PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


GENE STOLTZFUS, PRESENTE!!! LIVING MEMORIAL by accessphilippines
April 8, 2010, 10:41 am
Filed under: Christian Peacemaker Teams, Nonviolence

GENE STOLTZFUS, PRESENTE!!! LIVING MEMORIAL

Dear Peace Probe Blog Readers and Friends and Relatives of Gene Stoltzfus (February 1, 1940 – March 10, 2010)

Some of you have attended or organized a memorial or a mass or some kind of sharing for Gene over the past months in March and April, 2010. Thank you. When we act and speak from our hearts we are contributing to the larger healing of our world. Gene seemed to know that from the get-go. An example I am acutely aware of right now are the words Gene wrote 35 years ago, as part of the welcome at our marriage ceremony on April 4, 1975.

Our celebration… with one another and before God will have integrity if we acknowledge at the outset the brokenness that exists in so many places where a community of justice has not yet been achieved…. Let us remember these visible objective wounds… Let us acknowledge …. that much of this brokenness begins and is nourished in our own lives. But let us recall that God’s grace is most visible in the presence of such brokenness.

May this time together be a celebration of our faith and hope for the future because we know that the reality of new life, tenderness, truth and love is struggling at this moment to be freed and to be made real.

Gene riding by corn fields on motor-assisted bicycle.


In that spirit, I believe that one clear way to honour Gene’s life is to engage in our own lives from our core, knowing that when we touch into the deepest streams of living water within us, we are drawing from that river of life that nourishes and sustains everything and everyone. Action springing from that Source continues to flow. It could be as a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams or other collective efforts. It could the way we relate to our children or grandchildren or co-workers or careers. It could be funding a healing work of some sort. The possibilities to reduce violence and create space for people, communities and nature to blossom are as infinite as our open hearts.

I invite those who wish to participate in a Living Memorial for Gene to describe your own heart commitments in the Comments section under the Gene Stoltzfus Presente! entry on Gene’s blogsite: peaceprobe.wordpress.com

Dorothy Friesen, Gene’s wife
with help from Phil Stoltzfus, Gene’s nephew
and Kryss Chupp, Gene’s long time co-worker and friend.



Worth Living For—Worth Dying For by peaceprobe
March 14, 2010, 2:26 pm
Filed under: Detainees, Iraq, Militarism, Nonviolence, Philippines, Politics of Empire

This is Gene Stoltzfus’s last essay, completed on Wednesday, March 10, 2010, just before he headed out on his beloved motor-assisted bicycle on the first spring day of the year. He picked up his U.S. mail in International Falls, MN. Then on his return journey, less than a kilometer from home in Ft. Frances, ON, his heart stopped. Please feel free to leave comments after this post on his blogsite: https://peaceprobe.wordpress.com. For more background on Gene’s life and updates on his memorial services, see: http://www.cpt.org.
Gene Stoltzfus, 1940-2010, Presente!
–Phil Stoltzfus, Gene’s nephew
–Dorothy Friesen, Gene’s wife

I have talked to survivors of military interrogation around the world who at some point thought they would not live for another day. I never write about it in the U.S. and Canada because it seems so unbelievable and out of place in a world of sanitized shopping malls and super highways. When I retell their stories I notice that people here fidget. But interrogation processes are one way in which martyrs are created. Martyrs in the original sense are “witnesses to the truth,” with a deep commitment of conscience that sustains them through moments of cruelty and abuse.

Some people are killed during interrogation. They never get to tell the story themselves. So I have learned to listen to those who narrowly avoid interrogation’s brush with death. This might be the time that you will prefer not to read on. But if you stop here you will skip over an important part of living and dying that stretches around the world and touches the entire human family.

I spent two hours in Iraq talking to a 22-year-old student who was arrested in a house raid along with two of his brothers. Until the time of his capture he was relatively uninvolved with anything political, not an unusual story in the Iraq of 2003. After his capture by American military personnel he was not allowed to sleep for two days. After 48 hours the American GIs told him that he would be killed unless he told them where Saddam Hussein was hiding. He was continuously blindfolded. He was told that his brother, taken into custody at the same time, was just now being shot. In the distance he could hear a gun being fired. If he didn’t want to die, he must tell all. Then nearby he heard a gun being cocked and felt a revolver touching his head. He expected to die. There was more shouting from the soldiers and then silence.

“I believed I would die,” he told me. “And then after a long wait I felt my hand to be sure I was still alive.” His blindfold was temporarily removed and then he was marched off to one of Iraq’s prison camps where he met others who experienced similar beatings and moments of terror. He was released three months later because of persistent outside intervention – an advantage that many disappeared people do not have.

My time with him left me exhausted and jolted me to wonder how I would respond to interrogation. Would I make up a story? Would I lie? Would something I say implicate others? Would I respond with anger or physical struggle? Would I go quietly to my death as some martyrs are reported to have done? Would anyone know how I died?

