Aerial views of Perry County, Kentucky, show the extent
of the damage from mountaintopping. South Wings, an association of volunteer pilots
which assists nonprofit environmental groups, took the religious leaders up.
PHOTO BY MATT GOINS
GLENMARY FATHER John Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, has been
leading tours for several years to call attention to a devastating method of coal extraction
called mountaintop removal. A tour last May ended on a mountaintop in Eastern Kentucky
where an assortment of interfaith leaders signed a joint statement calling their respective
faith communities to act now to stop the practice of mountaintop removal.
They also pledged to examine how their own lifestyles are driving this environmental disaster—and
global warming—by the constant demand for cheap electricity from coal.
Mountaintop removal is a form of mining that razes forests, scrapes away topsoil and then
blasts 800-1,000 feet off the tops of mountains in order to allow giant machines to scoop
out the layers of coal. In most cases, millions of tons of “overburden”—the
former mountaintops—are pushed into adjacent hollows. These “valley fills” permanently
destroy the streams below. What’s left on the mountaintops are flat expanses absent of
all topsoil, where nothing much grows except nonnative grasses.
From the mining company’s perspective, this is the cheapest way to extract the valuable
low-sulfur coal that underlies the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia
and, to some extent, southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee.
But those who experience the real costs of this method of mining firsthand say it is anything
but cheap. The interfaith leaders on Father Rausch’s mountaintop-removal tour heard testimony
from affected residents at an evening gathering at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman,
Members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots organizing group that opposes
this mining method, shared personal stories that drive home the need to count these real
• The cost to their water supply, which is being slowly destroyed by the arsenic
and selenium leached out of the overburden once it is dumped onto the headwaters of mountain
• The cost of foundations cracked and nerves frayed by almost round-the-clock blasting
at mining sites so close to family homesteads that fly rock hits their roofs.
• The cost of increased flooding and mudslides that destroy homes and threaten entire
• The cost of the endless caravan of coal trucks that damage mountain roads, leaving
them to be repaired at local taxpayers’ expense.
• The cost of the biodiversity of forest habitats scraped into oblivion and the
loss of the natural beauty of the mountains the residents love and call home.
One of the most poignant stories of the effects of mountaintop removal was told by Erica
Urias. She moved to Pike County, Kentucky, five years ago because her husband, Rully, missed
the mountains where he grew up. Since then, the large-scale mountaintop-mining operation
near their home has contaminated the well that her family depended on for water. The coal
company now supplies them with bottled water for drinking, but she spoke with anguish about
having to “bathe my child in water that I know contains high levels of poison.”
It was because of similarly heart-wrenching stories from residents of Fleming-Neon and
McRoberts in Letcher County that Father Rausch first became involved with mountaintop-mining
Beginning in 2000, these small towns were devastated by five major floods in 18 months—towns
that had not experienced a major flood since 1957.
“The connections between the flooding and the mountaintop removal were not hard
to see,” says Father Rausch. The clear-cutting of forests, the stripping away of
all vegetation and topsoil, and the disruption of natural drainage systems with valley
fills created the perfect conditions for repeated flooding of surrounding communities.
In response, Father Rausch organized the first “Prayer on the Mountaintop”
in December 2002 on International Human Rights Day. He wanted to make a connection between
environmental rights and human rights. Sixty people began with a prayer service in a
valley in Letcher County and then walked up to the moonscape of the topped mountain to
wander around, plant seeds and pray. Father Rausch overhead one resident say, “I
am sowing my community back.”
“Just to make sure God heard those prayers on the mountain,” Father Rausch
laughs, “I invited an Associated Press [AP] reporter along.” When that AP story
went national, some of the coal executives, also Catholic, approached Bishop Ronald Gainer
of Lexington, Kentucky, and asked why he allowed Father Rausch, the director of the diocesan
peace and justice office, to stir people up about something he knew nothing about.
According to Father Rausch, the bishop simply responded, “Father Rausch has taken
me on a tour and I have seen it for myself.” Bishop Gainer continues to support the
efforts of Father Rausch and the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.
A surprise factor on Father Rausch’s May 2007 Mountaintop Removal Tour for Interfaith
Leaders was the participation of many Evangelical Christians. Most Americans don’t think
of Evangelicals and environmentalism in the same sentence, associating them with more family-centered,
socially conservative issues. But, Father Rausch points out,
“Just as the Catholic Church has a very broad tent, I now see there is a very broad
tent in the Evangelical community as well.”
Father Rausch is not the only one having his understanding of Evangelical Christians expanded.
A new generation of Evangelicals is putting the entire nation on notice that they are a
force to be reckoned with regarding the moral—and biblical—imperative to care for creation.
Playing off Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, evangelical
student leaders are using
“Inconvenient Christians” as the name for their national campaign to demand
action on global climate change. This campaign sent student leaders from 18 Christian colleges
to Washington, D.C., in December 2006 to lobby senators on global climate change, insisting
this is “a moral imperative demanding action now.”
