When Words Grow Legs
by Alex Gerrish
Words are powerful tools. They have the ability to destroy or create, to condemn or affirm, to divide or to compromise. In the world of activism, the threading together of words is pivotal. Who is your audience? What is your message? How will you lovingly embolden others to support your cause? Often we get caught in the same recited spiel and statistics, hoping that somehow if we speak with enough conviction we will convince our listeners to join us. Yet every once in a while we stumble upon a moment that embodies what all those words have tirelessly tried to convey. I faced one of those moments during the Appalachian Community Health Survey Project this past March.
Midweek we drove into a ‘holler’ (for those new to mountain lingo, it’s a hollow, a rising valley between two mountains) that was situated within very close proximity to two mountaintop removal coal mine operations. After surveying an endearing older gentleman with aged lungs and a family full of cancer, and a soot-faced, coal-mining, father of three a few houses down, my partner and I walked up to knock on the next door. A young woman answered, with a wailing infant in the background.
“Now’s not a good time, I’m trying to get my son down for a nap” she said. “Well it will just take a couple minutes, and it’s really important work” (our feeble attempt at persuasion). She informed us that her two-year-old son had a heart defect and gets fussy around new people, so it would be better to come back another time.
We thanked her and went on our way. A couple days later we returned to the same holler to administer surveys to the remaining houses on the block. When my partner and I approached the last house, an elderly woman came to the door. The first thing I noticed was her tear-stained blouse.
“Good morning, ma’am, we are Christian college students conducting health surveys in your community. Would you mind if we asked you a few questions?” Her voice wavered as she responded, “I’m sorry, now is not a good time, my two-year old grandson passed away a couple days ago”. She continued, explaining that he had a heart defect and when his mother put him down for a nap two days before, he never woke up.
My heart plummeted to my stomach. It was surreal—one of those moments where you feel like time has frozen and for a second you’re hovering above, watching your movie-esque life play out beneath you. There we were, clipboard and pen in hand, excited to add to our personal tally of surveys for the day, while this grandmother’s reality was devastatingly altered, weeping in front of us at the sheer loss she was experiencing. We held her hands and prayed that our God of comfort would be her refuge during this storm, her ever-present hope in her pain. As we walked away from her doorstep in silence I was both thankful and burdened by the encounter God had placed in my path. Words were unnecessary.
According to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research, babies born in counties in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee where mountaintop removal mines were in operation were 26 percent more likely to suffer from some kind of birth defect. While I cannot jump to the conclusion that the infant’s heart defect was directly correlated to his proximity to a mountaintop removal (MTR) mine, I can’t help but question, would the story have ended the same way had the family lived just a couple counties away, where MTR is not an issue?
To this day and perhaps for many to come I will process that experience, where through the hands-on work of administering health surveys I confronted face-to-face the heartbreaking reality of real people suffering from environmental injustice seemingly beyond their control. The significance of the surveys we administered acquired new life, as I saw what firsthand health data had the potential to address. The persuasive elevator speeches I have long employed to ‘care for God’s creation’ gained a renovated fervor—a heartfelt experience to accompany the words. As a recent graduate of a Christian college, looking forward to what is to come, this reality captivates my thoughts and fuels my ever-growing desire to care for God’s ongoing restoration of His physical creation, and those systems and people who depend upon it, and I am so thankful.
Alex Gerrish is a recent graduate of Samford University where she was the leader of the on campus Restoring Eden creation care club. She was also an intern with Restoring Eden in the summer of 2011.