After my talk with the unlikely martyr, the connection of this Muslim student to my own ancestors in 16th-century Europe fluttered in my mind. Did the stories I read in my youth about the Anabaptist martyrs prepare me for this? Death by burning or drowning is now little practiced, but current authorities still believe that truth can be accessed by means of brutality. The pattern of torture used for their interrogation blended now with the people I was meeting. The Anabaptist stories recorded in the Martyrs Mirror (subtitled “The Bloody Theatre of the Anabaptists or Defenseless Christians who suffered and were slain from the time of Christ until the year AD 1660) are part of the continuous tapestry of state-sponsored cruelty reaching to our very own day.

In the late 1970s I worked in the Philippines. One day I was invited to meet a pastor and former political prisoner. The Marcos dictatorship had sent its military and paramilitary to his community and their tactics were designed to control popular discontent through cruelty, terror, domination, killing and confiscation of property. The pastor felt bound by his convictions to do what was possible to protect the people of his church. He was arrested and interrogated for weeks. His body was spent. Finally he was encased in a blindfold and told he would be killed. He felt the barrel of a revolver that touched the temple of his head and rested there for a time while his interrogator demanded that he give names of the people with whom he worked. “I was silent because I couldn’t think any more,” he told me.

“Were you afraid you would endanger others?” I asked. “Of course I was worried that what I said would implicate others but when the gun was put to my head I just expected to die. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I even thought about being a pastor but that didn’t seem very important in the moment. I was ready to die. I just told them to get it over with. During those days I thought about the martyrs. The interrogator didn’t pull the trigger. I don’t know why.”

I felt my gut twitch after the pastor described the near-death moment. Was there anything I could say or do? Anything healing? Anything personal? The pastor, like the Iraqi student 25 years later, only requested that I tell the world what happened to him. That was enough.

Accounts like these stories of people living on borrowed time reach back centuries to pre-Roman times and show me that the impulse to domination is still alive in our as-yet-uncivilized reptilian brain stem. In our time the word “martyr” has morphed from its root meaning of “witness to the truth” to a description of someone who dies for his or her beliefs. The Greeks and early Christians who used the term understood death to be a possible outcome of the path towards truth and light. Eventually “martyr” referred exclusively to those who died for their belief. Those who began as witnesses to truth became martyrs at the time of death. For the Muslim, shahada (martyrdom) also springs from the internal struggle that results in the witness to truth. Both religious traditions have departed from the core understanding of martyrdom in times of political conflict and triumphalism.

From where did my childhood curiosity arise to steal into my father’s study to read about the martyrs? Those drawings of torture and burning bodies awakened wonder within me. In one of my early return journeys to North America from the lands of torture – before I understood that torture techniques had their home here – I was introduced to a new psychological disease called the martyr complex – seeking persecution to fulfill an inward need. Had I been the unwitting recipient of this disease? Or was the use of the term “martyr complex” the work of a psychologist who had never met a torture victim or known the honored path to witness practiced by martyrs?

Church buildings pay tribute to martyrs, including long-forgotten soldiers who died in distant lands to protect the nation or empire. Their deeds are celebrated and interwoven with patriotism. I have visited churches in the Netherlands, the birthplace of Anabaptist martyrs, where they place the Martyrs Mirror on their altars before the service of worship and return it to a locked closet after the service. I once inquired about the influence of the book of martyrs in the life of worshipers and was told that, “Most of us have no idea about the stories in that book. It’s from another time.”

Why are soldiers and interrogators still trained in the craft of torture? Can moral outrage and attempts to protect the prisoner change things? Why do Christian crusaders or Muslim suicide bombers slip into patterns of domination that kill and destroy in a manner that cannot possibly reveal truth? Can respect for and veneration of martyrs draw us closer to the truth when the patterns of our lives are so remote from the authentic truth-seeking represented in martyrs?

Genuine martyrs appear when people believe that their witness on earth is connected to the whole of the universe. Martyrs are not inclined to draw attention to themselves, but their path can draw people to the glory and faith of a vision. Martyrs have all the foibles of the rest of us. Some may not deserve the label. In our human family great movements that push us to transcend boundaries with visions of hope produce martyrs. But organizations and movements become emasculated and ineffectual when they protect themselves too much from the risk of bold witness. On the other hand, they also undercut themselves when they slide into violence against others in order to try to control the outcome of their vision. We have the challenge of incarnating a blend of vulnerability and boldness.

The test of martyrdom is whether that particular witness to the truth helps to support and sustain the community’s commitment to a full-bodied vision of peace and justice. The martyrs are present with us and may be more powerful for their witness in death than they ever could have been in life.



Robotic Warfare: Making This World Safe? by peaceprobe

Last week Predator drones attacked in Helmand province in Southern Afghanistan and mistakenly killed civilians. We don’t know how many. The incidents are another warning like the messages of protest that Pakistanis have been trying to send Americans for the past few years. Despite the much ballyhooed precision of these air crafts and their weapons, they still kill civilians because corroborating intelligence on the ground is unreliable and this leads to flawed targeting.

