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July 19, 2013

An Act of Faith to Save Appalachia's Mountains

Heather-and-AnneEarlier this month, Sierra Club Senior Content Producer Heather Moyer, at left with daughter Anne, attended the United Church of Christ (UCC) General Synod in Long Beach, California. She spent the final day of the conference anxiously awaiting a vote by UCC delegates on whether the church should officially oppose mountaintop-removal coal mining (MTR) throughout Appalachia and demand an end to the destructive practice. And Moyer had a good reason to be on pins and needles: she authored the anti-MTR resolution that the 840+ voting delegates were deliberating.

Two years ago, Moyer and her wife, the Rev. Amy Sens, helped start a UCC church, six:eight, in Baltimore, where they live with Anne, now two.

"It's a different kind of church," Moyer says. "We meet every Sunday at noon at the Mobtown Theater in an old garment factory that now houses a number of non-profits, most of them with an artistic bent. I've been doing improvisational comedy there for years with the Baltimore Improv Group, which is how we found out about the space."

In keeping with the creative spirit of the Hampden neighborhood where the church is located, music at six:eight services is a mix of old-timey, bluegrass, and southern gospel. The name six:eight comes from the Bible verse Micah 6:8, which gives the church its three core values: Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly with God. Moyer runs six:eight's Community Service Program, which does monthly service projects such as stream cleanups, tree-planting, and urban farming.

After graduating from Ohio University with a degree in journalism, Moyer fused community activism with environmental activism for her first job. She went to work as a campus organizer for Massachusetts Community Water Watch, an AmeriCorps position in the old factory town of Lowell, working on water-quality issues.

"It was fun to learn about the local watershed and get people inspired to care about clean water," she says. "We organized many cleanups along the Merrimack River, which runs right through Lowell, and its tributary, the Concord. I remember one cleanup on 'Make a Difference Day' where a huge crowd and a bunch of elected officials showed up. We pulled over 100 tires and a bunch of shopping carts out of the Concord River. Everyone was shocked when we piled up all the tires and shopping carts and other debris in one place."

Moyer landed next at the Disaster News Network in Columbia, Maryland, reporting on natural and human-caused disasters. "I reported on Hurricane Katrina and the toxic dust that caused ongoing health problems for so many first responders in New York City in the years following 9/11. That's how I got involved with the Sierra Club -- it was one of the few organizations that stuck around after the attacks and stayed focused on the toxic dust issue." Moyer was hired as a member of the Communications Department in the Club's Washington, D.C., office in 2007.

Moyer-at-White-House

Four years later, she and Sens started six:eight. Among the church's monthly activities is a documentary film night, where someone brings a film on a topic of their choosing and the group watches and discusses it. Last year Moyer, who has been writing about mountaintop-removal mining for the Sierra Club for the last half-dozen years, hosted a screening at her and Sens' home of "The Last Mountain," a documentary about MTR.

"People were shocked," Moyer recalls. "It's hard to watch footage of coal companies blowing up mountains and filling valleys with rubble, and the interviews with families who can no longer drink their well water or who've lost their homes due to MTR were incredibly moving -- and motivating.

"We believe that God created the earth and everything in it, and that God calls upon humans numerous times in the Bible to be stewards of the divine creation -- to protect, care for, and learn from it. Yet here we are destroying it and harming people whose voices are continually overpowered by the coal industry. Our congregation decided we wanted to take action."

With input from UCC Minister of Environmental Justice Rev. Jim Deming and other church members, Moyer drafted a resolution opposing MTR for the entire 1.1 million-member UCC, which has more than 5,100 churches across the U.S. The resolution stated, in part:

Mountaintop removal destroys the valleys in Appalachia where people have lived for centuries. It destroys their culture, their way of making a living, and their family structures. It occurs in remote places where there is very little self-determining political organization and is a colonization and exploitation of the land by outside interests. If it were a profitable enterprise for the people of Appalachia, then they would at least benefit economically. The opposite is true, however, as the Appalachian counties are consistently among the economically poorest in the United States.

A the UCC's General Synod in Long Beach, held from June 28-July 2 this year, Moyer spent hours each day talking to the delegates about MTR. She discovered that many people were unaware of the practice but were shocked to learn about it. She also met many delegates who knew full well about mountaintop removal and felt the resolution was long overdue.

Below, Moyer talks with UCC delegate Rev. Jim Antal at the General Synod. Antal authored a separate resolution, with which Moyer was also heavily involved, calling on the UCC to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Moyer-&-Jim-Antall-at-Synod

Before coming to general vote, the resolution -- which calls not only for an end to MTR but also a just economic transition for the people of Appalachia who deserve productive jobs -- had to be deliberated on by a Synod committee before coming to the floor of Synod to be voted on by all 840+ UCC delegates. But the committee chair got sick and the resolution wasn't introduced until July 1, the next-to-last day of the synod. Late that afternoon the resolution passed out of committee unanimously, but the general vote was delayed until the next day -- the final day of the conference.

The agenda moved slowly and deliberately on July 2. Morning turned to afternoon, and Moyer texted a colleague: "The conference still hasn't gotten to the MTR resolution. I'm worried it won't make it up, which means it wouldn't be looked at again until October. Fingers crossed."

Finally, late in the day, another text from Moyer arrived: "It passed! The resolution against MTR passed! The United Church of Christ will now demand an end to MTR!"

Moyer-watches-MTR-vote

Of the nearly 850 delegates casting a vote, more than 96 percent had approved the resolution. And to Moyer's delight, Jim Antal's resolution calling on the UCC to divest from fossil fuels passed as well.

Read what Moyer had to say about the week's events in this column.

"It's amazing to have come so far in a year-and-a-half and see this victory," Moyer says. "I know we still have a lot of work ahead of us; as one colleague put it to me, 'We've crested a hill now, only to see another one in front of us.' But I'm so proud of my denomination in being a witness in calling for the protection of God's creation and of all God's people."

To which this agnostic can only say, "Amen."


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