Snow in Southern Appalachia

We have no choice but to slow down

By Michael M. Barrick

CALDWELL COUNTY, N.C. – Here, of North Carolina’s 100 counties, the elevation increase is the highest in the state, from about 900 feet, where the Catawba River forms much of the southern boundary, to the high Blue Ridge slopes of Grandfather Mountain, where the peaks kiss the sky at just under 6,000 feet far to the north.

Lenoir NC

Lenoir, N.C.

So, it can be raining at one end and dropping a foot of snow at the other. We live in the center of the county, near the base of Hibriten Mountain (elevation 2,211 feet). It is the western peak of the Brushy Mountain Range of the Appalachian Mountains.

Bird Houses 3

Home sweet home

Beginning yesterday morning and not ceasing since, we’ve gotten an early December snowfall; it isn’t unheard of, but it isn’t an annual event either. The prediction was 2 to 4 inches or more of snow. We reached “or more” within hours of the first flake falling yesterday around 8 a.m.

Bird House [peace] in snow

December is here

So, we have no choice but to slow down, enjoy the quiet and relax. It also seems like a good time to take a few photos and offer a prayer for peace.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017.

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Musings about Advent

A time of anticipation – and questioning

By Michael M. Barrick

Note: I acknowledge that other faith traditions have sacred observances now and throughout the year. I make no claims to an exclusive truth. Rather, I simply follow the advice of Mark Twain and write what I know about. So, having been raised by devoted Catholic parents, it is only natural that at this time of year, I ponder Advent.

LENOIR, N.C.  – As I gaze out the window above my desk listening to Christmas music and watch the ground silently and magically turn white from a predicted 2 – 4 inch snowfall, I am naturally nostalgic.

My fundamental belief is that Advent is about love – nothing more, nothing less.

Yet, as I generally do every December, I am struggling to hold onto what I believed as a child when the snows began to fall in the West Virginia hills. It is a time of anticipation – and questioning.

Naturally, as a child, my anticipation had more to do with the football or bicycle I hoped I was going to get on Christmas morning. Now, in my seventh decade on the planet, I find the season to be a time of questioning.

Nativity scene_walter-chavez-300070

Photo by Walter Chávez on Unsplash

My fundamental belief is that Advent is about love – nothing more, nothing less. It has taken my whole life (well, not yet is hasn’t), to figure out that Jesus simply calls us to love and expressly forbids us from judging others. Amy Grant sings of it in “Emmanuel, God With Us.” The claim of Christmas is a claim of Incarnation, a claim many simply find implausible.

Even if you do believe it, living it is a whole different matter. Others often confuse me for Scrooge in December. That’s not true; I’m always a curmudgeon. The difference in December is that I find it difficult to not get angry since most Christians don’t seem to make much effort to examine and live the implications of the Incarnation.

So, I just get particularly grouchy in December. A lifelong friend, though, has helped me look at Advent differently this year. The question I ponder every December is eloquently and expertly addressed by the late Dr. Howard Thurman, a theologian I learned about from my friend, who sent me Dr. Thurman’s book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” published in 1949.

Dr. Thurman gets immediately to the point on page 1. “Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak.”  Forcing us to study the human Jesus in first century Palestine, Dr. Thurman adds, “The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?”(Italics added).

Dr. Thurman is not alone in asking that question. Several musicians cause me to consider the message and meaning of Advent. Among them are:

Each, like Dr. Thurman, gives us much to contemplate this month – and always.

© Michael. M. Barrick, 2017. 

A Lesson from the Worst Mining Disaster in U.S. History

Many West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome

By Michael M. Barrick 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – It was 110 years ago today that the greatest coal-mining disaster in United States history occurred in the small mining town of Monongah in northern West Virginia.

On December 6, 1907, at about 10:30 a.m., two coal mines – connected underground – known as Monongah No. 6 and Monongah No. 8, were destroyed by a series of explosions that killed more than 500 miners. While the official count listed 358 miners and three rescuers dead, the use of subcontractors by miners to increase their production, as well as the number of funerals, have lead historians to conclude that the number of dead likely exceeds 500. Located just south of Fairmont, the mines – owned by the Fairmont Coal Company – rocked the earth, destroyed the mines’ infrastructure, and sent debris flying hundreds of yards above ground as it obliterated above-ground entrances and buildings.

The disaster affected every person in the town, which was built along the banks and hillsides surrounding the West Fork branch of the Monongahela River. Despite its small size and hard living, it was a diverse community, made up of nearby residents but also a vast number of immigrants from Central and Southern Europe. By 1905, Monongah had about 6,000 residents.

There is plenty of evidence that West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, ‘a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands.’

Such human tragedy, unfortunately, has left many lessons unlearned. In fact, it suggests that a vast majority of West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome.

That was made abundantly clear yesterday with the report by West Virginia Public Broadcasting that “Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has officially filed paperwork to run for U.S. Senate in West Virginia.” Yes, that’s the same Don Blankenship that got by with murder, as I wrote here about the 29 coal miners that died in the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mining disaster on April 5, 2010. He is out of prison from his paltry one-year sentence for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards.