The protection of civilians has been a most basic plank of all notions of just war for many nations going back 1600 years. The slide towards increased killing of civilians in war by national armies and as a corollary, the use of civilians as human shields is often overlooked. Tactics arising from the use of robotic weapons of war may increase the slide of disrespect for civilian life in war. This trend that brought us civilian casualties from Dresden to Hiroshima, from IEDs in Iraq to drones in Pakistan reflect the broad lines of increased disrespect for civilian life into the 21st century warfare in regular and insurgent armies.

During the final week of Lent this year I expect to travel to Las Vegas and to Creech AFB 45 miles northwest where the Predator pilots and their staffs are trained and local control rooms guide the planes in the 24 hour surveillance and attack assignments over Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. As I go I know that the Predators are just a tip of a vast array of robotic technology now being developed to make modern warfare “safer” for soldiers but more lethal for civilians.

The Predator and their Hellfire missiles are the air weapon delivery system of choice right now but maybe not for long. In the future the work of disarmament will be made even more complicated by robotic instruments of all kinds. The U. S. Army is working with universities to build micro fliers, tiny bird like flyers to be used for intelligence gathering and surveillance through its Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology Collaborative Alliance. Joseph Mait, manager of the Army Research Laboratory says,“ Our long-term goal is to develop technologies that can produce a map of a building interior or detect bombs,”

Big unmanned Predator like aircraft have lots of problems. They are still expensive to build, maintain and fly although they are much cheaper than the earlier generations of bombers. They can also be easy to spot. In Pakistan I was told that children in remote areas have games they play called, “spotting the Predators”. Shrinking those vehicles to a few ounces will not only change the children’s games but will give an up-close view of who is doing what, when and where.

According to Discovery Magazine, Haibo Dong of Wright State University is working on a four-winged robot, the Wright Dragon flyer. The designers complain that it is more difficult to create than a two-winged flapping system but promises more speed and manoeuverability. Dong expects to have a prototype, about the size of a real dragon-fly, completed this year. “This small craft could perform surveillance, environmental monitoring and search and rescue,” he says.

At Harvard University roboticist Robert Wood is working on mechanical bee-like instruments to create a colony of RoboBees. These swarming robots will incorporate optical and chemical sensors as well as communications systems to make autonomous flight decisions and to coordinate with colony members during tasks such as searching for objects or people.

Robotic technology is already heavily used in all of America’s wars. As many as 4000 robots are already on the ground in Iraq. Tiny information gathering devices are complemented by robotic instruments designed to identify and disarm bombs. With ground mobility they can enter into dangerous settings where enemy soldiers are heavily armed. Some of these instruments are being adapted for or are already used for in the homeland security. Their phenomenal growth will change forever the arms race, the balance of power(s) in the world and the nature of police work.

The ethical implications of this revolution of arms, force and information gathering are daunting.

1. The development, deployment, and use of the instruments of robotic warfare are being carried out in at least 40 countries around the world. A robotic arms race is already under way. There are few if any forums that address the implications of this race for the future of life on earth and for the quality of life-like basic freedoms.

2. As the robotic arms movement unfolds, the possibility for back yard development of instruments of destruction reaches to the limits of imagination. Violent video games were just a beginning although they may have helped dull our sensitivity and create a culture of acceptance. The IED (improvised explosive device) an interim instrument for defence and attack for insurgents will have been just the first generation of a long line of sophisticated adaptation of off the shelf technology for killing. The distance between the safe researcher silently working in a sanitized laboratory and the field practitioner is narrowing. The absence of meaningful work for so many in this generation may become the void where new waves of imagination in the service of violence are unleashed. Nonviolence movements will match this challenge only with keen understanding of the implications of robotic developments and solid healthy organizations.

3. As civilian casualties grow, persons who believe that life is sacred are faced with enormous new challenges. Peacemakers and human rights workers have only begun to grasp the implications of robotic warfare. People on the ground in Pakistan told me that just 10% of the victims of Predator drone bombings are insurgent combatants. Ninety percent are civilians. The Pakistan Security Monitor, a project of the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University disputes these figures. I have travelled in Pakistan and have heard the estimated 90% figure from persons with access to the areas of impact with accompanying stories of travail and death to women and children..

For Christian pacifists the reach of research, development, and manufacture dips into every one of our communities. We are now faced with new challenges to our convictions about not killing. Unless we face those oncoming ambiguities without falling into legalism, the convictions will morph into fluffy cotton decoration over a core of words that are not backed up with action.

4. As we enter this new frontier of ethics and robotic warfare, our methods of witness for a nonviolent way will be forced to adapt. The centralization of the development and manufacture of killer instruments into fewer and fewer corporations and selected political powers is over. The time is here when ordinary people can go to the local computer store or amazon.com to order component parts for assembling a weapon. What will we do if the computer store owner even goes to our church or parish? What will we do if people in our church own stock in companies that produce the components? We won’t have to go to Washington or to some well-mannered legislative office to begin the discussion and to engage in public witness.

