Speaking of what sometimes seem uncanny connections (a topic I addressed in yesterday’s blog), one such connectivity moment happened for me when I accompanied my friend, Vicki Wesen, to the recent funeral service of Bishop Robert Johnson, who led the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina in the 1990’s, following Bishop Robert Estill.
Both Bishops supported the work Ken and I had been doing at the time as we attempted to help stop the Piedmont from becoming a massive Southern dumping grounds for the Eastern Seaboard and simultaneously to pressure state legislators to secure funding for detoxification of the Warren County PCB landfill.
After the funeral, I spoke with Bishop Estill and told him how instrumental his support had been in our environmental and justice work during the battles of the 1990’s to keep North Carolina, and especially the Piedmont, from becoming a Southern dumping grounds. I thanked him especially for his trust in Reverend Jim Lewis and asked if he knew how I could get in touch with Jim. I was astonished when Bishop Estill knew Jim’s address from memory.
Jim Lewis has been on my mind to contact for some time now, ever since I received an almost inaudible message on my answer machine that I deciphered was his voice. He said he had been in Raleigh, but he didn’t leave a phone number, and I couldn’t find it in the caller ID information. Now, through Bishop Estill, of all people, I am reconnected with Jim.
Jim lives in Charleston, West Virginia, where this week a toxic chemical containment failure has contaminated the water for 300,000 people in nine counties, contamination that will be taken down the Kanawha, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers and into the Gulf of Mexico. I will be contacting him as soon as possible.
While I was waiting for the service to begin, as the music hauntingly reminded me of my connections to the Bishops and to Ken’s and my environmental justice work that they supported, I thought of the West Virginia disaster, of Jim Lewis in Charleston, of what it means for him and for all the folks not to be able to use their water — not for drinking, not for bathing, not for washing, not for anything but flushing.
I thought how catastrophic it must feel to have one’s entire water supply so massively assaulted, raped, and taken hostage by a chemical company permitted to operate as a brutal thug who takes what he wants and leaves what he doesn’t want. I thought of how the thugs are the legislators and the regulators who listen to the lobbyists, who represent the industries that create, use, and dispose of toxic chemicals; and I thought of how they are members of a mafia of sorts who don’t like anyone telling them what to do with the messy toxic businesses they run.
I thought about how the industry lobbyists pressure, cajole, and bribe legislators to write legislation that determines the regulatory frameworks designed to protect the industry’s interests and not the public’s interests, how they get legislators and regulators to design and pass regulations and legislation that are deliberately vague, broad, and lenient, how they don’t require safety features, inspections, and independent oversight.
I thought of how these chemical industries don’t care if people get sick, if public health and natural resources are destroyed, if property values are tainted, reputations ruined, and future generations doomed.
In the midst of these thoughts that flowed into my mind between prayers and hymns, a storm outside was raging, the wind blowing the trees horizontal, the rain pelting the roof and mixing with the sounds of the Eucharist.
I thought about the church, of the raging storm of environmental peril we are now in as a planet, of my long-time and frustrated hope and efforts to get ecumenical people who believe in stewardship of the earth and in justice for all, to get them to accept the hard truth that environmental protection and pollution prevention are dependent on their getting involved in the sticky business of politics.
I thought of how far institutions such as the church will go to protect their own interests and the status quo, staying at a safe distance on controversial issues that threaten big industry as their political disengagement allows toxic tyranny to go uncontested.
My darkened thoughts changed abruptly, and then I thought of the good people within the church and within the institution. It seemed my change of thoughts had been timed with the last note of the communion hymn which coincided with the stopping of the wild wind and rain. The skies cleared, and the sun shone through the windows, and my mind circled back to why I was even thinking these thoughts in the first place, of my remembrances of things past, of my connections, of my gratitude for Vicki and Jim, for Bishops Estill and Johnson, for these individuals of the church who had listened and believed in Ken and me as a force of two, who had believed in our environmental justice and pollution prevention vision, and who had offered us seed money which helped us begin our next decade of environmental advocacy work.