Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Father Dan's Labor Day Festival Statement on Mountaintop Removal

Post Written By On The Road Again Program Speaker & Labor Day Gospel Weekend Volunteer Debbie Graff

Photo by Wendy Johnston of Sunday's Music

From a newspaper article in the Charleston Daily Mail, I read of Father Dan Pisano, a former traveling chaplain with the WVU football team, who not only spoke of his objection with the game being played on a Sunday, but that it is sponsered by the Friends of Coal.  The article mentioned that the mountains where Fr. Dan grew up are gone.  I called Fr. Dan that day to ask about his destroyed hometown.  He had planned to come to Kayford to speak, but due to an illnes could not come.  He sent me this statememt to read in his place and gave me permission to post this statement online.  I have not had a chance to speak to Fr. Dan since it was announced that the team and coaches would be rubbing a piece of coal from the UBB mine before the game for luck.  Perhaps he can help me make sense of that, because I have not been able to do so. 

 The following is Fr. Dan's statement, read by me at the Gospel Music Labor Day Festival at Stanley Heirs' Park, Kayford Mountain, WV.

Photo Credit: Kelli-Jo Devereux

To The People Of The Mountain

 First of all, I want to apologize to my friends and fellow-companions on the journey to end the stripping away of God’s creation, his mountains, for not being in attendance today!  Secondly, I want you to know that I represent myself, not the Bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, nor the Roman Catholic Church, although both the Bishop and the Church promote social justice throughout the world.  In this regard, I personally believe that the raping of our West Virginia mountains is unjust, immoral, a health hazard to the people who inhabit the valleys of West Virginia where the rape of our mountains is taking place and, most of all, a sin against the God of all creation.

I grew up in McDowell County, Filbert #9, to be exact. As a young boy I recall the many summers I spent in the mountains, sometimes pretending to be Indians or Cowboys with my friends or just walking alone to be with nature. 
Above an area where the Methodist Church sat, the mountains were deliciously thick in the summer with the scent of West Virginia wild flowers, tall trees and rich soil and so many memories.  There was a large rock near the top of that mountain and it was covered with moss.  The moss was as soft and rich as if it were made just for me.  So I would lie on that rock on my back and look up at the sky through the tallest trees I had ever seen.

I don’t know why the lizards that ran around me didn’t scare me, or the sounds I heard that could have been animals or snakes.  When looking back, I know that I felt that rock protecting me.  I didn’t know it then, but being in that unforgettable place was the beginning of my journey into the priesthood.   At a young age, that’s where I found God.  In that forest, I experienced God.  I don’t know why I recall that as the beginning of my religious journey, but I do.  It was as irresistible as God is to me still.  I became contemplative at an early age and that has sustained me throughout my religious life.  Those mountains and that rock, I know, became part of my journey.  I could never talk about myself in seminary in Boston without also talking about my beloved mountains of West Virginia.  It’s part of my soul!

That rock is now gone.  When last I visited Filbert #9, I could see stripping going on in the distance when I visited what is now called “Miracle Mountain” – a place where we would gather as a community for picnics, weddings, Church-related functions, and now reunions.  I looked over into the distance from the cabin and could only see trucks and other vehicles stripping away the mountains where once we could look into the hills of Virginia.  I fantasized as a child that I could see as far as North Carolina.  It just seemed to be a place where I could stare into my own future because I could also see distant places, places I had never visited except in my imagination.

My younger sister and her friends would venture into those same mountains when she was young, and they called that space “Fairy Forest.”  I never asked why but I imagine she and her friends found a place where they could pretend that there were little gnomes and fairies that protected them from dangerous snakes and other animals.

When my younger sister was born, my paternal grandfather walked me through the mountains and pointed out two wild turkeys.  I had never seen such beauty nor experienced such companionship.  It was a place where we discovered our relationship and it felt as ‘though I were in another world.  This was before I could venture into the mountains further and discover that rock covered with moss, which became my summer daytime bed, which brought me to this way of life.

My father was an underground miner.  I lost an uncle in a “mine blast” and his death left behind his wife and two children.  I think the children were one and 2 years old.  But a lot of other men lost their lives also as I grew up in that wonderful place.  And so it seemed “usual” even then to feel part of a community of similarities.  The Union assured everyone that they would inspect the mines for safety and we believed and trusted in that. 

What I wasn’t aware of was that the people who owned those coal mines were all from out of state – Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburg and other larger cities.  I only learned this as I got older and realized how paternalistic life was.  My father, in particular, was someone who fell into the hands of those he knew “owned” him.  He became dependent on them in a way I don’t think he ever realized.  It was unhealthy and even sometimes ventured into knowing my father as someone who could not survive on his own.  As I grew older I wondered about how his life and dependency would influence my own life.  I know it has.

According to the “The Friends of Coal” report dated 2009, there are 305 underground mines in West Virginia and 232 surface mines.  Throughout the US, however, there are 583 underground mines and 852 surface mines.  When I read that I grieved for all those mountains that were being stripped away from the people.  Interestingly, surface mines and underground mines that are not scrutinized for inspections as they should be seem to exist in those places where people have no voice.  They are told to lie to the inspectors in order to protect themselves and their jobs.

In my own county, which now ranks as the poorest county in the country, surface mining has caused flooding in the past 15-20 years, so much so that people who gave their lives to mining have moved away.  Displaced older people, I know, grieve leaving a place that was once filled with laughter and the joy of neighbors.  I drive through Keystone and pass by netting that is as tall as a three-story building to protect the people from the dust and dirt that drifts
from the stripping away of the mountains. In my own little town of Filbert, which now has about 20 or so families
[I am making an educated guess], I have heard that bears and other animals now venture into the back yards and street because they, too, are being displaced. 

I know that the two largest mine-owning operations are CONSOL Energy out of Pittsburg, and Massey Coal Co., Inc., which was recently bought by Alpha Natural Resources, with headquarters in Virginia.  Those who live in Pittsburg and Abingdon, VA cannot appreciate the devastation that those of us who watch our mountains – No, God’s mountains – be destroyed.  They live in relative comfort and cannot see God’s creation fall into the hands of greedy and irresponsible owners.  I envy them their joy, for we who long to walk once again through our mountains, will never have that again.

I am a supporter of underground mining.  I am a supporter as long as the owners maintain proper and critical inspection and safety measures.  I am not, and will never be, however, a supporter of strip/surface mining.  Stop the rape.  Stop the sin.  Stop playing with God’s creation as ‘though you own it.  You don’t own it, nor do we who stand against you today.  But let us, we ardently pray, have what is left of our mountains. 

The “Friends of Coal Bowl” is now playing out in Morgantown.  Do the students know that the friends are really not our friends, but merely frauds?  Do the students know that there is even a “Friends of Coal Women’s Auxiliary” who are responsible for education?  Do they ever show the films that inform about the destructiveness of strip mining?  Let us pray that they be fair and show both sides of the story.  It is our right to demand and expect that of them. 

I pray that one day the mountains will once again sing. I don’t care how surface mined mountains are “reclaimed.”  Nothing that is gone can ever be reclaimed.  Only God can do that.  And so I pray for you who stand here today and practice your right and responsibility to protest.  May someone out there in the West Virginia or Federal Government hear your voices and my prayer that one day, one day…………God’s creation will not be taken from us!  God bless all of West Virginia.  God bless you.

Be at Peace
with Your Consciences!

Fr. Dan Pisano