By the Rev. Joshua Britton
Every year, on Ash Wednesday, many Christians begin the season of Lent by marking their foreheads with ash in the shape of a cross. For many, this serves as a yearly reminder that “dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” However for the people at Bethel United Methodist Church, ash has always been part of their identity.
For the folks that grew up in the power plant village of Dukeville, coal ash was as much a part of their childhood as sweet tea and friendly conversation. As their fathers went off to work at the Buck Steam Plant, the children played outside in the ashy air. Many of these families recall having to sweep their porch a few extra times to get all the ash off. Hanging clothes to dry was always a gamble. Ash has always been a part of life in Dukeville, but in recent years coal ash has become a source of anxiety.
There are many things for which divinity school classrooms cannot prepare you. Nothing can prepare you for the transition from the classroom to nursing homes and hospitals. A world-class education will still leave you ill-equipped to welcome newborn babies into this world, or to sit with dying widows as they moved to the next.
Nothing could have prepared me to read the letter my church received last April from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The content of the letter was complex, packed with foreign words like “vanadium” and “hexavalent chromium,” but the message was clear: our water was no longer safe to drink. The water we used to cook, the water we used to clean, and the water my then-pregnant wife drank, was contaminated by a yet-unnamed culprit. North Carolina’s coal ash problem had come to our front door.
All at once, the national spotlight was fixed on our community. Stories about Dukeville were printed in major newspapers from New York to Los Angeles. It was the worst kind of fame.
Worse than the unwanted attention was the impact that this issue has had on our community. It has been more than a news story. Families have lost a sense of peace. Simple activities have become chores. And even beyond the public health concern, families have waited in horror to see if property value would drop. Homes could no longer be rented with a clear conscience.
Through all this, I have watched my congregation and many others in our community struggle to find God in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Personally, I have wrestled with how Christians are called to respond to the problems and politics of environmental disaster.After all, coal ash disposal has become a political quagmire in North Carolina. At one moment Duke Energy is being subjected to aggressive fines by the state legislature, at the other, our Governor is breaking bread with the same executives many hold responsible for recent events.
I might not have had much experience, but I knew better than to abuse my position by preaching politics from the pulpit. And yet, the pollution of dysfunctional politics has seeped from the Statehouse in Raleigh to pews of our small church.
How can we respond to injustice without diving head first into the murky waters of politics?
The moment I understood that the health of my wife, my unborn son, and our entire congregation was at risk was the moment that coal ash stopped being a political problem and became a spiritual one. This issue is a justice issue. It is a moral issue. And most of all, for me, it is a theological issue. From the first page to the last, water flows through the story of the Bible. All of creation is a fundamental gift from God, and it is our responsibility to care for this gift.
Our church is not interested in picking sides between Duke Energy, Governor McCrory or state bureaucrats. Nor will we choose between Democrats or Republicans.
Not for the sake of politics, but for the sake of people, our church is called to seek justice. This is not about tree hugging or earth worshipping. This is about protecting the life and livelihood of our community. Our church cannot let greed or political folly ruin this place. We have to respond, through faithful Bible study and at the ballot box.
We came from ashes and to ashes we will return. And sometimes in between, there are ashes. These ashes–these symbols and signals of death cannot be ignored.
This year, my wife and I celebrated the baptism of our newborn son, Oren. He is too young to understand the brokenness of life, but someday we will remind him how, in a Holy mystery, God used the murky waters, drawn a few feet from a coal ash basin to bring about something good.
This is the hope of the resurrection.
That God can take what is vile and make something good.
God brings life where there are ashes. Sometimes that happens through us. And it’s my hope and prayer that through the good people of Dukeville, NC God will bring justice and hope and redemption.
Joshua Britton is a Pastor at Bethel United Methodist Church in Dukeville, NC. Follow him here.