We are now swimming in the culture of robotics, a technology that is being adapted every day by nations around the world to myriad roles that include security and killing. We can watch in admiration or distaste as the magic is unveiled . In periods of transition and unfolding violence it takes a little time for our consciences to be awakened and the gift of stubborn resistance to become clear. The time has arrived.



Where is the Hope by peaceprobe
January 27, 2010, 10:38 am
Filed under: Nonviolence | Tags: ,

A year ago we heard a lot about the audacity of hope. I believe in it. The problem is that the only people who can really practice it seems to be folks at the grass roots. In the middle of a tough winter is a good time to make an assessment of what we can do with our hope. Read on! This is not going to be a call to do more. Nor is it a plea for unrelenting stubborn insistence that the world would be so much better if it was more like I want it to be.

Living in the audacity of hope from inside the White House may be almost impossible. For the rest of us we can still work to vibrate some of the rafters built into the White House by slaves.

A year after the audacity of hope moved into the White House we are deeper in debt and the rhythm of remembrances to fallen soldiers marches on into the ninth year. Feeling stuck in a period of history is not a new thing. The project of abolition of slavery took many generations and it is still going on. Things looked bad maybe permanently beyond repair in the 10-year depression of the 1930s. At one point in 1971 I concluded that the Viet Nam war would just go on and on and on, that our work maybe would mean nothing. By then it had gone on for eight years or 26 years depending upon your viewing platform, Vietnamese or the rest of the world that got its news from New York.

In times like these the subterranean flow of revision, reevaluation, resignation and re commitment continues. Along the way there are surprises of inward inspiration. Here are a few ideas that have kept me going although if you would have asked me forty years ago if I believed in these principles I wouldn’t have recognized them.

1. I have learned to put my body in places where people are upset because something has gone wrong. That is the geography where I find the energy and imagination to do something about a problem. I need to see the contradictions with my own eyes, listen to what people say, and smell the atmosphere. Recently I spent a week in West Virginia with people who are trying to save their mountains from mountain top mining. Now I have a framework to support them.

Last year I realized that we were going to hear a lot about Afghanistan and Pakistan so I made a trip to Pakistan. I knew things were complicated before I went and going there only made the South Asia confluence of religion, politics and change seem more complicated. As a minimum I now know how to read the news about Pakistan more critically. And when it comes to Afghanistan I continue to be shocked with the placid reporting of embedded reporters but I know how dangerous and difficult it is to get underneath to the place where local listening can happen. I expect to continue to revisit both countries in my imagination if not also in reality. Something isn’t working and the images fester in my soul crying for testimony to truth. This year I know I need to place myself with radicalized Muslims, yes the kind that body bomb, to understand a little more deeply how they think.

In my community in Northwestern Ontario native people are in the midst of renewing their life and governance and are the only people who have a permanent commitment to the area. But, their moral and legal rights are under a constant threat. The other players in the district, outfitters who cater to tourists hunters or fishermen, and persons working in or supporting the extractive industries of mining and timber.

2. Most of us who read blogs are not full time activists. So we have to make decisions about priorities. Making a choice now of what I can do this year is a gift. Trying to do too many things leads to frustration. In our Chicago Synapses office a professor came in once a week for a couple hours to update the data base. I worried that this work was terribly mundane, even insulting to this professor of a prominent university. “Oh,” he said, “this gives me inspiration for literature that I study. I think of the places where all these people come from and unknown to me the drama that is unfolding before them. And then I say a little prayer for them and move onto the next entry.”

When I lived in Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I never had very much money but usually just enough. I was tempted to take a well paying half time job and then carry out my activist calling in the left over time. Whenever I tried it, my brain became confused over conflicting priorities and demands. I didn’t do either job well and felt tired. So I slimmed down my financial requirements so that I could get back to doing what those faces in Viet Nam expected me to do, end the war.

3. A working group is more than an endless collection of disembodied issues and meetings. When I decide to work with a group I want to know if there is good energy. Do people support each other, freely share their ideas and listen to each other. I want to know what the framework for decision making is. Is there hidden but powerful matrix of power that shows up as a blocker when things need to get moving? Do people where I want to volunteer occasionally eat together, laugh together, like each other. Are there cliques, or an atmosphere of, “I have to do this.”

4. I also want to know if the group spends an inordinate amount of time fulfilling funder’s demands? When this happens, I know that there is either a funder with an overburdened ego need or, more likely, a worker who is using the funder to escape the common vision of the group. I want to know that the group does not subordinate its vision to a single set of big funders whose disappearance will be the signal for the demise of the noble goal and vision. I really prefer to work with groups who have lots of individuals who give financial support and see big gifts from foundations as special blessings that can be used for a next step.

5. When I volunteer I know that I am looking for something that I may not even be conscious of. It may be that I am hoping to find a place to really work on Pakistan, Afghanistan, native rights or whatever. I probably won’t just come out and say it but I am also looking for connections to other people. I want to learn something fresh, maybe make a good friend. Volunteering is a good way to look for a job. I don’t want to be a burden or bring heaviness to an already overworked staff. But I need to believe I am contributing something even something tiny but worthwhile to the whole.

