Care for Creation in Appalachia

“To dwell within these mountains is to experience– in their height, God’s majesty; -in their weight, God’s strength; -in their hollows, God’s embrace; -in their waters, God’s cleansing; -in their haze, God’s mystery. These mountains are truly a holy place.” (At Home in the Web of Life, 1995)

Care for Creation is not just about mountains, rivers, trees, and animals facing extinction, but PEOPLE. Pope Francis, in his 2015 Encyclical Laudato Si, says, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”

Here, in my home state of West Virginia, summer temperatures have crept upward over the years—hotter, longer. It’s been rainier. A friend whose home was destroyed in a catastrophic flood in 2016 talks of living where 1000-year floods now seem to happen every 4 or 5 years. Indeed, on that June day, it rained more than 10 inches over 12-18 hours. More than 2500 West Virginia homes were destroyed and 1500 severely damaged. Twenty-three people lost their lives. FEMA suggested in 2018 that “this sort of rain event and flooding may occur more frequently than has previously been expected.”  

The Appalachian Mountain Range is a jewel of creation, one of the most biodiverse systems in the country. But mountaintop removal mining, which explodes mountains and dumps rubble into streams, casts a deep shadow. Drinking water is poisoned from mine runoff. Dangerously gigantic coal slurry impoundments sometimes fail, sending the slurry rushing into towns. Residents living close to mining operations experience greater risks to their health. More recently, fracking has taken hold, leading to some communities suffering the effects of chemical-laden “drinking” water. 

I am privileged. can leave town or stay with family when the summer gets too hot or the creek starts to rise. I can buy bottled water if I choose. But many others cannot. And the increasing intensity and frequency of floods, hurricanes, and fires destroy more than land—they often destroy the lives of the most vulnerable of our society. These are our brothers and sisters who have far fewer options when it comes to safety.

In the wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Pope Francis asks us some hard questions. “Will we adopt, as an international community, the necessary measures to stop the devastation of the environment, or will we continue to deny the evidence of this devastation? Are we willing to change our style of life that submerges so many in poverty, by promoting and encouraging a more austere and human lifestyle that makes possible a more equitable sharing of resources?”

As we re-build from the pandemic we must consider these questions seriously. Pope Francis calls us to build “a civilization of love… a civilization of hope.” This civilization “has to be built daily,” and requires “the commitment of everyone.”

Can we include care for creation as a spiritual practice, a way of life that asks God how we (together!) can nurture and support all God’s creation? We can do big things, as Pope Francis has, such as advocating for local and national legislators to provide strong environmental safeguards.  We can do other big things, such as exploring solar energy options, or donating to organizations whose entire purpose is to advocate for all of creation. We can do small things, such as using less plastic, buying local produce to reduce the costs of transportation of food, carpool, consider occasionally purchasing used clothing. What is it that God might be calling you to in sharing stewardship of this lovingly created gift of our world?

Psalm 140:12 tells us, “I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted and justice for the poor.” We must invite everyone to join us in working to make our world just and equitable for all.

Donna Becher is an associate spiritual director with the West Virginia Institute for Spirituality. She has worked on the local and national level in care for creation. She is a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose favorite times are those spent with loved ones, near and far.