The timing of his filing is beyond ironic; it is downright contemptible.

Just as miners were changing shifts that early spring afternoon in 2010 at the UBB coal mine, an explosion roared through the mine. Instantly, the 29 miners working for Massey Energy were dead, families were devastated and communities of southern West Virginia were forever changed.

Clearly, since technology has improved to the point that major mining disasters simply need not happen, the problem is not with the science of deep mining; it is with the culture that guides the crony capitalism which has dominated West Virginia since the beginning of the industrial age.

West Virginians and the Stockholm Syndrome

Unfortunately, it is just not industrialist and politicians who are to blame; so too are many West Virginians. They simply vote against their own interests. It would not surprise me if Blankenship wins the Republican primary and defeats the Democratic incumbent, Joe Manchin III. Regardless of how the campaign plays out, there is plenty of evidence that West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, “a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands,” according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

This notion was recently shared with me by a very frustrated mayor in a small West Virginia town long-ago abandoned by the coal companies, leaving behind a dying community and destroyed landscape in a once-beautiful valley carved out by numerous rivers. One might take issue with the mayor’s claim, which is based on his disgust with the overwhelming support that West Virginia voters gave President Trump and Governor Jim Justice, who this past summer switched to the Republican Party after being elected as a Democrat last year. Justice is also the state’s only billionaire.

What is not debatable, however, is the deadly history of the coal industry in West Virginia. That Blankenship has the audacity to file for office, exactly 110 years after the Monongah tragedy, suggests that West Virginia is full of people essentially saying, “Abuse me. Please.”

What happened at Upper Big Branch

This was the blunt conclusion of the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) about UBB. Among the panel’s findings:
• The disaster was preventable because basic safety systems failed and/or were disregarded;
• These failure of safety systems was caused by a corporate culture by mine operator Massey Energy that put profits before safety;
• Massey Energy was able to operate with such a corporate culture because its dominant influence in the West Virginia coalfields allowed it to exert inordinate influence on West Virginia political officials responsible for ensuring mine safety; and,
• Those with regulatory oversight at both the state and federal levels failed in their roles as watchdogs.

In short, it is business as usual in the West Virginia coalfields. From the worst mining disaster in U.S. history, to the most recent disaster at Upper Big Branch, the words of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones are as appropriate today as when she first spoke them roughly a century ago – “There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice.” 

Monongah

At Monongah, both mines were less than 10 years old and were producing in excess of 12,000 tons of coal a day by the time of explosion. They were also considered state-of-the art. “Mines No. 6 and 8 both employed the most up-to-date, sophisticated ventilation systems.” (McAteer 64). John Nugent, the Immigration Commissioner for the State of West Virginia affirmed an advertisement made by The Consolidated Coal Co., Inc. seeking immigrant help. The mines, the company claimed, were, “Practically free from explosive gases.” (McAteer 74).

Obviously, the advertisements were mistaken or false. Thus, the all-too cozy relationship between operators and those charged with regulating them was formed. As the UBB GIIP reports, that has remained unchanged a century later. While the exact cause of the Monongah explosion was never determined – as much for political as scientific reasons – there was no mistaking that the influence the mining owners enjoyed with local and state politicians ensured that the operators’ interests – profits – always trumped the miners’ interests – a safe working environment.

Monongah headline

Headline tells of the disaster at Monongah

When the explosion occurred, 19 coal cars (each loaded with two tons of coal), being pulled out of the bowels of the mine broke free and crashed 1,300 feet back into the mine portal. The runaway cars broke lose electrical wiring, destroyed structures and ultimately disrupted the ventilation system. “At that instant, from deep within the mine an explosion rumbled, a terrible explosive report rocketing out of both mines, rippling shocks through the earth in every direction. … A second explosion followed immediately, and at the No. 8 mine entrances explosive forces rocketed out of the mine mouth like blasts from a cannon, the forces shredding everything in their path” (McAteer 116). 

Blaming the Victims

Even though an exact cause was not immediately known or even determined, it was not long before the miners themselves were made the scapegoats. Fairmont Coal Company President C. W. Watson immediately capitalized on the anti-immigrant feelings of the time, telling the New York Times almost immediately after the disaster that “… he could not account for the ignition of the dust unless it had been through careless use of an open lamp” (McAteer 158).

Conversely, Clarence Hall, a leading expert on mine explosions at the time, was in nearby Pennsylvania when the catastrophe occurred. He stated, “When I enter a mine these days it is with fear and trembling. We seem to know so little of these gas and dust explosions. Sometimes I feel the poor miner has not a ghost of a show for his life when he enters a mine.” (McAteer 159) 

Tragedy upon Tragedy

There were no organized rescue teams in U.S. mines at the time. However, the dangers to the rescuers, along with the reality that the effort was a recovery effort for dead miners allowed for time to organize miners and volunteers. Of course, rescue efforts – such as repairing the ventilation systems in the hopes of removing the deadly gases from the mines – were heroic, if unsuccessful. “What has to be said is that the rescue efforts were not successful and the equipment provided to miners to ensure their escape was inadequate” (McAteer 264).

