Shout it from the mountaintop

November 2, 2009
By The Rev. Bud Heckman
The Courier-Journal

His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, standing before the recent Great Mississippi River Symposium in New Orleans, urged people of faith to protect the earth with earnestness. He said, “Our successes, our failures, personal and collective, determine the lives of billions. Our decisions, personal and collective, determine the future of the planet. “ He noted that decisions made at the local level had global implications.

Religions for Peace commends Louisville as it begins to celebrate its 14th Annual Festival of Faith this week with over 60 water-related exhibits uniting. Participants will find ways to unite care for God's creation — mountains, water sources and people.

Mountain tops, in the language of sacred texts, are sacred spaces where the Divine offers covenant to creatures, where the changing course of human history is made plain, and, indeed, even where God reveals God's self. This is true in the Abrahamic traditions that so predominate our landscape and history and true in the diverse religious traditions of our nation's newest immigrants.

Powerful coal companies have imagined expeditious and economical ways to extract coal from mountaintops. And, as the scope of problems mountaintop removal unveils increases, people of faith are mobilizing to question the moral, economic and social justifications for the process.

Pressed with the harsh realities of the Great Recession and the desire to quench the thirst for new energies for the American public, the people of Appalachia are wrestling with the promises and perils of mountaintop removal as a method of extracting coal.

As the 14th Annual Festival of Faiths gets underway, participants will, no doubt, be making connections between “Sacred Water: Sustaining Life” and the mountains from which those waters run. The Festival of Faiths is a widely respected national beacon in the emerging movement of religious communities seeking to work together for peace. And as recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times attest, the issue of mountaintop removal is now moving to center stage in our domestic environmental and energy debates.

The White House and the Corporation for National and Community Service recently made special note of the Greater Louisville Adopt-a-Waterway program under development as a model of interreligious cooperation. In this program, religious leaders and their communities are cooperating together to examine the sources of their water and take responsibility for the stewardship of their watersheds. As the program develops, this process of discovery and action will surely encompass mountaintop removal and the extensive damage it causes to our streams and ponds, as well as underground aquifers and wells.

Our demand for energy in the United States is so great that over 100 tons of coal are removed every 2 seconds. And in the past 20 years, an increasing amount of that is coming from the expedited extraction of mountaintop-removal sites. As a result, hundreds of valleys in Appalachia are now unceremoniously filled with what the coal companies call “overburden.” For people of faith, the sacred is made profane.

Though one may see immediate effects to their water source, air quality, and health, a true understanding of the scope and scale of the problem is only gained from a God's eye view. Hundreds of once beautiful mountaintops are now lifeless craters of coal slurry and toxins.

The Environmental Protection Agency now estimates that over 700 miles of life-sustaining streams have been literally buried by the process of mountaintop removal. Hundreds of more miles of watersheds have been compromised.

Kentucky is at the epicenter of this environmental problem. With people of faith focusing on the issue, Kentucky will soon be at the forefront of finding solutions. And with a little faith, they will shout from the nearest mountaintop.

Director for External Relations
Religions for Peace
New York 10017

The Festival of Faiths' “Sacred Water: Sustaining Life” will be Nov. 4-13, sponsored by the Center for Interfaith Relations. For more information about times, speakers and tickets, visit