When I was on the staff side of this continuum I also wanted to make the perfect match between volunteer and the work that they could do. I rarely felt that the matches I made were perfect. I tried to thank people for what they did. What surprised me were the fresh ideas, gifts and joy that volunteers brought to the table of social change effort when they were given something clear that they could do. A lot of things worked out better than I expected them to. I have learned that the audacity of hope is really completed in the courage to continue to engage where I can.



Activists: How to Thrive in Recession by peaceprobe
January 13, 2010, 9:44 am
Filed under: Nonviolence | Tags: , , ,

Everywhere I travel grassroots organizations have felt the impact of recession and are worried about their financial future. There is no formula for grass roots organization that will assure an organization’s future or make for growth. Big foundations will continue to fund big organizations and educational bodies who write slick proposals, and governments will continue to support their favourite generally uncritical groups.

Everybody including grass roots change groups face financial challenges just like businesses. Under our economic system if there are profits they are reserved as much as possible for the people at the top. This year Wall Street executives and traders will get bonuses worth 25 billion dollars. Meantime most of us at the bottom already live at subsistence level and took a cut last year. No one else will find a way for us through this financial crisis. Our natural partners overseas, peace groups, community groups, environmental groups are feeling the pinch of less money and hurt even more than we are.

Some of our organization will recover and some will not and as they pass let us celebrate and honour the good work that they have done. Fresh initiatives being born as you read will take their place. Those that recover likely enjoy exceptional leadership and a diverse population of committed participants and supporters who don’t resort to backbiting, gossip or blaming in hard times.

Here are 5 ways to think about thriving in difficult times.

1. A diverse funding base that relies heavily on individuals or community groups, religious bodies is always better than a single source.

I was once a member of an organization that received almost all its support from a single government source. It had done excellent work in grass roots international development even speaking out against U. S government policies during the Viet Nam war. I sat in board meeting after board meeting as we wrung our hands in search of grass roots fund raising models. In the 1990s even the limited government support faded and the organization closed. Nothing worked well enough and the organization had to terminate projects. If early on we had worked for more diversified and community based support I believe we could have continued some very innovative work.

2. In recovery always think about outreach and enlargement of the circle rather than hunkering down and retreating into a mind set of scarcity.

I briefly worked with one organization that had to cut expenditures during an income drop. The process accentuated long held grievances, including sexism, racism, and accusations of hidden favouritism arising from religious convictions. The working atmosphere was barely tolerable. All the organizational consultants in the world could have been only marginally helpful. The experience reminded me of how much work we have to do to enlarge our circles of trust long before the fury of financial crisis explodes. Even without the residue of long held grievances and unfairness there is always a collective psychic cost to lay offs. I know of one group who avoided depleting their collective energy last year during cut backs by agreeing to organization wide pay cuts of 10%.

3. As the crisis of survival unfolds it is tempting to forget the vision that drew the energy of people together. Someone will probably encourage the organization to go on a new vision quest forgetting that a vision quest is usually done by individuals, especially native warriors as they set out early in life. Instead this is the time for a revision quest, a moment to clarify the vision’s pillar that keeps it going financially. If the group has developed a body of individuals who have given financial support over the years, many or all of them may need to be personally visited or phoned to get an honest assessment of what might be possible. In cases where support was limited to one or a few big funders the personal visits are imperative but the problem of funding may be terminal.

4. There are three components of any solid grass roots endeavour, good committed people, a clear explainable program, and money to support it. People who give money out of a sense of wanting to be part of a healthy mission want to know that even in times of crisis, the strategy for coordinating these three pillars are in harmony and attended to. They don’t have to be told that these are hard times. They might like to know that their hopes, thoughts and commitments do count.

5. Even in the most desperate situations there are moments of surprise when unexpectedly good things happen. People who do social justice work with the tools of nonviolence know this but easily forget. It can help to know that the major adjustments that we must face from time to time in organizational work can be grounded in spiritual energy and kindness. The breath of God and the light of the Spirit creates the surprises of unity that otherwise may not be expected.

This is the time to remember that an enduring characteristic of our work is the element of surprise. This is different from magic which is the science of entertainment with manipulation. Surprise and joy lubricated with humour comes in hard times. If you don’t believe me go visit the folks fighting mountain top removal in West Virginia, or to Pakistan where people are overcoming violence in the context of so much craziness, or to the Nevada desert where people are standing against nuclear bombs and drones. In the end the rewards are bigger than our survival. It includes laughing at our mistakes, celebrating an occasional breakthrough, and enjoying a good meal together. By itself the best economy will not buy any of these things. We can create the context for them to happen. That’s where the fun starts.



The Mountain Tops are Crying and West Virginia Coal by peaceprobe
January 5, 2010, 10:12 am
Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking | Tags: ,

My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
When the stars begin to fall.