It soon became apparent to the rescuers and stunned families of the miners gathering on the Monongah hillsides that the force of the blast, the lack of oxygen, and the instability of the mine combined for a horrible reality – virtually all those in the mine had perished. Recovered bodies were a horrid site to behold. Mine explosions “…inflict multiple-system life threatening injuries on many persons simultaneously. When the explosion is of a high order of magnitude, it can produce a defining supersonic, overpressurization shock wave” (McAteer 131).

Monogah-Mining-Disaster-1907-sign-CREDIT-Einhorn-Press-DOT-com

Photo credit: Einhorn Press

Injuries include damaged or destroyed lungs, blunt force trauma to the head and body, ruptures of the middle ear and eye, and damage to internal organs. Those that survive those injuries generally die from suffocation as lethal gases are released following the explosion. Rescuers, too, were at great risk. In addition to the instability of the mine and lack of oxygen, rescuers had no personal protective equipment or breathing devices. “Imagine a handful of reckless, bedraggled men going into the cavern with lanterns with sulfurous fumes in their faces dragging out the charred bodies of men, some with their faces burned off. That is what Monongah looked like. …In some instances the bodies were perfectly preserved and recognition was immediate; in other cases, the bodies were so badly disfigured or mutilated, identification was impossible.” (McAteer 143). 

An Unholy Alliance

Motivated by the example of John D. Rockefeller, who in the late 19th Century controlled much of the world’s oil resources, financiers from outside of West Virginia collaborated with well-connected Mountain State elected officials, judges, municipal leaders and state and local law enforcement to extract coal from its mountains, leaving not even the dignity of the coal miners intact. “The fact that the Fairmont companies, led by the Monongah mines, paid lower wages across the board meant that the three mines could sell their coal at a lower rate and thereby capture an increasing share of the markets, threatening the wages and unionization in the other states” (McAteer 101). Indeed, by the turn of the century, three men – U.S. Senators Johnson N. Camden and Clarence Watson, as well as Judge A. B. Fleming, controlled all of the mines along the Monongahela River in West Virginia, as well as the railroad lines.

Meanwhile, the company fought efforts to compensate the surviving family members of the dead miners. This is not surprising, as “In the early 1900s, families of miners who died in a mine accident or disaster had nothing in the way of economic protection and little legal recourse following a mine disaster. This was especially true in West Virginia where the coal interest was entwined with every facet of the state’s political, economic, social and legal systems” (McAteer 212).

Companies also vigorously – and successfully – opposed unionization efforts for decades. “The powerful elite of West Virginia on both Democrat and Republican side of the aisle united in their opposition to union organization efforts, and after seeing the success of the Fairmont Consolidation Company, the southern West Virginia mine operations that wished to build on the success met in secret to decide on some general plan of resistance to union encroachments based on the successful strategy employed at Monongah” (McAteer 113).

So, politicians debated and dithered. Meanwhile, miners continued to die at alarming rates. In fact, “On November 20, 1968, the Farmington Mine, a mine not five miles from the Monongah mine in the same Pittsburgh seam owned by the same company, Consolidation Coal Company, exploded, trapping seventy-eight miners” ( McAteer 262). Though federal legislation followed that disaster – the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969 – the unholy alliance between coal officials and West Virginia elected leaders continued – and does to this day. For proof, we need look no further than the UBB disaster. 

We know we should learn from history. Yet, as we consider the human suffering inflicted upon the people of Monongah 110 years ago, and upon those of Upper Big Branch, Farmington, Buffalo Creek, Sago, Blair Mountain, and countless other communities since, we must conclude that we have not.

This should give us pause. The West Virginia state motto is Montani Semper Liberi – “Mountaineers are Always Free.” Though they may think they are, they are mistaken. In reality, my friend the mayor is right. The proud people of the Mountain State are not free; rather, as the Stockholm Syndrome illustrates, they “identify closely” with their crony capitalist captors and their demands.

WV State seal.png

© Appalachian Chronicle, 2014 – 2017. Michael M. Barrick is a native of Clarksburg, W.Va. He has lived also in Weston and Alum Bridge. He presently writes from his home in Western North Carolina, but continues to visit and work in his home state. 

Works Cited
David McAteer, Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster (Morgantown, W.Va: West Virginia University Press, 2007).

Upper Big Branch: The April 5, 2010 explosion: a failure of basic coal mine safety practices (Shepherdstown, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, May 2011).

The Sago Mine Disaster: A preliminary report to Governor Joe Manchin III (Buckhannon, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, July 2006).