Their statement, “Cooling Our Future: A Declaration by Young Evangelicals on Climate
Change,” is collecting signatures at the Web site of Restoring Eden (www.restoringeden.org).
This is an organization that describes itself as “a growing community of Evangelical
Christians in conversation about what it means to be wise and loving stewards of creation
and how that ethic is lived.”
That campaign, which ended a year ago, had begun with a much-publicized statement from
the Evangelical Climate Change Initiative. Over 80 well-known evangelical leaders, including
Rick Warren (author of the best-selling The Purpose-Driven Life), signed and promulgated “Climate
Change: An Evangelical Call to Action” in February 2006. Its intention, says the
statement’s Preamble, is “to offer a biblically based moral witness that can help
shape public policy...and contribute to the well-being of the entire world.” It clearly
links concern for climate change to the Evangelical community’s “longstanding commitment
to the sanctity of human life.”
During this same year, several new books by Evangelical authors focused on the biblical
duty to love, serve and protect God’s creation. One of the most popular, Serve God,
Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action, is by Matthew Sleeth, a former emergency-room
physician who now devotes himself to speaking and writing about environmental issues from
his faith perspective (see sidebar).
But these Evangelical environmentalists have not gone unchallenged in the wider Evangelical
community. In March 2007 Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other family ministry
leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) called for the removal of Richard
Cizik, the NAE’s vice president of governmental relations and an outspoken advocate of
Evangelical involvement in addressing the problems created by global climate change.
This action prompted the board and staff of Restoring Eden to release an open letter that
stated: “Many Evangelicals have for more than 20 years pled with James Dobson, Tony
Perkins, Gary Bauer, D. James Kennedy, [the late] Jerry Falwell and the leaders of several
other conservative Evangelical ministries to stop ridiculing and criticizing how creation-care
advocates believe we ought to live in obedience to God....”
Instead, the letter urged these conservative leaders to “add to their own ministries
the biblical mandate to love and care for our Lord’s creation.”
a National Audience
When the Catholic Committee on Appalachia first began planning a tour specifically for
interfaith leaders, the goal was “to get the word out that mountaintop removal was
not only a social issue but also a moral issue,”
Father Rausch says. He did not foresee the role these new Evangelical activists would play.
But when the Mountaintop Removal Tour for Interfaith Leaders rolled out of the parking
lot of St. Clare Church in Berea, Kentucky, last May, bound for stops throughout eastern
Kentucky, the 20 interfaith participants included four prominent Evangelical leaders:
• Matthew Sleeth of Wilmore, Kentucky, author and signer of the 2006 statement from
the Evangelical Climate Change Initiative;
• Peter Illyn of Restoring Eden, La Center, Washington;
• Chris Elisara of the Creation Care Study Program, Julian, California;
• Allen Johnson of Christians for the Mountains, Dunmore, West Virginia.
Also on the tour was a video crew from WGBH in Boston. They were shadowing these four
Evangelicals to capture their perspective on mountaintop removal for a two-hour documentary
on religion and the environment to air on public television in spring 2008.
“Having the Evangelicals—Matthew, Peter, Chris and Allen—on the tour certainly gave
a national perspective,” says Father Rausch. The other tour participants—a cross
section of Christian leaders and one member of the Ba’hai faith—were from faith communities
based in the Appalachian region.
One of these local leaders, Holly Shipley, a Lutheran minister from Lexington, Kentucky,
was responsible for getting the Evangelical leaders involved. She had passed on information
about the mountaintop tour to Sleeth, who had recently moved from Maine to Kentucky and
was trying to make local connections. When the TV crew from Boston contacted Matthew about
how they could include Evangelical environmental concerns into their documentary, he mentioned
he was going on the Catholic Committee of Appalachia tour and suggested they come along.
“Once we had the TV crew,” Father Rausch says, “we knew this tour would
have an enduring impact.” It would shine a national spotlight on how the demand for
cheap electricity from Appalachian coal is not only destroying the mountains but also forestalling
development of alternate energy sources and adoption of stringent conservation measures.
It was on the final afternoon of the interfaith leaders tour, at a prayer service overlooking
mountaintop removal in process in Perry County, that participants signed a statement calling
on their respective faith communities to take action now.
“Care of creation represents a common thread for all people of faith,”
declares the interfaith statement read aloud during a prayer service on a precipice owned
by McKinley Sumner of Montgomery Creek, Kentucky. Twenty-five feet of his part of a mountain
have been illegally blasted away by ICG (International Coal Group), the mining company
conducting mountaintop removal throughout central Appalachia.
The statement goes on to say: “From our observations and the testimony of many,
we conclude that mountaintop removal destroys God’s garden.” (The full text of the
Interfaith Statement on Mountaintop Removal and a complete list of signers is available
Informed by personal testimony and by flyovers of the devastation that has already taken
place in northern Perry County, signers of the interfaith statement promised these four
• To “examine our own wasteful and extravagant lifestyle that causes the destruction
of the mountains by demanding cheap energy from coal.”
• To “insert mountaintop removal into the growing conversation about global
• To “pledge voice and vote” to encourage full enforcement of “existing
regulations that ensure clean water and...a ban of mountaintop removal as a method of mining.”