You’ll hear the trumpet sound
To wake the nations underground,
Looking to my God’s right hand,
When the stars begin to fall.

– The Books of American Negro Spirituals, published in 1925-26 by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson

I slowed down for the curves and watched for signs to Hawk’s Nest Park as I approached Ansted. The State Park was established near Gauley Mountain on the New River where local people told me between 470 and 700 mostly African American miners died while working for Union Carbide from 1927 to 1933. The workers contracted silicosis in the mines while tunnelling through a mountain to build a hydro electric plant, one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the Americas.

As I approached the mountain top on Highway 60 in my Ford Ranger I found myself humming the old Negro spiritual that I sang as a child, “My Lord, What a Mourning when the stars begin to fall” except in my version mourning had become morning. It was dark as I approached Ansted. The mountains were only remote shadows as snow began to fall. In the version of the song of long forgotten slaves I hum the lines that had been morphed as they travelled voice to ear over the decades..

“We’ll cry for rocks and rocks and mountains when the stars begin to fall,
Rocks and mountains they’ll not save you when the stars begin to fall.”

I searched for an hour along unlit one lane roads for Allen Johnson who would host me at a Christians for the Mountains facility. Modest homes that once housed mine workers were plentiful. As I searched for the guest house I listened to public radio for reports on the Copenhagen meeting. Finally, I gave up searching turned off the radio and called Allen. He met me at the Ansted Pharmacy and led me to the rented guest house beside a century old Baptist church. The old spiritual was still echoing from my unconscious.

As I approached my lodging I could see the outline of Gauley Mountain in the distance and Allen told me that just over the edge I would see mountain top coal removal but that would have to await the daylight. Allen had warned me that 500 mountain tops have been dynamited layer by layer in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee – Appalachia – to reach the seams of coal. The coal is carried by train, barge and truck to power plants to generate electricity and to factories where steel is fashioned.

Rocks from the blasting have buried a thousand miles of streams and destroyed 12 percent of West Virginia forests forever. The Appalachian mountains that once reached heights equalling the great Himalayas of South Asia rose 300 million years ago when coal was formed from trees, swamps and other vegetation. Part of the energy for the light that illuminates my screen as I write may come from this coal.

The price for coal is rising. Surface mining permits the only efficient access to thin seams of coal formed 50 million years before dinosaurs, that traditional underground mining can not reach. With the use of large machinery and explosives two and a half times as much coal per worker can be extracted as in underground mines.

My own life has a connection to Appalachia coal. Sixty years ago when my Northeast Ohio family used coal for heating, 125,000 people worked in the mines. Today that number has fallen to 15,000 because of mechanization. Already then, Appalachian miners with their children fled homes due to joblessness, health problems and poverty. Their special accent was a matter of curiosity in my second and third grade class. Later when I lived in Chicago the north side Uptown neighbourhood was populated by people seeking refuge from the coal fields, many suffering from black lung disease. Today Ansted is more than 60% retired people. Few residents now work in the coal mines. However, coal dust, sounds of dynamite, coal trucks, and plans for more mountain levelling threaten the town’s new vision, to transform itself into a tourist center.

On the day after I arrived people were loath to travel the mountain roads due to snow so I stopped by the Redeemer Episcopal Church. I cautiously entered the annex of the 120 year old church where ladies were holding a fund raiser. My caution was formed by a belief that an Episcopal Church like this one would have been founded to serve the owners of the mines. No sooner did I park myself in front of one of the woman’s cookie tables than I was asked, “Are you here to work to stop Mountain Top Removal?” in a tone that definitely suggested that I would be much more welcome if I would answer, “Yes”.

I asked the women selling cookies for more information about the mountains. Over hot cider and cookies a woman from the kitchen informed me that their church goes out to the mountains regularly where their priest leads participants from surrounding churches in BLESSINGS for the mountains. She inferred that these events were not popular with the coal companies. “I hope you are here the next time we do a Blessing.” said another woman.

Allen took me to visit his friend Larry Gibson at Keyford mountain twenty miles west of Ansted as the crow flies. “Thanks for finally coming to see me” said Larry who met Allen and me with a big hug and a hot cup of coffee. The use of the word “finally” in his jovial greeting was unmistakably firm. I knew it was meant for me. “We need your support.”

Larry’s family line traces its roots in Keyford mountain back 200 years and the evidence lies silently in the nearby cemeteries at least the graves that have not yet been dynamited away. Along the winding road to his mountain top memorial hide way I see the remains of another mountain that has been blasted away, a valley blocked with land fill, huge coal trucks and shards of chimneys from long burned out homes that once housed 10,000 people who lived off mining. Larry cares for the pristine property of his ancestors as a sign of resistance to dynamite, and power shovels. Five times a year on key holidays he invites hundreds of people to festivals like of celebration and remembrance of Keyford mountain.

