By Trevar Simmons
May 16-23, I joined a group of eight twenty-somethings as we attemped to combine our faith and environmentalism for the fourth annual Eco-Stewards program, which happened this year in “almost heaven, West Virginia.” The theme of their week was “Tending the Garden: A Faith Response to Protecting and Restoring Mountains, Communities, and Relationships.” Hailing from all over the US, the participants included Bolton Kirchner from Mississippi, Amber Scheid from Minnesota, Joanna Rittmann and Rebekah Epling from
West Virginia, Sabrina Jurey from Washington, Daniel Portice from Michigan, Allison Goodwell from Indiana, and me, Trevar Simmons from Maine. Besides joining our faith and environmentalism, the Eco-Stewards strengthened and encouraged each other, giving everyone something to take home to their local faith communities. We did not just gather as a group of twenty-somethings, but as representatives of the Church worldwide, taking a stand on (eco-)justice and faith.
Due to a work conflict, I was unable to join the group until Tuesday afternoon. The rest of the group met in Montgomery, WV where they joined the leaders and began to learn about how God’s creation interacts with itself. For the first few days, the lessons were about the land and the coal industry, mining, and mountaintop removal.
In Montgomery, the Eco-Stewards met with some leadership for the Morris Creek Watershed Association. The watershed association is working to restore Morris Creek, which has been declining in animal and plant diversity. Due to the community’s continued efforts, the creek now supports three different species of trout.
Wondering why the association works so hard, the Eco-Stewards asked one of the leaders, Mike King, why he is so involved. He explained, it is because he lives in the watershed and his grandchildren live in the watershed. King did not want to imagine his grandchildren growing up in the hollow (pronounced “holler”) without their own bit of forest in which to play.
Currently, Japanese knot weed flourishes in deforested parts of the watershed. This invasive species was introduced to the area by the mining companies to coverup the damage they were doing to the local flora and fauna. Japanese knot weed grows faster than the average plant and although it covers up the baron landscape, it also slows (and prevents) native plants from growing.
For the group’s first service project, the Eco-Stewards became human weed whackers. They were slotted to get into the creek and work on the k-dams that regulate the water flow. However, a large amount of rain prevented them from getting into the creek and the group instead fought the knot weeds, helping provide light for the young chestnut trees the watershed association had planted.
Eco-Steward Sabrina Jurey says she expected “to be pulling weeds, on hands and knees. This was not the case. This knot weed was at least up to our knees, and in some cases shoulder high.” The weed will come back, as invasive species tend to do, especially the fast-growing, hardy ones like this knot weed. However, those chestnut trees will have a little bit more of a chance to make it after the Eco-Stewards put their muscles and faith to work, showing a little bit of light to God’s earth. What more do Christians want to do than show light to those and that which God loves, both God’s earth and God’s people?
Monday night, the group heard the personal story of Lorelei Scarboro, a community organizer for Coal River Mountain Watch and of potential for wind power on Coal River Mountain. Tuesday the group traveled from Colcord to Racine to tour a mountaintop removal site and an “intact hollow” led by Robin Blakeman a West Virginia Stewardship of Creation Enabler whose family settled in the area in the 1700s. This tour was made possible by the Ohio Valley Enviornmental Coalition, who also rented a van to transport half the group while on the tour. After touring and learning about the environmental impact of the mountaintop removal, the group gathered at John Slack Park for a service to bless the mountains with Blakeman and Allen Johnson, co-founder of Christians for the Mountains.
I met the group just before this service began that rainy, Tuesday afternoon. During this service, we reflected on our relation to the kingdom of God and the kingdom of humanity. Blakeman asked to think about where we had seen light that day and where and how should the church be involved? We thought about God’s relationship to the earth and all that is in it–including the people who rely on money, coal, and the ecosystem to live. Above all, we praised God, the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel–the God of gods, and the God over all lands. We praised God despite the murky issues of faith, technological progress, and the stewardship of creation.
On Wednesday, we were set to work on a garden for the McGraws/Ravencliffe Food Bank, but the rain again had other plans, as the garden plot was under a few feet of water. Instead, the group went to the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC) in Mullens, WV. An Eco-Steward intern will spend her summer as an intern working with this garden, making sure the economically less fortunate people in the community can eat healthy, fresh foods instead of the cheap, less-healthy alternatives.