 

Learning by Teaching

Fellow students respond favorably to comic strip about Mountaintop Removal

Editor’s note: On Dec. 1 we published an article about Olivia Bouzigard’s efforts to educate herself and others at Appalachian State University about the deadly impact of Mountaintop Removal (MTR). I asked her to write an essay explaining how she chose the topic and method for teaching it. She explains below. Personally, I extend thanks to her instructor, Heather Custer, who has the rare ability to challenge her students to demonstrate evidence of minds at work. Also, the illustration is published again, just in case you missed it the first time. – MB

By Olivia Bouzigard

BOONE, N.C. – I am a sophomore at Appalachian State University (ASU) with a major in Public Relations and minors in Recreational Management and Philosophy. I am currently enrolled in a writing class where I was to take on the task of writing about an issue that I thought was important. When I came to ASU as a first year student, I was enrolled in a recreational management class where I learned about Mountaintop Removal (MTR). This was the issue that I chose to write about.

mtr_0388 courtesy OHVEC

Mountaintop Removal. Photo courtesy of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

The first part of the project dealt with composing a white paper of the research that I had done. I interviewed several people, read books, watched a documentary and read through health studies people had researched about MTR. Finally, the second part of the project was to come up with another way to present this information. I chose to make a comic strip that combined all my research together into three simple illustrations. Then as part of the project’s requirements we had to somehow present this information. I chose to set up a contact table in the student union on campus and ask people for their time as I passed out my comic and taught them about MTR.

Essentially, I wanted to illustrate a pattern that one cannot easily escape the effects of MTR and that everything that comes with MTR is devastating.

As students passed by the table I would stop them to ask if I could have a few minutes of their time. For those who said yes, I followed with the simple question: Do you know what Mountaintop Removal is? Those who said they did, I asked how they knew what it was and asked them to give me a description. Many said they had learned about it at ASU or in a class in high school, which I thought was interesting.

I then asked them to give a brief description of what they knew about MTR. One student responded, “It has to do with our energy and stuff, right?” Another student said, “I know that it is bad.” However, no one could give me an overall quick description of it. A key goal of my project was to help students to be able to quickly define it, so in the comic strip, I start off with a definition of MTR from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those who said they did not know what mountaintop removal was, that definition is the one I used.

MTR comic

Illustration by Olivia Bouzigard

I then explained the comic to the students that stopped by. I shared that the mountain is upset because it has no say in whether it is destroyed or not. Coal companies are known for coming in quickly, destroying the area, and then quickly leaving. Their focus is only on the coal and nothing else. Then the comic moves into air that is upset and lungs that are upset. The purpose of this drawing is because many people are breathing in the particles from the removal sites and do not realize it, so their lungs become damaged. The final picture shows a sad house, a sad human and an angry crane. This illustrates that MTR not only devastates the mountains but devastates the towns and ruins them. It also is illustrating that the people of these towns have no say in whether these coal companies come and they just wait for them to leave. The angry crane shows that the coal company is just there to get the job done and leave.

Essentially, I wanted to illustrate a pattern that one cannot easily escape the effects of MTR and that everything that comes with MTR is devastating.

After presenting the comic to students, I asked if it was helpful. Everyone said yes. Comments included that they now know what it is. There were many comments of gratitude for sharing the information and acknowledgements that MTR is a significant public health and environmental issue.

Still, I am not done. I know that people have spent lifetimes learning about opposing MTR, so I intend to continue to educate myself about MTR, keeping others informed and finding alternatives. The comic strip was a first, but very powerful step for me and those I taught.

© Olivia Bouzigard, 2017.

MTR photo courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. To learn more about their work, visit their website.

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Are West Virginians Docile?

Catholic Committee of Appalachia Asks Appalachia’s Bishops to Vigorously Support and Apply Pope’s Ecological Encyclical

Catholic Committee of Appalachia Issues Statement on Applying Pope Francis’ Ecological Encyclical

Citing Medical Studies, Activists Call for an End to Mountaintop Removal Permits

Environmental Groups Target WVDEP over Mountaintop Removal Permitting

Federal and State Agencies Targeted for Lax Oversight of Mountaintop Removal

Have We Learned Anything from Buffalo Creek?

Jim Justice Mining Operation Endangers Public Health and Ecology, Says Scientific Center

Monongah Tragedy Still Looms Large

Mountaintop Removal Semantics Debate Gives Ammunition to Energy Industry

Poor Emergency Planning in West Virginia Puts Citizens at Risk

Recent Coal Mining Deaths are Acts of Greed, Not ‘Acts of God’

West Virginia Catholic Diocese Challenged to Reject Coal’s ‘Dirty Money’

 

ASU Student Uses Art to Teach Peers about MTR

A mind at work inspired research and response

By Michael M. Barrick

BOONE, N.C. – In late October, a professor at Appalachian State University (ASU) reached out to me because she had a student that wanted to learn more about Mountaintop Removal (MTR). I immediately contacted the student, and within two weeks we were meeting at a coffee shop in Boone.

Olivia Bouzigard, a graduate of a high school in Raleigh, N.C., confided to me that until she enrolled at ASU, she had never heard of MTR. So, prior to and following our meeting, I sent her links and information about people and organizations in Appalachia – in particularly West Virginia – that were fighting to end MTR because of its deadly effects on people and the destruction it caused to vital ecosystems and watersheds.

MTR comic

I was impressed even before I met her, as our email exchanges revealed evidence of a mind at work. When I finally met Olivia, her interest and concern were clear. I don’t keep track of time well, so I don’t know how long we met, but it wasn’t long enough to tell her everything she needed to know. It didn’t matter. From that meeting, Olivia ran with it.

