The Common Good
March 2005

Mountain Defender

by Beth Newberry | March 2005

With fierce faith, Julia Bonds works to save the land and people of West Virginia.

Julia Bonds wears her faith and her mission as an environmental activist on a shirt that says "

Julia Bonds wears her faith and her mission as an environmental activist on a shirt that says "‘Stop destroying my mountains!’ -God."

As outreach coordinator of the Whitesville, West Virginia-based Coal River Mountain Watch, a watchdog and advocacy organization that works to end mountain top removal strip mining, Bonds, 52, has raised the attention of her mountain neighbors as well as the ire of the coal industry. In 2003 she catapulted into the international spotlight when she was one of seven activists from across the globe to win the Goldman Environmental Prize, the largest award ($125,000) given to grassroots environmentalists, sometimes referred to as the "Nobel Prize for the Environment."

It is not only the tenacity and vision of her efforts to end the practice of mountain top removal, or MTR—where coal companies use explosives to blast off the tops of mountains in order to more efficiently mine thin seams of coal with mammoth-sized machines and a limited number of workers—that makes Bonds a noteworthy activist. Whether she is testifying before congressional committees, speaking at a rally, or leading a lawsuit to strengthen environmental protections, her source for renewal and unwavering dedication to her cause is her relationship with God, grounded in a critical reading of the Bible.

Bonds’ spiritual transformation from community member to community activist five years ago wasn’t a singular event but a process that began in the final months she lived in Marfork Hollow, the home-place to nine generations of her family. Bonds was one of the last residents to live in this valley. The Massey Coal Co. built a coal-processing plant and a sludge dam of coal waste, commonly known as a "valley fill," between the mountain ridges looming above her house. The human-made dams are often volatile in the rain, vulnerable to floods that could release hundreds of thousands of gallons of coal particles and waste including arsenic, mercury, and lead.

Bonds says of her awakening as an activist, "I think it was a process that started with what was happening in Marfork Hollow. The slap that woke me up was my grandson lying in bed at night plotting an escape route [from a potential sludge flood]. It broke my heart and made me wonder, why is my grandson’s life forfeited for profit? Why are all these children’s lives forfeited for profit?

"I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he wouldn’t make it out of the house if the slurry dam would break, because there wouldn’t be enough time to escape," she says. "That smacked me in the face. It turned my life around. I knew then that it was a spiritual journey."

The former Pizza Hut-manager-turned-21st-century-Mother Jones took Sojourners on a tour of her hometown and talked about the renewal of what she calls "the covenant of creation," a key component of both her faith and her fight to protect the environment and communities in Appalachia. Driving along the Coal River, Bonds points out once-vital communities with names like Sundial and Sylvester, where homes and stores are empty or have been demolished to accommodate Massey Coal Co. (now Massey Energy) and its subsidiaries. Where corridors of community still stand and elementary schools remain occupied, coal-processing plants and valley fills rise as backdrop, tall as Goliath. The stoking plant distributes a fine, constant black snow of coal dust over roofs, porches, and cars and is responsible for the high rates of asthma in the area. The storage silos and waste pipelines leading to a sludge dam frame what was once a picturesque mountain scene just 300 yards behind the local elementary school.

Bonds drives into the mouth of Marfork Hollow, no longer her physical home but forever a spiritual one. She points out her former house, which is now a bathhouse for Massey employees; her sister’s home, now the guard house; and the land where the community church, Packsville Freewill Baptist, once stood.

The incident with her grandson in Marfork Hollow awoke Bonds spiritually as an adult, but her childhood conversion experience there is of equal importance. She describes an early religious experience from the church. "I was with my sister and my cousin Kathy in the back of the church, and the preacher was preaching," Bonds says. "He was a Southern Baptist, and he was screaming and yelling and pounding. The church was real quiet. And he said, ‘I want to see a show of hands of the people who think a miracle will happen here tonight.’ And that was the night I got saved. So all three of our hands went up. Ours were the only three hands in the air. And the preacher looked back and said, ‘This is amazing; these three small children that were saved are the only three that think miracles will happen tonight.’ Tears came down my face and everybody was crying; it rejuvenated a lot of people in that church."

Rejuvenation is the theme that carries through Bond’s life. Her relationship with the land in the Coal River valley is a source of renewal and motivation. "When I get lost and I feel really down, I have to go in my backyard and remind myself what I’m fighting for: It’s God’s creation. To look up on this mountain and see the birds, the trees, and the beautiful forest—I say thank you, God. We are beholden to the Lord for the air we breathe and the water we drink. People had better renew their covenant with God. Every day God pecks me on the shoulder and says, ‘Look Julia, this is what you missed 20 years ago. I want you to see this now. I gave you the chance.’"

Bonds fights not only for the future of her community, but for the history of it as well by reminding fellow activists and unconvinced neighbors that environmental stewardship is a Bible-based promise to uphold.

"A lot of churches refuse to acknowledge the fact that the creation is important to God," Bonds says. "You have to acknowledge that the one and only God created these things. We have a covenant with God, spelled out in Genesis. God gave us dominion, and a lot of people think that means he gave us the right to destroy everything and take what we what. God meant he made a covenant with us, and he wants us to protect and to act as good stewards on this earth.

"A lot of preachers and churches ignore that, and I don’t know why. Every time I question that, somewhere in the back of my mind God says, ‘Follow the money.’ It’s all about money. They think, ‘If I destroy all this land and rape the earth and make a lot of money off of it and give that to the church, then I will forget about [where the money came from and] my covenant with God to protect his creation.’"

JULIA Bonds’ convictions and commitment are as strong as the mountains she works to protect. Even as she is discouraged by the opening of another MTR site—or by federal policies that make getting permits for valley fill easier—her focus and hope lie in her coalfield neighbors and the covenant with God. "This is not about empowering myself," she says. "It is about empowering other people and making them think about where they are in God’s plan. Our people have been so oppressed by the coal industry and brainwashed by the stereotyping for so long that you really have to build confidence and empower these people so they know that there is something you can do. That’s happening."

These small changes should be signs of hope during the second Bush administration. In his first term President Bush weakened the environmental protections put in place under the Clinton administration regarding valley fills. "Bush streamlined the permitting process. He turned it into a waste-permitting process," Bonds says. Bush’s re-election has put her and other activists on guard for the struggles ahead. "Some people say that the inevitable blatant destruction of God’s creation, our environment—the poisoning of our children—will make more people realize how important it is. They say we have to hit rock bottom before we can learn from our mistakes. I fear that most of our water and air will be polluted beyond cleansing by anyone other than God if we all cannot rise up to fight this."

As Julia Bonds struggles to protect and restore the culture and environment of Appalachia, she will continue to encourage her neighbors and other Americans to renew their covenant with God. "The mentality is that there is nothing you can do to fight this evil giant," says Bonds. "They ignore the obvious: the Bible’s David and Goliath story."

"Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why do you bang your head against the wall? Why do you even try?’ The fact of the matter is, I can’t hide up in a corner and take it. I think the greatest mistake and the worst sin I could make would be to go back to my materialistic, vain life. I would know it in my own heart; it’s not the right thing to do. I can’t ever give up."

Beth Newberry, a former Sojourners intern, lived in Kentucky and was associate editor of Louisville Magazine when this article appeared. For more information on Coal River Mountain Watch, see www.crmw.net.

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