FAITH TO “KEEP” MOUNTAINS: A TRIBUTE TO LARRY GIBSON
by Allen Johnson (September 2012)
Jesus said, “In truth I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt at all…even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. And if you have faith, everything you ask in prayer, you will receive.”
I remember vividly the last conversation I had with Larry Gibson. It was late Sunday afternoon September 2, exactly one week before his death. His weekend Labor Day Gospel Festival was over, and the sparse but appreciative crowd had left for home. Larry was talking to Sage Russo, BJ Gudmundsson, and me about the festival, and what steps we might do to make it more successful. The event itself had gone well, but the attendance had been disappointingly small. “Maybe Labor Day is not the best time, it being a holiday,” one of us ventured. “Perhaps we need publicity,” another of us said. Larry turned to us with his piercing eyes, and implored, “I’m really glad this event was a gospel festival. It brought in new people, local church people. Whatever it takes, help me to bring in more people.” As always, Larry’s challenge struck us to the bone. “Yes, will do,” we said, and meant it.
As I drove home, I pondered upon Larry Gibson’s desire for “all gospel” at this festival, and his insistence upon “gospel” on the Sundays of his July 4th and October “Changing of the Leaves” festivals. I thought back to the previous weekend, when John Murdock and I had come to help Larry straighten up the grounds for the festival, only to be put to hard work side-by-side with Larry cutting brush and saplings in the nearby churchyard of the long-gone Kayford church, as Larry put it, “to give a clear view of the three crosses on the top of the hill.”
Larry Gibson often reminded me of our first encounter in May 2005. He was in a sour mood, and seeing our “church folks” delegation ticked him off. “Why are you so late?” he had whined at us. Meaning, where have the church people been all these years while the mountains are being hewed down? Larry proceeded to rant at our group stories of local churches who took coal money for picnic shelters, and of a preacher who told him, “Be a good citizen. Our nation needs electricity, and you have coal.” Larry did not seem to care much for the church and its people. Hearing him, I understood. “If you aren’t going to do something to save the mountains, then you wasted my time!” he shouted to us. Our group returned to Charleston that evening and founded “Christians For The Mountains,” an advocacy organization to implore churches and their people to work for the abolishment of mountaintop removal as a desecration of God’s creation. Larry Gibson had a knack for changing people’s lives.
Indeed. I thought of something Larry had told us during that last conversation, a statement he puzzled over. “Ken Hechler told me I changed his life.” Ken Hechler, a Ph.D professor, a Major in the Army during WW11, an interrogator of Nazi war criminals, a major speech writer for President Truman, a congressman for many terms, a WV Secretary of State, a prolific scholarly author. Larry Gibson, a fifth grade education, a custodial worker pushing a mop at a General Motors factory in Ohio. This Larry Gibson changed Ken Hechler’s life? Oh yes, and thousands more of us. Many of them top intellectuals, people in high positions. Larry gave lectures at Yale and many other prestigious universities. So I thought to myself, why is it that Larry Gibson changes lives, including my own? Why does he have such a profound impact on people?
My mind flashes back to that last Sunday morning September 2. Larry is talking to some students from Antioch College who had come up that festival weekend and camped out. Over the years, Larry had given thousands of such talks. How were we to know this would be his last? Larry talked maybe 90 minutes, the students’ eyes, ears, minds, and hearts fully absorbed. I had heard the presentation in various permutations on many occasions, but once again I was absorbed in the talk. Larry told stories from the wellspring of his very being. At times he shouted and cajoled. And then he would mist up, eyes watering with tears, pause, look down and away, swipe his hand across his cheek, jut his chin forward, and launch again the stories of the mountains. The people who had lived a hard, rugged life there. The nature he had enjoyed as a boy. The boom to bust of conventional coal mining and the resultant demise of the once thriving Kayford community. The invasion of bulldozers and explosives to tear down the mountains. “What in your life is so precious that no amount of money can buy it? What in your life is not for sale?” And of course, Kayford Mountain, and any other mountain for that matter, should not be for sale at any price. “The earth gives us life.” As I watched those young people who will face tremendous challenges on this beleaguered planet over the next 60 or 70 years of their lives, I hoped that Larry’s talk would “change their lives.”
Jesus told his disciples to take up their cross and follow him (Mt. 16:24; Lk. 9:23). Larry Gibson took up a cross of suffering and persecution for his outspoken, audacious stand against mountaintop removal (MTR). His pickup truck was covered in anti-MTR bumper stickers, a target for rowdy coal supporters to harass him. His dog was shot, his house shot at and vandalized, his truck crowded off the road. “I’ve come to realize I might be killed fighting for the mountains,” Larry would sometimes soberly reflect. For too often prophets of truth and change are killed or exiled (Lk. 13:34). Martin Luther King, jr. Gandhi. John the Baptist. Larry’s friend, Ken Hechler, exiled as a pariah in his own state’s Democratic Party.