What is impressive about her interest is that MTR is not really relevant to her major. She just cared. So, the other – and perhaps most important thing that impressed me about Olivia – is that she defied the stereotype that I hear from far too many people – that the current college-aged generation is self-absorbed.

As I traveled down the mountain back home from our meeting, I wasn’t sure what Olivia would do with her new knowledge and interest, but I was confident she would do something. Oh my, did she ever. The comic above says more in five simple illustrations than the thousands of words I have written about MTR. Most noteworthy is that she is using the comic to educate her fellow students at ASU.

So to Olivia and her like-minded peers, I say, Bravo! Thank you for caring about the poor and vulnerable. Thank you for caring for the environment. Thank you for looking beyond your own concerns to the needs of others. Thank you for being creative. Finally, thank you for challenging people of all ages to educate themselves about MTR and other assaults upon Appalachia and all of the sacred earth which sustains us.

Finally, thank you for giving me hope about the future. When I was teaching, I always challenged my students with this guiding tenet: Every day, all that I ask is that I see evidence of minds at work. With Olivia, that is exactly what I experienced.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017. “Classic Mountaintop Removal” comic, © Olivia Bouzigard, 2017

Black (Heart) Friday

Obsession with stuff that will become dust – like us – reveals our true priorities

By Michael M. Barrick

LENOIR, N.C. – Before this day is out, we will almost certainly see images of people stampeding over one another in order to be the first to get the newest trinket, cell phone, computer or toy. Then, of course, there are the unending advertisements in print, on TV and the web.

It is indeed, Black Friday in the U.S.A. Not, however, for the stated reason. A person recently asked me why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday. I explained that it is the busiest retail day of the year, the day that helps ensure that the red ink on the balance sheet turns black for the year. However, I didn’t stop there. I also used the question as a teachable moment. I added that Black Friday is an apt description of our nation’s heart. In short, I said, it proves we care more about stuff than people.

You will hear from certain preachers and politicians that this is – or should be – a Christian nation. Black (Heart) Friday proves this is simply not the case. But in case anyone wonders what a true Christian nation would look like, consider first teachings from Jesus about money and possessions, and then what we are taught are God’s priorities. This much is clear: the “Christian” nation that many envision is totally opposite of what you read below.

Let’s begin with the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. … No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? … So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6: 19-21, 24-25, 31-33 NIV).

Black Friday photo

Is there really any doubt that serving money is our nation’s top priority?

God’s priorities, conversely, are quite different, as we read in the Old Testament: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV).

Our obsession with today’s best deals for what amount to nothing more than meaningless trinkets reveals a nation that is anything but “Christian.” So, think for yourself. Do not let the carnival barkers lead you astray. If we will change our priorities and care for people instead of possessions, we will find our land a much more livable and welcoming place. We don’t need to call ourselves Christians to do that. We simply need to behave as humans, not desperate animals.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017.  Photo by José Martín Ramírez C on Unsplash

Thanks Roy

Moore’s racist statement on 1965 Voting Rights Act offers a teachable moment

By Art Sherwood and Michael M. Barrick

Remember when the question “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)” was trending?

Well, Roy Moore of Alabama has forced the nation – and most critically, Christians of all stripes – to ask that question again.

Last week, at a revival meeting – oh, I’m sorry, I mean campaign event – in Jackson, Ala., Moore revealed his racist views when he said that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had created “a problem.” As numerous news outlets reported, Moore said, “They started creating new rights in 1965. Today we’ve got a problem.”

He is right. We do have a problem. Religious-based bigotry continues to be a guiding principle of far too many politicians like Moore. And, he was called out on it by Rev. William Barber, a founder of Moral Mondays in North Carolina, as well as scores of other pastors and laity at a gathering in Birmingham later in the week.

Cross by Tim Marshall

As Christians, Moore’s comments at first infuriated us, as we have seen far too many people – especially teenagers and younger adults – abandon Christianity because of people like Moore who pervert biblical teaching for political gain. Then we realized he had presented us with a teachable moment.

Indeed, we have both witnessed first-hand the caustic effects of politics in religion.

Art’s experience

From 1979 to 1989, I served as a trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. During that 10 year period, I watched in dismay as a highly-respected pastor from the Dallas area was denied a teaching position because he had the temerity to allow his congregation to include women when electing deacons. This was just one event of many in which Baptist seminaries were taken over by fundamentalists so that they could transform the Southern Baptist Convention into what we see today.

As a Southern Baptist, however, I know that the concept of the “priesthood of the believer” requires that I use the brain given me by God to apply the teachings of Jesus.

Not only does political intrigue sully Christianity, but the misapplication of our faith also corrupts politics. Again, an anecdote drives home this point. During a recent election, a candidate for office was working a poll on Election Day and had a voter tell her, “I’m going to vote for you.” When the voter came out about 30 minutes later, she told the candidate, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t vote for you because you were not on the ‘Christian list.’”