But not all of Larry’s guests are friendly. Drunken thugs show up to frighten visitors away much like company hired goons once tried to break union organizing in the coal fields. He describes 15 years of struggle, the offers of millions to buy him out, intimidation, arrests and speaking tours before leading us out over his 59 acre mountain top spread, a living trophy to persistence and survival. We pass several cabins where distant relatives come for retreat. He points to bullet holes, a long closed store and finally we pass Hell’s Gate, the property boundary beyond which we begin to view the empty disappeared mountain top beyond.

Below I can see layers of coal and massive power shovels loading coal trucks for delivery to a processing site and later shipment for power generation. In another direction bulldozers slice off rock that has been loosened with blasts of dynamite for disposal in the valley below. A hardy but bland grass has been planted on the mountainside next to his property where mining was terminated. There are no trees, shrubs, mice or deer, just grass. I see the town of Dorothy in a hazy valley beyond, named a century ago in honour of the wife of a mining company owner.

Visiting with Larry Gibson was good preparation for the rally at West Virginia’s state capital, Charleston, called to stop mountain top removal at still another site, Coal River Mountain. The Monday, December 7 protest brought together hundreds from West Virginia and neighbouring states. Everyone gathered in front of the West Virginia state Environmental Protection Agency which has rubber stamped so many company mining initiatives. Cordoned off about 100 feet behind the rally and adjacent to the agency building were 150 counter protesters, some hired by mining companies from the village of Dorothy. Greeting many of the speakers as they rose to challenge the crowd were blood curdling blasts from the horns of coal trucks programmed by the coal industry to cruise just a block away but loud enough to be heard maybe as far away as Copenhagen,. Rally speakers creatively co-opted the horns with long chants that transformed their irritating noise barrage into future friends, “Hoooooonk if you love the mountains.”

As I departed a voice inside told me to go to wake the nations. The descendants of coal miners who live in the hollows and valleys believe that Appalachia can be saved. The industry claims that rallies like the one in Charleston are the result of outsider manipulation by tree huggers. In spite of the charges I found an expanding conviction in West Virginia that the dust of coal pollution and lakes of slime, artificial polluted reservoirs created from crushing and cleaning coal, will be stopped. When people work together to change things they create a culture for transformation.

Several days later as I pulled out of Ansted I flipped on the radio to check developments in Copenhagen. The sombre reports of disunity among the nations reminded me to be realistic but thankful for the people, some diplomats, demonstrators and lobbyists who by their actions remembered the coal fields and disappearing mountain tops. The snow had ended and the fog had lifted. I could see the mountains and knew there was hard work ahead beyond the mourning or was it morning. It’s a new year. It’s a new decade.



Our Way of Life by peaceprobe
August 26, 2009, 6:05 pm
Filed under: First Nations People, Nonviolence | Tags: , , ,
Our Way of Life
Last week I attended the fourth in a series of council meetings in my township, Alberton.  The room was full again because the council was scheduled to vote on making a zoning change so that Weechi-it-te-win, a native family services organization could purchase a farm where it would open a new facility for youth.  Dozens of worried, angry people have spoken up and shouted out at the council meetings.  “Our Way of Life” is threatened said one young man who is starting a family. Across the highway from the projected facility, FOR SALE signs have appeared in several yards, a visible signal of protest although the owners must not be serious because their prices are highly inflated.
I first learned the language of threat used with the phrase “Our Way of Life” during the 1950s emanating from white supremacists in Alabama as the civil rights movement heated up.  My home was then in Ohio. I knew something was wrong about race relations but couldn’t figure out how it affected me and my way of life.  So in the late 50s as a student at Eastern Mennonite University (Virginia) I wrote and delivered a speech for an oratorical contest condemning segregation and racist thinking .  It was actually a pretty safe thing to do.  In those days we generally believed that racism was wrong but it didn’t occur to us very often that people like me could do something about it.  After the speech a few people came to me to suggest that I may have stepped over the line and some people were offended by my speech.  It was all very polite. Nothing like the doomsday, “Our Way of Life” protests I felt in Alberton last week.  Or maybe I just was not listening very well.
The other day I learned that some Americans say that Obama’s health reform agenda is dangerous because it threatens “Our Way of Life”. Although I am living in Canada where I enjoy public health care I occasionally sneak a peak at American news where some commentators tell me how bad the Canadian health system is.  I could not have known this by living here in Canada because for the first time in my life I go to the clinic for preventative check ups regularly and I am getting healthier. I have only lived here for five years so I might have a myopic view.   In Chicago where I lived before I only went to an emergency room if I was really sick, and I worried that they would clean out my billfold.
This ongoing tussle with the shadowy side of our common life brings me back home here to Alberton township, (dispersed rural population 1000) where the council voted down the application for the native run youth facility on zoning grounds.   The “Our Way of Life” people and the strict zoning interpreters on the council won out for now.  I wonder what the council would have done if zoning changes were requested to pave the way for a university computer research facility.  Would that fit into the Business Park zoning designation. That would have really challenge “Our Way of Life”.  And if the paper mill that employs 650 people would close or downsize what would that do to zoning and “Our Way of Life”?
Now in Alberton  I am faced with the same “Way of Life” problem I faced fifty years ago when I was a student in Virginia.  Do I stay quiet, keep the lawn mowed, and try to be nice to my neighbours?  Do I make a sign “Natives, Non Natives, There is room for all of us” and walk or bicycle the forty or so miles of Alberton roads inviting my neighbours to a conversation.   I am not sure how I feel about walking these roads alone. The tone of the meetings in the council chamber is stuck right now but what happened in Alabama tells me that things don’t stay stuck forever, even though Birmingham is not yet perfect..
The North American continent is stumbling towards a “Way of Life” that could be good for all of us.  The unfinished project of equality, and democracy sometimes gets in the way of “Our ‘current’ Way of Life”.  The lawyers scramble for the spoils when we have disagreements like this.  Law helps but it doesn’t change my deeper side. I learned to try to be true to what is right in Sunday School a long time ago. I am not always successful.  Education helps me sometimes but I forget very quickly.  So how do I listen to my moral conviction, and outrage and help harvest them into a “Way of Life” that awakens the best for all of us, native, non native, timber worker, unemployed, professional, youth and retired?   Adjustments to an always changing “Way of Life” may be inconvenient in the short run. I think I can handle this walk through the valley of shadows but I will only know as I do it one step at a time.  I invite my neighbours to walk with me.