Larry had scheduled the Saturday before the Gospel Festival on Kayford, August 25, as a work day to prepare the grounds for the festival. John Murdock, a lawyer and Christian writer from Washington, DC, and I came over to Kayford to help. When we arrived, Larry was across the road from the stone sign entrance to Stanley Heirs Park, cutting brush on the forlorn and overgrown site of the long-gone Kayford church. Larry pointed to the top of the hill, where two white crosses could be made out. “Today we will clear the brush so that all three crosses can be seen from the road.” Larry seemed satisfied that this was a paramount task, to make these crosses visible and the site decently groomed. John and I got out our chain saw and brush cutter and joined Larry in clearing the hillside. The day was hot and muggy, the work tiresome. At the end of the day, we sat up on the hill by the concrete crosses, now visible from the road, and reasonably accessible with a short walk. Larry spoke wistfully, and pointed, “A long time ago, when the church building was down there, people would walk up the hill after church to these crosses. There were benches here to sit on. The people would pray.” For Larry, those people who had lived on this mountain with their sweat, blood, tears, and hard lives were not to be forgotten. I looked over the site and thought of the long ago prayers prayed, the songs sung, the funerals and weddings, the eyes lifted up in hope. Now, decades later, our prayers that day mingled with theirs of long ago.
As we sat by the crosses, tired but satisfied with our day’s accomplishment, Larry told John and me that he was to see a doctor the next week. “I’m tired of seeing doctors. This is the last time I’m seeing doctors, no matter what they tell me.” We felt Larry knew something serious he wasn’t sharing. For several years Larry had struggled against illnesses. Then a few days later Larry called me. “Allen, the doctor says I need to have a heart catheterization on Thursday. I told him I have a festival this weekend, and then am taking Ken Hechler to Washington in a couple of weeks. I asked him to wait until then, but he says it must be done now. I’m not sure about getting to the festival, but I will try.” Larry was worrying about the festival coming up in a couple of days. I told him the best thing he could do for himself and all his friends was to take care of himself. The festival would be fine, we’d take care of it. Later, I talked with him Thursday night following the heart catheterization. “They are putting in some stents tomorrow. I still think I can make it Sunday.” We had talked several times that week, Larry worrying about the festival, and I assuring him that everything was fine, for him to stay home. I was not worried about the festival, I was concerned for Larry.
About 1 pm Saturday, September 1, when the festival was about to start, I saw Larry and his wife, Carol, pull into the parking lot. Larry had just been released from the hospital following surgery the previous day to put in stents. “Stubborn,” I thought to myself, half upset and half glad to see him. Larry told us he was not to lift anything over 8 pounds, and he seemed to behave that order well. “He probably would have worried and stressed himself not coming,” I thought to myself. By the end of the day, Larry was tired, retreating to the cabin with his beloved Carol. The following day, Larry seemed recharged, back to his usual form. He enjoyed the music, the speakers, and the folks who came up that day. By early evening folks had left for home. A few of us talked with Larry as he shared his heart for Kayford, his love for people, his hope. We prayed. I got in my car to leave, saying something like, “Larry, see you in Washington in a couple of weeks. Now take it easy, get well, ok?. We love you, brother.”
The earth and everything it contains belong to the Lord.
3 Who may go up the Lord’s mountain?
Larry, enjoy the “Lord’s mountain” in eternity. It must be splendid. Maybe it reminds you some of Kayford before it was blasted and desecrated and plundered. But such destruction will never happen to “the Lord’s mountain.” I look to see you on “the Lord’s mountain” when my time here on earth is completed. But until then, I and your friends will be about the task of “keeping” the mountains here, for they, too, are the Lord’s mountains. For “the earth and everything it contains are the Lord’s.”
Larry Gibson and John Murdock cutting brush to for a clear view of crosses at the site of long-gone Kayford church. (August 25, 2012)
Larry Gibson and John Murdock pose at the crosses.
Larry and Carol Gibson (September 1, 2012)
Larry welcomes 97 yr. old Ken Hechler to the festival. Hechler says that "Larry Gibson changed my life." Yes, many of us will say the same. (September 1, 2012 at the festival on Kayford)
The dusk of twilight obscures the carnage of mountaintop removal on Kayford. Let's carry on Larry's work to abolish this desecration of God's creation and its evil curse upon the inhabitants.
As he had done hundreds of times, Larry gives an inspiring presentation. "What in your life is not for sale?"
Media gathers as Larry's good friend, Dr. James Hansen greets him at the 2010 Prayer Breakfast of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care in Washington, DC.
Larry challenges Christians to advocate against MTR. Later that weekend, Christians For The Mountains started. (May, 2005)
Keeper of the Mountains. Larry Gibson (1946-2012). We promise to keep your vision to end mountaintop removal, and rebuild Appalachia. May God help us!