We asked members of our staff to share what moves them to do justice work. This month Rev. Jim Moos, Executive Minister of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries and Co-executive of UCC/Disciples' Global Ministries, reflects on role courage plays in prophetic witness.
The Courage of a Faithful Witness
Earlier this summer, my wife and I took vacation and spent a week at a cabin in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. It is, as the state’s license plates declare, a “Wild and Wonderful” country.
One evening while eating at a diner we struck up a conversation with the staff and a small handful of patrons, all of whom appeared to be from the local community. Curious about the area economy, I asked about the major sources of employment. “Coal mining is number one,” the manager told us, “We’ve been mining coal here for generations—it’s what we know.” With no small amount of frustration, she said that four local mines were closing and many people were losing their jobs.
As we traveled the area we saw numerous signs protesting regulation of the coal industry; frequently they were sponsored by a group called “Friends of Coal.” Coal has many friends in that region. Fifty-three of West Virginia’s fifty-five counties have coal, and the industry provides over 30,000 direct jobs.
As I listened to the conversation in the diner I wondered how they felt about the many negative impacts of coal, including the environmental devastation of mountain top removal. In West Virginia alone, approximately 1,000 tons of explosives are used every day to blow the tops off mountains to expose narrow seams of coal.
The young woman serving us joined the conversation and spoke to my curiosity in an unexpected way. She began, “I know I can get in big trouble for saying this, but I’m against coal mining.” Everyone in the diner fell silent and stared at her as she stiffened her resolve.
She went on to share the despair she feels whenever she sees a mountain that has been destroyed by mining, and her concerns about other environmental impacts like global warming. She talked about the need to develop other forms of renewable energy including wind, solar and biofuels. I thanked her for her faithful testimony—and left a generous tip.
In the United Church of Christ we take seriously our call to give prophetic witness for peace, justice and the integrity of creation. Sometimes it’s easy to give such witness; it takes no special virtue to speak boldly in the presence of those who agree with us. The real test of faith is when we speak the truth in love to those we are in significant disagreement with, especially if we are members of the same community.
Too often we associate courage with those who wage war, and fail to recognize the essential role courage plays in prophetic witness. The fact is that all of us are part of communities in which unjust economic, political and social forces are present. Like the folks in the diner whose livelihoods depended upon an industry that threatens God’s creation, we often benefit from those forces. In such situations, it takes great courage to give faithful witness. I was inspired by the courage of a young woman in a West Virginia diner.