• To “make this a spiritual issue in our own lives and to invite the members
of our faith communities to do likewise”—thereby “engaging people’s conscience
toward moral action and praying with the people of Central Appalachia.”
In other words, these “inconvenient Christians” pledged to keep sounding the
alarm that care for creation is not an option—it is a moral imperative. They also pledged
to change their own lifestyles in ways that will give witness and encourage others to live
these words from the “Litany of the Mountain”
prayed at the close of the Mountaintop Removal Tour:
We pledge to live in new ways,
to reduce consumption and energy use,
to promote conservation
because the earth belongs to God and
not to us.
“SERVE GOD, SAVE THE PLANET”—that is the mantra of Evangelical Christian
Matthew Sleeth. It is also the title of his book that traces his journey from a
New England ER physician to a Kentucky-based environmental writer and speaker. Serve
God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action was published in 2006 by Chelsea
This self-described “poster boy for downward mobility”—along with
his wife, Nancy, and their teenagers, Emma and Clark—has made radical lifestyle
changes in an effort to reduce the negative impact his family has on our natural
environment—and our planet. This includes downsizing from a family home of 3,500
square feet to one less than half that size, changing from incandescent to compact
fluorescent lightbulbs, doing dishes by hand, hanging laundry out to dry and constantly
looking for ways to reduce the family’s “carbon footprint.” (This is
the amount of carbon dioxide a person releases into the air as a result of consumption
patterns and energy use. The average American’s carbon footprint—7.5 tons of CO
year—is more than four times that of people in other countries. You can calculate
your own carbon footprint at www.climatecrisis.com/takeaction.)
On the Mountaintop Removal Tour for Interfaith Leaders in Eastern Kentucky last
spring, Matthew proudly displayed his most recent $15 electric bill as a sign of
how his family’s reduced energy use is helping to save the mountains and the culture
of eastern Kentucky.
Matthew’s change in focus from medicine to environmentalism started while he was
the chief of the medical staff and director of the emergency department at a prominent
hospital in Maine. He found himself treating an increasing number of patients—many
of them children—who were suffering from respiratory issues related to air quality.
He gradually came to the realization that, as he puts it, “our world is dying.” He
decided he was being called by God to focus his attention on treating just one
very important patient: Planet Earth. He looks at his work now as “public
health on a grand scale.”
His new “medical practice” includes writing and speaking to faith
communities of all kinds across the country. His articles regularly appear in Christianity
Today and other publications, and he can be heard weekly on the Moody Broadcasting
Network—a program he does by phone from his home in Kentucky.
Matthew believes his new environmental work is a response to God calling him to
do what “somebody needs to do.” His new work is supported by
his deep faith in a Creator God. “If we love the Creator, we have to love
the Creator’s work,” he says. “And that means taking personal responsibility
to care for that creation.”
So where did he begin in his efforts to become a more responsible steward of God’s
“I starting keeping the Sabbath,” he says. He and his family agreed
to avoid shopping on Sundays and making unnecessary trips in the car. That resulted
in staying home and doing things together as a family as well as carving out time
for personal reading and reflection. This method of Sabbath-keeping also drastically
cut their family’s consumption of energy every Sunday.
If all families “kept the Sabbath” in a similar manner, Matthew says,
we would use 14 percent less electricity as a country—and improve the quality of
When the Sleeths began their lifestyle change six years ago, their children were
13 and 10, and were typical “spoiled doctor’s kids,” he says. How did
they react to the changes?
They eventually got on board, he says, because “we explained that what we
were doing was really for them and for their generation—not for us.” And
his daughter, Emma, now 16, has authored a book of her own to be published in spring
2008 by Zondervan. It details what it was like being part of a family that moved
from an upper-middle-class lifestyle to one that is more sustainable in terms of
its demands on the ecosystem.
Part of this changed lifestyle has meant that the Sleeths moved from New England
to Wilmore, Kentucky, in August 2006. This is the location of Asbury College, the
Evangelical school that son Clark was then entering and that Emma was intending
to enter. When they counted up the carbon impact of transporting the children back
and forth to a distant college, they decided to move close to the college.
Matthew was one of the signers of “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to
Action,” issued by the Evangelical Climate Change Initiative in 2006. This
strongly worded statement raised many eyebrows inside and outside the Evangelical
community. It challenged the stereotype that only religious liberals are concerned
about the environment.
Why does he think that the media—like the PBS film crew that followed him on the
mountaintop removal tour last spring—are so eager to interview him and other Evangelicals
on their environmental concerns and commitments?
“Because Evangelical churches—unlike some of the more mainline groups—are
very strong and growing,” he says,
“and their political and financial influence is recognized. If this group
embraces environmental issues, lots of dominoes will fall.”
But, in the end, he says, “The future doesn’t care about our words—only
Karen Hurley is a freelance writer and the director of development for 4C for Children
in Cincinnati, Ohio. She says participating in this tour has motivated her to reduce her
family’s carbon footprint and consumption of electricity from coal.