At the MOC, we enjoyed some tea made from herbs we picked from the woods across and a feast prepared by the Friends of Milam Fork. Local historian Jack Feller spoke to us that evening about the Mullens area and its relationship to the coal industry–the good, the bad, the indifferent. Politician David “Bugs” Stover shared a bit of his history and an entertaining monster story “told as true.”
Thursday we took a slight break from learning and rafted down the Upper New River, whose white water was a little more rapid than usual, due to large amounts of rain. For this participant, the river trek with North American River Runners (NARR) was more than just a fun trip. The experience was spiritual. We spent much of the week learning about some not-so-friendly interactions between human creations and God’s creation.
On the river, we were nestled inside the bosom of creation, with mountains surrounding us. Throughout the tumultuous rapids, we were safe inside of human invention. In some of the calmer waters, many chose to swim in the river. Those who did not get in the river were nevertheless baptized as one with creation in such an intimate setting with nature.
Halfway through our float down the river, we stopped to break bread together with a meal provided by NARR CEO Frank Lukacs, father of Eco-Steward leader Heather Lukacs. Amidst the baptismal experience, the group shared a eucharistic experience, becoming one with each other as they were recognizing their unity and solidarity with the earth. To whatever humans subject the earth to, humans subject themselves. The dominion over creation is a dominion exercised over humanity, too. Human fate is intertwined with each other and creation. Human sins against the land are sins against humanity, sins against ourselves. Our redemption of the land is a redemption of ourselves, just as the salvation for which we long is the salvation for which creation groans (Romans 8:22).
Our next move was from the New River to Bluestone Camp and Retreat just outside of Hinton, WV, which served as home base for the rest of our time together. On Friday, we made a quick trip to Bethlehem Farms, witnessing how yet another community lives with and from the land.
Bethlehem Farms took over the property that once was a Catholic Worker community, land that came with a large house, garden, and some livestock. When we arrived, each of us were greeted like every group: with hugs and the words “Welcome Home.” In the midst of hugs, the group observed a large, retreat-like cabin. Inside, clothes drying on lines strung between the upstairs and downstairs, which Eco-Steward Amber Scheid describes as “bird-poop protection.”
We were fortunate to share an organic, vegetarian, homemade—and scrumptious—lunch including two kinds of soup, bread, jams, peanut butter, apple butter, hummus, and veggies. The little that was not grown at the farm was purchased locally. After lunch, sustainability coordinator and communications director, Ashley Boone, introduced us to the farm and then Bethlehem Farms co-founder Eric Fitts lead a tour of the farm, from the herb garden, bees, pond, chickens, vegetable garden, and the beginnings of an orchard. Fitts shared the reasoning behind each and every part of the farm, sharing another perspective of how to live with and from the land, with an emphasis on the ethics of eating.
Bethlehem Farms concluded the Eco-Stewards touring. That evening we joined a larger group for Stewardship of the Land: A Christian Community Gathering. During this conference, we introduced ourselves, presented a video compiled by one of our leaders, Becky Evans, and were commissioned to live what we had gleaned from God, each other, and the people we met that week—commissioned to be Eco-Stewards in West Virginia and anywhere else we might roam.
To end our time together, leader Rev. Rob Mark had the group gather in a circle. He took out his notebook, wrapped in camping rope. He tossed the notebook across the circle, letting the rope unravel between him and the next participant. This person then took hold of the rope and tossed the notebook to another person. This process went on until the rope had reached its limit and each of us held onto a piece of the rope.
Rev. Mark told us we were a connected community now, represented by the interweaving rope in the center of their circle. Every member had part of the rope and as long as each member held tight to their piece, then the community would stand. If one member let go, then the community began to fall.
And thus our whole week had gone. Gardens need tending, a truism expressed in both creation stories of Genesis. As Eco-Steward Bolton Kirchner says, “the more I acknowledge these connections with people and the environment around me, the bonds seem to grow.” We learned about many responses to mountains and living with and from the land, but in the end most of us left West Virginia.
It was the community that helped us cultivate what the title of the week called “A Faith Response to Protecting and Restoring Mountains, Communities, and Relationships” and it is the community which they now are turning to serve. Four of us–Kirchner, Rittmann, Jurey, and me–are serving as summer interns in West Virginia and our journeys can be followed on their cooperative blog. The rest have returned to their homes to put their faith in action in their usual environment.
The Eco-Stewards Program, formerly the Presbyterian Conservation Corps, is an exciting and important collaboration between the Presbyterian Camp and Conference Association (PCCCA) and the Presbyterians (USA) for Earth Care.