Last week I attended the fourth in a series of council meetings in my township, Alberton.  The room was full again because the council was scheduled to vote on making a zoning change so that Weechi-it-te-win, a native family services organization could purchase a farm where it would open a new facility for youth.  Dozens of worried, angry people have spoken up and shouted out at the council meetings.  “Our Way of Life” is threatened said one young man who is starting a family. Across the highway from the projected facility, FOR SALE signs have appeared in several yards, a visible signal of protest although the owners must not be serious because their prices are highly inflated.

I first learned the language of threat used with the phrase “Our Way of Life” during the 1950s emanating from white supremacists in Alabama as the civil rights movement heated up.  My home was then in Ohio. I knew something was wrong about race relations but couldn’t figure out how it affected me and my way of life.  So in the late 50s as a student at Eastern Mennonite University (Virginia) I wrote and delivered a speech for an oratorical contest condemning segregation and racist thinking .  It was actually a pretty safe thing to do.  In those days we generally believed that racism was wrong but it didn’t occur to us very often that people like me could do something about it.  After the speech a few people came to me to suggest that I may have stepped over the line and some people were offended by my speech.  It was all very polite. Nothing like the doomsday, “Our Way of Life” protests I felt in Alberton last week.  Or maybe I just was not listening very well.

The other day I learned that some Americans say that Obama’s health reform agenda is dangerous because it threatens “Our Way of Life”. Although I am living in Canada where I enjoy public health care I occasionally sneak a peak at American news where some commentators tell me how bad the Canadian health system is.  I could not have known this by living here in Canada because for the first time in my life I go to the clinic for preventative check ups regularly and I am getting healthier. I have only lived here for five years so I might have a myopic view.   In Chicago where I lived before I only went to an emergency room if I was really sick, and I worried that they would clean out my billfold.

This ongoing tussle with the shadowy side of our common life brings me back home here to Alberton township, (dispersed rural population 1000) where the council voted down the application for the native run youth facility on zoning grounds.   The “Our Way of Life” people and the strict zoning interpreters on the council won out for now.  I wonder what the council would have done if zoning changes were requested to pave the way for a university computer research facility.  Would that fit into the Business Park zoning designation. That would have really challenge “Our Way of Life”.  And if the paper mill that employs 650 people would close or downsize what would that do to zoning and “Our Way of Life”?

Now in Alberton  I am faced with the same “Way of Life” problem I faced fifty years ago when I was a student in Virginia.  Do I stay quiet, keep the lawn mowed, and try to be nice to my neighbours?  Do I make a sign “Natives, Non Natives, There is room for all of us” and walk or bicycle the forty or so miles of Alberton roads inviting my neighbours to a conversation.   I am not sure how I feel about walking these roads alone. The tone of the meetings in the council chamber is stuck right now but what happened in Alabama tells me that things don’t stay stuck forever, even though Birmingham is not yet perfect..

The North American continent is stumbling towards a “Way of Life” that could be good for all of us.  The unfinished project of equality, and democracy sometimes gets in the way of “Our ‘current’ Way of Life”.  The lawyers scramble for the spoils when we have disagreements like this.  Law helps but it doesn’t change my deeper side. I learned to try to be true to what is right in Sunday School a long time ago. I am not always successful.  Education helps me sometimes but I forget very quickly.  So how do I listen to my moral conviction, and outrage and help harvest them into a “Way of Life” that awakens the best for all of us, native, non native, timber worker, unemployed, professional, youth and retired?   Adjustments to an always changing “Way of Life” may be inconvenient in the short run. I think I can handle this walk through the valley of shadows but I will only know as I do it one step at a time.  I invite my neighbours to walk with me.