Political office is not a place to impose our Christian beliefs on others, but rather to acknowledge the demands it makes on us personally. It is not our place to judge another’s faith journey, and certainly not the role of government to make any such judgments.

This is ludicrous. There is no “Christian list.” Neither political party – indeed, no political party – can claim to be the “Christian party.” Indeed, this sort of demonizing of people is entirely inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. This story is one that is repeated across the nation. It causes harm to the political process and our faith.

Michael’s experience

As a high school representative on my parish council in Clarksburg, W.Va. during the early 1970s, I witnessed the viciousness of ethnic bigotry as churches were consolidated. Parish priests who tried to reconcile the groups often found themselves banished to other parishes or desk jobs.

More recently, right here in Caldwell County, when I served on the Republican Executive Committee about 18 years ago – in fact, at my first meeting as a member – the local GOP opened the meeting by telling me they had a gift for me. It was a Confederate flag that read, “Hell No, I Won’t Come Down!” The reason I was given this “gift”? The Lenoir News-Topic printed an editorial I wrote as a newly elected member to the School Board. In it, I argued that it was time we put a stop to students wearing t-shirts with Confederate flags to school and flying the Confederate flags from their trucks.

That flag presentation was the primary precipitant for me eventually leaving the GOP, though I repent for not doing it immediately; however, I naively thought I could change it. When presented with the flag, I answered the only way I knew how. I said, “I accept it in the spirit in which it is offered.” Many people living in Caldwell County today were at that meeting. In case there is any confusion for them about my answer, I will clarify it. The “gift” was offered in hate. While I did not accept it with hate in my heart, I knew their motivation and wanted them to know it.

Our takeaway

Roy Moore and his ilk are the products of such bigotry.

The Bible teaches something far different than bigotry. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5: 22, 23 NIV).

While political leaders applying – and debating – Christian faith is as old as the republic, using our faith to oppress people – as Moore did by saying black people should not be allowed to vote –  is simply evil.

We hold a different view. We believe that this is what the Christian faith requires of those in leadership:

  1. Show a preferential concern for the poor and vulnerable;
  2. Run a campaign that reflects favorably upon our faith; and,
  3. Upon election, govern with a servant’s heart.

There is a point-of-view within conservative Christian circles that it is not the role of government to care for the poor and vulnerable. First, Jesus never prescribed how we are to care for the poor, sick, imprisoned, widowed, orphaned and other vulnerable people; he just said care for them. That means we can do it individually, through government or corporately as a church.

We should remember that the only time in the New Testament that Jesus states how our lives will be judged is found in Matthew 25 in the story of the sheep and the goats. There, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40 NIV).

We believe that Christians seeking and in office must live as Christ lived – with a servant’s heart. Scripture teaches, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant …” (Phil. 2:4-7, NIV). So, we must first have a servant’s heart. That is the number one characteristic of a leader.

Once in that leadership position, we must live a life of love. We can – and must – do it.  Still, in politics, that is no easy charge. Consider how counter to the political culture this insight is: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13: 4, 5 NIV). These verses warn against everything that is customary in politics. If we behave as most politicians, we are in violation of Scripture. Consequently, we undermine our witness and ruin our chance at our most important calling – “… the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24c, NIV).

Political office is not a place to impose our Christian beliefs on others, but rather to acknowledge the demands it makes on us personally. It is not our place to judge another’s faith journey, and certainly not the role of government to make any such judgments. Indeed, as we read in Matthew 19:22, Jesus does not hesitate to respect free will and allow people to walk away from him. So, whether we are at home, in town, at church or a U.S. Senator, we are to live our faith for the benefit of others, not to impose it upon them.

We do not need, nor can we survive, a theocracy. However, we are called to live authentic Christian lives, regardless of our vocation. It is not easy to do, especially in the realm of politics. It is not easy to do so when governing in a republic, with so many voices and so many needs. But it can be done. It must be done. If we do so, we are promised success of the highest order, according to Paul, who also wrote, “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8 NIV).

© The Lenoir Voice, 2017. Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

 About the Authors

Dr. Arthur M. Sherwood earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 1970. He has devoted his career to helping veterans and others with spinal cord injuries maximize their ability to function independently. He has also been very active in the Baptist faith, having served as a Trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for 10 years, and staying active in a local congregation wherever his vocation has taken him.

Michael M. Barrick is a writer and educator. He has a B.A. in English and history from Glenville State College in West Virginia. His understanding of Catholic teaching on social justice informs his writing.

Both live in Caldwell County, N.C.

Enough with the Destruction

‘The Resistance’ can count me out if all it seeks is destruction

By Michael M. Barrick

I am an old hippie who has no use for the ways of the established order. Ask the CEO of any corporation or the principal of any school for which I’ve worked. Or the pastor of any church I’ve attended. Most “order” is based on outdated, controlling systems designed to destroy creativity, and hence freedom. That leads to injustice.

I was raised to recognize and oppose injustice. I was also taught to do it peacefully. I was also taught there were great costs to standing against “The Establishment.” I learned that mostly the hard way.

