Returning and Restoring Justice
by Allyson Green
This year’s spring break was a lesson in returning for me. I signed up to join Restoring Eden’s Appalachian Community Health Survey Project knowing that I would be collecting important health data that would ultimately contribute to a better understanding of health disparities in Appalachia. I knew I would hear lots of stories from residents along the way. But what I didn’t know was that those stories would come from residents of Wise County, Virginia—a county I lived in for a year right after college.
The dominant industry in Wise County, like many others in Appalachia, is coal mining, and as the coal becomes harder and harder to get through traditional underground methods, companies are turning to mountain-top removal mining. This literally means what you might imagine just from the name—the top of a mountain is removed, the excess rock/soil/trees are pushed into a valley, and the coal is dug out using gigantic machinery. Those tops of mountains are not only home to some of the most diverse forests in the world, but they have been home to people for centuries. When a mountain disappears, so does the history attached to that mountain—the folklore, the childhood adventures, the hidden cemeteries, the food gathered each spring, and most of all the beauty of God’s creation displayed so elegantly in the peaks and curves of each mountain.
When I left Wise County four years ago, concerned residents were just starting the fight against a permit to mine one of the last standing ridges in one area of the county. I’ve kept up on the news a bit since leaving, but I was not prepared to see just how much land had been mined in that short time period. The ridge that resident are fighting for, currently still standing thanks to their efforts, is surrounded both by mines and by small communities. It’s these communities that we visited during spring break, going door to door in the cold, rain, and snow, and asking for a few minute of their time and a few breaths of air to measure self-reported health status and lung capacity. We were met with friendly faces and suspicious looks, welcoming words and pleas to leave, a bowl of soup and barking dogs. Through these varied interactions, we managed to collect some data and some stories that we all shared each evening as we recovered from the events of the day and reflected on these experiences together.
“We” here means the staff from Restoring Eden, a few community members and activists, 16 undergrads from Christian colleges, three fellow grad students from U of M, and me. Because all the students came from different academic and faith backgrounds—social work to public health to environmental studies, and from Nazarene to CRC—we all brought unique perspectives to our experiences. Having been steeped in the language of creation care, the science of ecological and human health, and the realities of injustices here and abroad over the past eight years or so, I think I had forgotten what it’s like to be challenged in my faith and world view when faced with the realities of a broken world. I know why taking care of the earth is both a matter of faith, of health, and of responsible citizenship, but it took time to make those connections. I can’t expect those connections to be instantly obvious to other people just by saying, “Hey, this is God’s creation that we are called to care for, that we as humans are intrinsically dependent upon, and that we as humans are also destroying for the sake of progress that is harming us—some more than others—and dismantling the ecological systems that are in place to keep the earth in balance.” That sentence is perfectly logical to me, but I know that I made some claims that are not always part of the dominant narrative of our society, either as Christians or as citizens.
I expect this to be a place of common ground to start from with fellow Christians, but my experiences with the Church have shown me this is not the case. I sometimes give up hope in trying to even start those kinds of conversations for fear of not being able to reach common ground in the end. In talking with and listening to everyone during this week, from students facing these issues for the very first time to seasoned veterans of the Creation Care movement, my hope was restored. When injustices become real, dialogue is what it takes to move from despair to purposeful response.
So, through the week, I found myself returning. Physically, to places where I once planted trees, collected bugs, tested streams, and danced to the tunes of the fiddle and the banjo. Mentally, to the places in my life where I began making the connections between faith, the environment, health, and injustice. And spiritually, to the pockets of cynicism left over from times when I have seen too little dialogue and too much inaction from the Church on issues like mountain-top removal where we should be at the forefront of working for restoration. And I returned to Michigan—to too much homework and a never-ending to-do list—with new friends and new stories, but maybe more importantly with a re-ignited longing for justice.
I have one more year of school, and it’s killing me because I am here in a classroom instead of out there joining conversations that help connect faith and action. In returning to Wise County, however, I was able to see not just how much the county has changed but how much I have grown in my own ability to articulate and understand why fighting to save one of the last standing ridges in the area is a matter of faith, of health, and of responsible citizenship. So, while I dove back into my work here, wishing I was still in Wise County joining the good work of people in Appalachia, I returned willing to start and continue the kinds of conversations that got me to where I am and willing to keep learning the skills that I will use one day when I join the real world again to work for the flourishing of all things—all people, all critters—wherever I am and wherever there is justice to restore.
Allyson Green is a graduate student at University of Michigan working on a joint MS in Environmental Justice and MPH in Environmental Health. She is also a graduate fellow of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies.