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Mountain Heroes: Allen Johnson

My name is Allen .

My faith guides me to protect mountains and
work for clean water and justice for all.

I believe I must love, serve, give generously without expecting something back, work for justice, trust in God, and protect God’s kingdom...It just gets into you, I guess. It’s in the spirit, something that gets deep down in your heart, and it’s just there. I think this work to stop mountaintop removal mining is something God placed in me.

Allen Johnson: My Mountain Story

Since 2005, Allen Johnson has coordinated Christians For The Mountains, a group focused on ending mountaintop removal mining. He received his Masters in Theology and Public Policy from Palmer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, has served as a fellow with Evangelicals for Social Action, and has worked to foster peace and nonviolence and resolve conflict with Christian Peacemaker Teams around the world. He currently serves on the Steering Committee of the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care. Through Christians For The Mountains, Allen reaches out to Christians and their congregations and social action committees to educate and motivate them on the immorality and injustice of mountaintop removal mining. His group is co-sponsoring health studies in central Appalachia, and with the help of a dedicated band of volunteers, conducting field surveys in mountaintop removal areas.

This is Allen's story:

My name is Allen Johnson. For the past 37 years my wife, Debora, and I have lived in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. We are blessed with several acres of land adjacent to the Monongahela National Forest. Over the years, we have raised our four sons; grown vegetable, fruit, and flower gardens; and raised small stock such as poultry, rabbits, bees, and the like.

My faith in God brought me to my work to stop mountaintop removal mining. During my time studying theology in the seminary, I got involved with the Evangelical Environmental Network, which started with a group of scientists who were concerned about the trajectory of the planet and the environment. They saw the environmental problems our country was facing, and they came to religious communities for help. "We know science, and we know technology," they said, "but we don’t know how to change hearts." I joined a group of others from various Christian backgrounds and denominations to take a closer look at how our faith calls us to work for social justice and take care of God’s creation.

Through my journey of faith, I had to hammer out my own beliefs and ask questions of everything. It’s been a rocky road at times, but ultimately all this questioning has deepened my faith. Studying theology with a concentration in public policy in seminary and working with the Evangelical Environmental Network, I asked myself, "How does my study of theology relate to real life? Living on this planet today with the issues we face, how does my faith factor in and react? How do I see the world through the lens of the Bible and my faith? And what’s my response? How does my faith affect how I actually live on this planet? How do I take care of God’s creations -- not just my brothers and sisters in humanity but all of God’s creations? And what does my ecological footprint do to others?"

Christians For The Mountains began when about two dozen of us showed up on activist Larry Gibson’s property on Kayford Mountain one Sunday afternoon in 2005. With this group of fellow Christians, we had started to see poverty connected to the coal mining and destruction of God’s creations in our home state. We saw that ruining the land contributes to the poverty -- it’s all tied up together. We wanted to form a Christian outreach of education and advocacy around the environmental and social injustices in Appalachia. Larry’s place seemed like a good place to begin our work.

We arrived at Larry’s about an hour late. The first thing Larry said was, "What took you so long?" I apologized for being late. But Larry clarified his question: "Why has it taken so long for any church people to get involved?" Larry really got to me, along with many others in our group who already were committed to abolishing mountaintop removal. I jumped into the fray with both feet.

In this work to stop mountaintop removal mining, I keep coming back to my belief in Jesus. Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, and he said to love God with all one’s mind, heart, and strength. And second to that, he said to love one’s neighbor, which of course is the Golden Rule. I believe in Jesus, and I believe that what we are to be like as humans is revealed in Jesus. If this is the case, then I believe I must love, serve, give generously without expecting something back, work for justice, trust in God, and protect God’s kingdom.

Mountaintop removal mining takes coal by destroying the mountains and waters and air, and it takes that money to executive offices and headquarters out of our state. But these areas where they are extracting all this coal are the poorest in the country. It’s take, take, take, and not give back. People in these areas don’t get the money, and they struggle and suffer. Hope is lost. The coal won’t last much longer in these mountains, and they are making these areas unlivable for future generations.

It just gets into you, I guess. It’s in the spirit, something that gets deep down in your heart, and it’s just there. I think this work to stop mountaintop removal mining is something God placed in me. I believe God is leading me. I trust in that; I walk in that.

Still, I often turn to the Bible for guidance. Genesis 2:15-17 basically says humans are to nurture and protect, to enhance and even strengthen, God’s creation. If we do this, God will take care of us. Psalm 24:1 basically says the earth belongs to God. We have the privilege and responsibility to take care of it for God. In this, we also have an opportunity to do good things on this earth. It’s like if someone gave me a part of their land, and I became a tenant on their farm. I can grow a garden, raise livestock, grow flowers, keep my water clean. If the landlord comes back in 10 years from now, and all is growing and kept up, well done. But if the landlord comes back and I’ve trashed it, and sawed off all the timber and sold it to make some quick money, that’s not good. That’s the idea here.

My biggest frustration has been the reluctance of Christian church folks, especially in central Appalachia, to come to grips with the moral implications of mountaintop removal mining. The coal industry calls the shots in central Appalachia, and that applies to many church folks there. Overcoming this can seem daunting. But with all things in life that seem overwhelming, I personally turn to the way of following Jesus. For me, that means to pray and act, both as an individual and in concert with others. I do what I can, which is never enough, but I pray that God takes up my tiny mustard seed of faith and in God’s time, makes my seed and others’ sprout, grow, blossom, and bear fruit.

It’s important to remember, though, that this all means much more than stopping mountaintop removal mining. Answering this call involves rebuilding central Appalachia, with a sustainable, clean, vibrant economy; a renewal of our culture of hospitality and neighborliness; and communities in sync with their local ecosystems. Winning means reversing the "brain drain" from central Appalachia, and reversing the abysmal national rankings in physical and emotional health, happiness, and education. Winning means cleaning up the mess so that the air, water, and soil are clean, the villages and home places are tended, and people once again have self-respect and the respect of others.