Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Women Shave Heads to Save God's Mountains - by Rev. Robin Blakeman

Why are shaved heads appearing in the anti-mountaintop removal movement? The reasons given by individuals who participate in the two organized actions so far are varied; they include: 
“For my kids to have a better future;”
 “Because this seems to be a powerful – some would say spiritual - statement which might be heard by those in power;” 
“Because we are grieving for the lost mountains, destroyed communities, and degraded streams.” 
Whatever their reason, more than 30 women and men have participated so far in shaving their heads as a visible sign of their opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining. I am one of them, having shaved my head last week during an Appalachia Rising rally in Upper Senate Park in DC.
Shaving their heads in mourning and protest of the impacts of mountaintop removal.
I want to speak to this from a faith based perspective, although that is not the only reason I, or anyone else engages in this type of action. From my perspective as an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister, mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining is the epitome of abusive power structures exploiting marginalized people and God’s good Creation. Results of MTR include the following:
•    thousands of miles of buried and polluted headwater streams
•    hundreds of mountain eco-systems destroyed forever
•    depopulated communities
•    decimated family cemeteries and cultural sites
•    steady decrease of mining jobs, especially Union jobs
•    severe health effects – including higher cancer and birth defect rates – amongst populations living near MTR sites

For all these reasons, the phrase: “desperate times dictate desperate actions” could apply to the Central Appalachian region states of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee where MTR coal mining is taking place.

Citizens of these states have attempted to talk civilly with their elected representatives about these grave problems, but are feeling unheard, unrecognized, and unrepresented. 
Shaving Their Heads in Protest and Mourning of MTR

My personal experience with this process is recent; some have been fighting the battle against MTR for almost two decades. I have been lobbying for change for three years, with at least one annual visit to DC. When I attended the NCC Ecumenical Advocacy Days event last March, I was asked to accompany NCC eco-justice reps as they went to elected officials’ and regulatory agency offices in DC. In one day, we visited the offices of Congressman Rahall, Senators Manchin and Rockefeller, and the Obama administration CEQ office. We were only granted meetings with staffers in the elected officials’ offices, but we took that opportunity to make them aware of the NCC position on MTR. Since two of those elected representatives are PC(USA) members, I also gave them the PC(USA) statement of opposition to MTR (from our 2006 General Assembly).
While in the office of Senator Rockefeller, I asked his staffers directly to seek a response from the Senator on various peer reviewed health studies, which show – among other things – highly elevated risks of cancer and birth defects amongst populations living near MTR operations. Fast forward to June: I returned to DC for the annual Alliance for Appalachia’s Week in Washington and went with a group of West Virginia residents to Senator Rockefeller’s office. Senator Rockefeller is known for his good and important advocacy on health issues, so his silence up to that point on the growing scientific evidence of the links between serious health issues and MTR operations confused and frustrated me. I also reached another conclusion: If Senator Rockefeller won’t listen directly to people being harmed by MTR operations, then who – amongst powerful people - will? As a member of the same faith community he claims membership in, I had to wonder: had he forgotten Jesus’ mandate to care for the least among our communities? Who is it that he now recognizes as his neighbors? 
On the day after this meeting, a group called “Appalachia Rising” held a rally in Upper Senate Park. One of the actions happening at the rally was the shaving of heads. This type of action was initiated by a group of women in West Virginia on Memorial Day 2012. Some of those women were present at the Upper Senate Park rally, and had been in the meeting with Senator Rockefeller’s staff the day before. Other West Virginia residents were sitting in Congressman Rahall’s office this day – due to similar frustrations I felt in Senator Rockefeller’s office.

Congressman Rahall is also one of my PC(USA) brethren. At the moment when I knew people in that office would be speaking to Congressman Rahall, trying to persuade him to end his blockage of the Clean Water Protection Act – a bill which would end the Valley Fills associated with MTR – I made an announcement about their efforts, and then sat down and allowed my head to be shaved. It was an act of grief – over what I know we have lost in Central Appalachia, and can never get back, and over the fact that our elected officials will NOT listen to those who are most affected by these radical mining practices.
Shaving their heads in mourning and protest of the impacts of mountaintop removal.
An embrace of support is shared among those who shaved their heads in mourning and protest.
On June 6th, 2012, seven West Virginia residents got arrested in Congressman Rahall’s office because the meeting with him did not result in his agreement to stop blocking the Clean Water Protection Act. Others – from Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee – engaged in similar actions in the offices of their stubborn congressmen. Seven people – including me - shaved their heads in Upper Senate Park.

My action was an act of solidarity with those who are suffering from pollution and other effects of MTR. I am now wearing this visible sign of my grief and frustration. Doing so has given me the opportunity to talk to many, many people regarding my stance on, and opposition to MTR. I have also felt humbled by the loss of my hair – the part of my body I have always been most proud of. In that way, I believe I am doing what Jesus would do if faced by this problem today: weeping, mourning, yelling, screaming – driving the money changers out, perhaps - comforting those afflicted, and doing whatever we can to end the madness that is MTR. As I told my daughter, losing my hair is a small thing that I can do to raise awareness about a BIG problem. I hope you will join me – with hair or without – and do what you can to learn about and raise awareness of MTR issues, too.

An update on this story: on Wednesday, June 20th
– West Virginia Day, no less – Senator Rockefeller delivered an amazing and moving speech on the U.S. Senate floor, in opposition to a bill that would have severely curtailed the EPA’s ability to regulate air and water quality. In his speech, he called on coal industry executives to stop fear mongering, and to start embracing a future in which there will necessarily be a more diversified energy economy. He did so while expressing his concern for miners and their families, and for the health and safety of all West Virginians. This was an amazing speech to those of us who are used to getting a cold shoulder from most of our elected officials. I have sent my thanks to Senator Rockefeller for these brave and wise words. I hope you will join me in doing the same, and encouraging other elected officials – especially those from Central Appalachian states – to follow his example. For now, and hopefully for the foreseeable future, I am proud to identify him as one of my Presbyterian “brothers.” 

Rev. Robin Blakeman is ordained in the PC(USA) and is a member of the Environmental Ministry Action Network.
#AppRising #StopMTR

Join Rev. Robin Blakman in solidarity and call your member of Congress: http://ilovemountains.org/call-your-rep

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