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I still oppose “The Establishment” even though my generation is the establishment. I am with the disaffected and dissatisfied. I am not satisfied with the direction of our nation. I believe “Citizens United” has led us down the path of crony capitalism even worse than the Robber Barron era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In short, the inordinate control that corporations exert over our personal lives and political systems as a result of that Supreme Court decision have so polluted our national discourse that this outcome – violent resistance – was inevitable.

It is still unacceptable though. “The Resistance” must reject anarchy. Too many protesters are leaderless with no clear purpose short of destruction. If they wish to improve how our nation cares for the poor, vulnerable and the environment (I think that’s what they want other than Donald Trump’s head), they need leadership. Now.

That would – should – come from progressive clergy and politicians. The anarchists have legitimate complaints. There is truth to the saying, “If you want peace, work for justice.” There is plenty of injustice today. No ordinary American would ever enjoy the bailout received by Wall Street. Police departments do not need to be militarized. Energy companies such as Dominion and Duke should not be allowed to destroy the environment and seize private property through eminent domain to build fracking infrastructure. The War on Drugs is a complete failure, leading to the unjust imprisonment of tens of thousands of people, mostly minorities. We are spending more on the military than ever before even though we can’t muster the will to provide health coverage for all Americans.

So, one can understand the anger.

Violence, however, is not the answer.

To appreciate that, one needs a sense of history. There is talk on street corners no matter where I go that people say they’ve never seen our country in such a mess. I have. It was 1968.

The Vietnam War was at its peak, with thousands of young Americans subjected to an unjust draft. It was called the Selective Service System and it was very selective. If you were in college or could get a deferment because daddy had connections, you weren’t selected. So, eventually, the working class youth had enough of it and started burning draft cards, fleeing to Canada and even occupying buildings. Yes, there was some violence, especially at the Democratic National Convention, but that was largely precipitated by Chicago’s ruthless police.

Also in 1968, blacks, a century after the completion of the Civil War, were still having to fight for economic justice and attempts by white supremacists such as Alabama Governor George Wallace to deny them their constitutional rights.

The nightly news in 1968 was dominated by headlines about war, domestic unrest, racism, and political assassinations. We’ve been here before.

The most obvious attack upon the Civil Rights movement was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But he was not the only person killed that year. So was Bobby Kennedy, as he closed in on the Democratic nomination for president. So were activists and students. The nightly news in 1968 was dominated by headlines about war, domestic unrest, racism, and political assassinations. We’ve been here before.

As I did then, I turn to music for guidance. The folk and rock protest music of the 1960s and 70s helped stop the Vietnam War. And, the most popular group of the decade, the Beatles, spoke to the madness of 1968 through their song, “Revolution,” which was released in November of that year. Compared to many other groups, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Beatles had been relatively silent on political issues – until John Lennon penned “Revolution.”

Here is the first verse: “You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world. / You tell me that it’s evolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world. / But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know you can count me out.”

Well, 50 years later, nothing has changed. I want to change the world. There are literally as many ways to do that as there are people willing to do it. But when you are destructive, you lose me as an ally.

Being destructive is being lazy. It shows a lack of real thought about how to address our many disagreements. It sets a horrible example for our children, and converts nobody. It is unbecoming of a human being. So, if we wish to convince others to be more humane, we must set the example.

No violence. No destruction. Only love.

Try it. It is my experience that in the end, to be effective, you’ll only have time for love.

© Michael M. Barrick. Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash

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Remembering April Renee

This poem is shared in memory of our dear “little” sister, April Renee Ball (WVU ’84) who passed away on Aug. 30, 2017. You may read her obituary here.

April obit photo

April Renee (Barrick) Ball

When, from St. Mary’s Hospital

Sparky returned home in the snow,

she carried with her

the scarlet-faced baby

that forever, to Mickey and me,

would be Little Sister.

 

Walking home from school with you

from first grade on,

I thought would last forever.

But then I chose a path in 1974

which, to this day, remains a mystery.

 

On a return trip home you smiled away

as the speakers in my orange Beetle

blasted Uriah Heap against your ear drums.

 

In time you found a man

I considered worthy – as if it mattered.

Together you gave me two of my best friends –

your daughter, your son

my niece, my nephew.

 

Though separated now by timely death,

apart physically but present in spirit,

the bonds of love between Little Sister, Big Brother and Big Sister

are held together by memories,

and our dearly departed Mother and Father.

 

With a prayer of joy and a tear in my eye,

I daily thank God

for January 10, 1962.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

American Health Care is an Industry, Not a System

Recognizing the distinction is essential to ensure access as a basic human right

By Dr. Arthur M. Sherwood and Michael M. Barrick

The United States Congress has no hope of resolving any of the many health care challenges facing Americans until it understands that in the United States, health care is an industry, not a “system.”

This distinction is critical – and one would think, obvious. Just ask anyone seeking quality time with their physician, looking for an insurance company that won’t demand that their doctor discharge them from a hospital earlier than medically appropriate, and playing the pharmacy lottery forced upon them by the pharmaceutical companies. The difficulty in accessing health care is apparent to anyone who has had need of it, from difficulty in funding care to identifying appropriate care.

