Conference grapples with challenges faced by the people and land of Appalachia
“Until we provide opportunities for employment in Appalachia, climate issues will just be seen by residents here as something coming from the elites in our country.” These words, spoken during a workshop run by the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions (CSCS) at the State of Appalachia Conference, cut to the heart of our country’s divisions on how to think about sustainability, and for efforts to work on climate issues in the US. Nobody wants a destroyed environment for its own sake, but there are barriers to working towards common goals of having robust communities that provide for people’s needs while not degrading God’s creation. Faith leaders from churches and other religious organizations gathered on March 23 and 24 at beautiful Pipestem State Park, West Virginia, to discuss the state of Appalachia. Out of this time emerged two common themes: listening to the people of the region, and taking action in fixing systemic problems.
Making a difference in Appalachia comes down to doing more “front-porch listening”, said Pastor “Jake” Jacobson of Grace Lutheran Church in Clarion PA. Listening in this context means hearing about the reality of life in a region affected by its traditional reliance on the energy extraction sector, and the changes in quality of life and employment for locals due to ongoing shifts in that sector. “West Virginia has become a sacrifice zone for both humans and the environment”, noted another speaker, and residents do not feel their stories are being heard.
Participants were challenged to consider the role these challenges play in leading to societal conflicts being framed as the “working class versus the elites.” Without hearing the stories of those directly affected, efforts at working to solve common problems such as climate change will not resonate with Appalachian communities whose livelihoods traditionally depend on the energy sector. Jessica Lilly, host of the acclaimed podcast Inside Appalachia, presented a local perspective on this, challenging participants not to forget about local workers such as coal miners when pursing larger goals related to climate change.
Acting like we control the System
“We need to act like we control the system”, noted keynote speaker Rev Dr Jennifer Copeland, Executive Director of the North Carolina Council of Churches. A variety of organizations working for change, including CSCS, were represented at the conference, and were able to network on their common efforts to work at systemic change from the local to national levels. Throughout the conference, sessions returned to the question “where do we move from here?” Along with listening to people, participants heard stories of change coming from communities and churches. “We need to realize that change will come from the hollar, and we need to create communities of civil discourse.” Speakers recognized that churches know they need to be involved but they often don’t know how to respond, and feel overwhelmed.
Presentations and discussion acknowledged that Appalachia seems caught in a public discourse that is not helping either local communities, the mountain environment that locals know and love, or the nation as a whole. Ideas for change ranged from Dr. Todd Nesbitt’s call for innovative models of cooperative economic systems, to recognizing the key roles that individual churches play in communities. “We need to recognize that churches are direct service organizations — that is just saying that people show up at churches and ask for things””, noted one Appalachian minister.
More with Less: An Anabaptist Perspective on Sustainability
CSCS was honored to have a place in the agenda in presenting a workshop on an “Anabaptist perspective on sustainability.” With its emphasis on simple living, community support, and nonviolence, Anabaptists such as Mennonites have had a unique voice during times of social change, and in the face of threats to the well-being of all humans. Workshop attendees challenged CSCS to leverage these Anabaptist distinctives to likewise articulate a moral position on climate change that adds to voices from other denominational traditions. “Churches might be one of the last places that people come together with different ideas,” noted one speaker, and Mennonites have a tradition of church communities as a place where discernment and action take place.
The workshop presented participants with a model of a theology of action that grows out of values of the community. The “More with Less” cookbook tradition models this in the Anabaptist tradition. Drawing from the work of Mennonite theologian Malinda Berry, CSCS Director Doug Graber Neufeld described how the More with Less book series successfully promoted and articulated community lifestyle values that emanate from a culture of agrarianism and the importance of food.
The workshop theme echoed earlier calls by Copeland, who encouraged conference participants to listen to how people interpret scripture. “People can make meaning of scripture. For instance, amazingly African Americans are still commonly Christian, despite historically being preached subordination. What they saw instead in scripture was liberation.” The conference introduced participants to local efforts such those by Catholic Committee of Appalachia in their popular project “The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us“, which attempt to use local values and culture as the starting point for social change.
Mennonites traditionally have their roots in agricultural communities, a notably different context than the coal and manufacturing communities of Appalachia. None-the-less, there were clear parallels in the stories told at the conference, that provide lessons for CSCS and for colleagues doing similar work with the churches of the region.
As described by one conference speaker, the churches of Appalachia understand the ebb and flow of seasons, and that out of death comes life. Out of that arises a sense of trust, and resilience. “Churches don’t give up, and know God is at work.” This occurs in the face of communities that have been in decline, “There is a yearning for a time in the past, when heavy manufacturing and industry were present; when knew stories and cared for people in crises.”, said Jacobson. Rural agriculture communities, where Mennonites have traditionally had their community roots, are often in a similar situation of struggling to maintain vibrant communities in the face of changes to their lifestyles which are linked to population and natural resource shifts. In fact, these changes mirror the situation throughout the world, where poverty and degraded environment go hand in hand. Throughout the conference, participants returned to stories of hope, hearing about how church strengths such as the sense of honor, loyalty and resilience are changing communities in Appalachia in a way that helps both the people and the land.
The State of Appalachia conference was organized with the assistance of Creation Justice Ministries, which CSCS is honored to have as an organizational colleague in the goal of bringing religious voices to bear on issues of climate change.
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