking up a tributary of the Kentucky River and taught me a LOT about mountain top removal and the movement to end it. It was an incredible way to begin this adventure.
From Kentucky I drove east into West Virginia, following an instinct to go to Ansted, the town that made the video about Gauley Mtn. which woke up this calling in me to move here. I was received with incredible hospitality by Loretta Schmidt, the sister of Margot Haertel, a friend from Maine. I sent Margot a copy of my initial letter about this calling and she called my Mom the next morning to say that her sister actually lives right here! Loretta greeted me and has introduced me to the members of her Episcopal Church and helped me settle in.
Ansted is beautiful and full of history. It sits on the edge of the New River Gorge which is now a National Park. My first night I stayed at Hawks Nest State Park where one of the largest industrial accidents of US History happened with the drilling of the Hawks Nest Tunnel by Union Carbide back in the day. The tunnel released a bunch of silica right into the lungs and bodies of the workers who were struggling to find employment during the Great Depression and the result was death. The company hid it and the workers all died! Not a unique story around here I hate to say.
My third day in West Virginia I went to Kayford Mountain to witness active Mountain Top Removal in the company of two incredible Episcopal priests – Father Stan and Father Roy as well as Stan’s sister Rebecca and Roy’s wife Jane. Incredible people! I am so rich in experience with the people I have already met! The five of us spent the day driving up to Kayford Mountain and met with Larry Gibson who grew up on Kayford and has fought the good fight to save his home. Larry succeeded in saving about 200 acres of the top of the mountain and the rest of it is gone or being destroyed as we speak.
What I saw was undeniably horrifying. I wanted to puke and hide and deny seeing it at all. There is no way to describe the enormity of the devastation. It is a kind of destruction beyond my imagination—the annihilation of mountains. The tops are dumped into valleys and the hollows are literally filled in! It seems like a kids’ sandbox fantasy gone wrong and played out in real life. This photo of the hollow (Appalachian for small and narrow valley) is literally right below Kayford and stands to be filled in. There are houses down there! Houses and bear and dear, snakes, trees, flowers, birds and life all about to be covered up. The haziness in the photos is from all of the explosives and dust in the air! Mountain top removal is a crisis of epic proportion and as I learn more I wonder if I have enough capacity to keep seeing and feeling all of this. Of course that is why I am here—to help the people who have been seeing and feeling this for so long sustain their work. I am more moved now than ever to support the folks of this movement and region.
Community tensions out here are getting hotter daily. Larry hosted a gathering on Kayford Mountain on the 4th of July which he has done every year for 23 years and this year it was disrupted by drunk coal miners who came all in uniform and shouted and threatened everyone there.
As you can tell, the internet is making this movement happen. The mainstream press largely ignores the rural happenings in Appalachia but through youtube and facebook and the like word spreads. It was a video that moved me enough to move out here, and I am not the only one I am sure. I watched another amazing video last night with my new friends in Fayetteville which I recommend. It brilliantly depicts the life of underground miners by Morgan Spurlock from Supersize Me, who grew up in Beckley, WV and worked in the mines for thirty days to try it out.
I have considerable concern about the polarization that is going on out here and know how damaging and dividing it can be. The coal companies have a strangle hold on the working people of Appalachia and it is a serious serious situation to talk about ending a practice which does employ people. Of course, mountain top removal actually destroys jobs and a region in the process, but it is easy for the surface miners who are actively employed to say otherwise. There was even a large protest organized by the coal companies to rally against the Energy Bill on Saturday. A friend gave Larry a bullet-proof vest and he is afraid for his life.
Meanwhile, I have been meeting all sorts of people in this area from across the political spectrum. Everyone who grew up here has some connection with coal and it is interesting to listen to all the stories. I am camping and staying in guest rooms and absorbing all sorts of information. I have made a lot of new friends and am wading through layers of emotions as all of this experience washes through me. On Wednesday I am headed to a regional gathering for the movement in Knoxville, TN while I find my feet and begin the work of eco-chaplaincy out here. It is exciting and overwhelming and definitely the right path for me.
Friends— new friends/old connections—bringing together all of my past experiences to tangible skills needed here—the beauty of getting to know strangers—that is my work these days. Loving life fiercely. Loving health fiercely. And navigating how I can be of benefit in this beautiful and beleaguered region.
Thank you to each of you who sent me money and encouragement. I have raised $2400 so far! Can you believe it? I am full of gratitude and spend each dollar with intention as this work through me is an act from all of us. I will have to find steady income as this process unfolds of course so if any of you have ideas let me know.
I have a plan to write every two weeks while this adventure in Appalachia unfolds. If you are not interested in hearing these updates, just let me know and I will take you off this list.
With love and solidarity,
Sarah Vekasi, M.Div.
You are not surprised at the force of the storm-
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward, All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.
~Rainer Maria Rilke