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So, with the costs and complications of the health care industry evidently beyond reform – considering we’ve been debating this issue since the Truman Administration – it is time to transform how Americans access health care.

We believe that health care is a fundamental human right, embedded in the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” phrase of the United States Declaration of Independence. Hence, we support universal health insurance with a single-payer system. Incidentally, it is far more efficient than the current puzzle of industries competing for profits, when the focus of health care delivery should be clear – exceptional care for every person.

First, though, members of Congress need to understand and concur that the U.S. does not have a health care system. Only by correctly understanding the issue is an intelligent approach possible.

We believe that health care is a fundamental human right, embedded in the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” phrase of the United States Declaration of Independence. Hence, we support universal health insurance with a single-payer system.

Some have argued that the United States has the best health care in the world. It may be true that outstanding providers of health care can be found in the U.S. But it is certainly not true that we have the best health care system in the world.

Health care in America is anything but systematic; according to “Webster’s Universal College Dictionary,” systematic means “having, showing, or involving a system, method, or plan.” There is no plan. There has been no plan. There is not even method to the madness.

The good news is, Congress has an example from which it can learn – the Department of Veterans Affairs. It was created after the Civil War to honor Abraham Lincoln’s idea expressed in his Second Inaugural Address: “to care for him who has borne the heat of battle, and his widow and his orphans.” Indeed, the VA adopted this sentiment as its motto in 1959. The Veterans Health Administration is the largest single provider of health care in the United States, and provides care for millions of veterans. It has seen creation of many of the advances of modern medicine, including the very concept of clinical trials. Creation of electronic health records was facilitated by the VHA, as was promotion of preventative medicine. Provision of care is done via a network of small and large facilities spread around the country, with additional funding possible to provide care in every corner of our great country.

The absence of any real system can be seen in the lack of any structured plan for systematic care of the population. For example, if an individual sustains a serious injury to their spinal cord, there is no mechanism in place to ensure that patient gets sent to the centers best equipped to manage such injuries.

It is even much more evident in the nation’s depressing health statistics, where, e.g., the life expectancy for adult males has actually declined in recent years, the only advanced country in which that happened, reversing what had been a steady advance in life expectancy over the past century. Or, perhaps more importantly, where the rate of childbirth mortality is so high that the U.S. ranks 45th in the world in that category. Mothers in the U.S. are twice as likely to die in childbirth as are mothers in Canada.

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During the past decade in particular, this inability to distinguish between a nation with a health care industry and not a system has misdirected the debate regarding the health care needs of Americans. Many of the arguments about financing health care miss the point. The fragmented nature of such financing is further evidence of a lack of a system. Currently, far too much time, effort and money is expended on cost shifting – playing games with peoples’ lives in order to minimize expenditures from each competing source, whether that be the individual, one or more private, for-profit, insurance or pharmaceutical companies, or local, state or federal governments.

Cities and counties bear much of the expense of indigent care; state budgets are severely impacted by costs of health care, and the federal budget allocates a great deal of money to health care. With all that money spent, the lack of timely and appropriate health care sends many people to the emergency room, with a lowered likelihood of good outcomes (compared to early, preventative care), utilizing the most expensive entry point into health care. Additionally, the lack of universal prenatal care results in unconscionable and unnecessary outcomes such as a higher percentage of premature births and prolonged stays in astronomically expensive neonatal intensive care units.

Our current approach to health care delivery makes no sense fiscally, and is morally bankrupt. It is absurd for a country such as ours claiming to be an advanced civilization to exhibit so little care for our fellow citizens. And it is even more disturbing that those claiming religious affiliation and allegiance permit such a situation to persist in conflict with Matthew 25: 35-40.

It has been our experience, as professionals in health care and with spouses who have devoted their lives to providing loving, exceptional care, that almost all caregivers are motivated by a desire to help people. For the sake of the people needing such care, it is incumbent upon Congress and President Trump to quit the political posturing, acknowledge that our current industrial approach to health care delivery is inadequate, and replace it with universal, single-payer coverage. We already know how to do it. It’s called Medicare. And, it is what the majority of Americans want. As is customary, the people “get it” first. The question is: Who in Congress and at the White House will stand up for the American people? Who will put people before profit?

© Arthur M. Sherwood and Michael M. Barrick, 2017.

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On Twitter: @appchronicle

All photos on Unsplash. Operating room photo by Piron Guillaume. Pregnancy photo by Marcos Moraes.

About the Authors

Dr. Arthur M. Sherwood earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 1970. He has devoted his career to helping veterans and others with spinal cord injuries maximize their ability to function independently. He has also been very active in the Baptist faith, having served as a Trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for 10 years, and staying active in a local congregation wherever his vocation has taken him.

Michael Barrick has a post-graduate Certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the UNC School of Public Health. He worked for several years as a paramedic and has served as Safety Office and Disaster Preparedness coordinator at two hospitals. He is also an experienced journalist, specializing in health care reporting. Catholic Social Teaching informs his writing.