The youth group from Miami's Coral Gables Congregational Church UCC looked out over the Shenandoah Valley in Wise County, Va. in June. Among the mountains covered with lush, green forests stood one that resembled the landscape of the moon. Barren, grey and full of deep craters, it was a jarring site in the midst of the breathtaking natural beauty that surrounded them. A result of mountaintop removal mining, it was enough to bring some of the group members to tears.
"It was very bizarre," said the Rev. Guillermo Marquez-Sterling, associate pastor and youth group leader of Coral Gables UCC. "You just turn your head a bit and see a mountain that is very beautiful, and then you see this – a very visible, ugly blight."
A group of 12 high school students and four adults from Coral Gables embarked on an eight-day summer mission trip through Appalachia to raise awareness about mountaintop removal mining, the region's predominant method of extracting coal. During the process, which is known for its harmful effects to the ecosystem and people in surrounding communities, mountains are cleared of all trees, vegetation and wildlife, and explosives are used to remove up to 400 vertical feet of the mountaintop to expose underlying coal seams. The youth group was inspired by a workshop on the topic at last year's National Youth Event, and the trip consisted of three stages that focused on education, advocacy, and of course a little fun.
"In my 18 years of ministry and working with youth, this is the most powerful trip I have ever taken," said Marquez-Sterling. "It hit all levels – we had fun, it was educational, we had amazing devotionals. It was just good."
The first stage of the trip allowed the "flat-landers" from Miami to enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, horseback riding and white water rafting in the mountain ranges of Luray, Va. The group then traveled to Wise, Va., for the educational component of the trip. There they met with a representative from Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit committed to reducing the coal industry's impact on the region and protecting its land, air and water. They took a tour of the area, met with several residents who have been impacted by the destruction caused by mountaintop removal, and saw some of the environmental devastation firsthand.
For the advocacy portion of the trip, the group traveled to Washington, D.C., where they gave a presentation about mountaintop removal at the offices of Rep. Joe Garcia (D-FL) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), and spent time with an environmental lobbyist from the Podesta Group, a Washington, D.C.-based government relations and public relations firm. Marquez-Sterling said the youth were a bit discouraged by their experience in D.C. – Garcia couldn't make the appointment and sent a staffer in his place, and Ros-Lehtinen acted as if she had never heard of mountaintop removal mining, despite her record of consistently voting against legislation that would put an end to the process. But, he adds, it was a good experience that has helped influence the group's next steps.
"We went more for the experience of meeting with an elected official and not so much because something is going to be voted on in November," Marquez-Sterling said, adding that there is currently no legislation in Congress dealing with mountaintop removal. "But the kids know they don't want to go the legislative route anymore."
While the youth are currently on summer break for a few more weeks, they developed some plans of action for when they return. Their first idea is to create a social media campaign to raise awareness about mountaintop removal mining, in hopes that it will go viral. They also discussed forming an ecumenical coalition of churches in the Florida area to urge the state's power companies to boycott energy made from coal extracted through mountaintop removal. Despite the roller coaster of emotions the group felt throughout the experience – joy, sadness, anger, empathy – the ultimate feeling they were left with is the need for change.
"What the kids really took away was the injustice of it all," Marquez-Sterling said. "Their naiveté and innocence were shattered knowing that the U.S. government would allow this to happen continually, repeatedly, for decades. But they haven't given up hope. This outrage they have has energized them into action."