News Articles

West Virginia pastors respond to mine tragedy

MONTCOAL, W.Va. (BP)–Two teams of about six Southern Baptist pastors each were among the first to respond with grief counseling for families affected by the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in more than 25 years.

“In West Virginia, our clergy is our grief counselors,” West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin told reporters, alluding to the strong faith shown by many of the state’s coal mining families.

A massive underground explosion killed 25 workers April 5 and left four missing in Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine near Whitesville, W.Va., about 30 miles south of Charleston.

Officials said Tuesday that rescue efforts could be delayed by another day as rescuers had to bulldoze an access road above the mine so they could begin drilling three shafts of more than 1,000 feet each to release methane and carbon monoxide, the Associated Press reported. The bulldozing and drilling effort, they said, could take up to 12 hours.

Meanwhile, families held out hope that their loved ones, if among the four missing, were able to survive in an airtight rescue chamber containing enough food, water and oxygen for four days of survival.

Norm Cannada, pastor of West Charleston Baptist Church, told Baptist Press he was leading a team scheduled to arrive at the site Tuesday night.

“I’m just finding out what I’m doing. We’re taking a team tonight,” Cannada said. “We’re going to the Performance Coal security building and meeting with families and giving them people to talk to because they’re devastated.

“Local pastors were there all day and night, and now we’re trying to get some teams there to give them some time to catch up on some rest because they’re going to be doing this long-term,” Cannada said. “There’s a team there now from the Coalfields [Baptist] association not far from us, and they are going to be there from noon to 5 or 6 p.m.

“There’s a team from Appalachian Bible College that’s going to be there at 5 and stay until 9 p.m., and we’re going to get there at 9 and maybe stay until 1 or 2 a.m. We’re just going to be there to offer assistance to families, to help them make sense of this if that’s possible, to help them see God in all of this, and to love them and point them to Jesus.”

Cannada was waiting to hear from a couple of people, but he said his team would consist of about six people, mostly pastors and at least one layperson.

“We’re waiting to see if this is going to be something we’ll need to do over the course of the week or what the need is going to be beyond this,” Cannada said.

Delton Beall, state director of missions for the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists, told BP the group from the Coalfields Association of Southern Baptists is headed by Charlie Minney, a newly commissioned North American Mission Board worker who serves as the associational missionary in Logan, W.Va. Beall said that group consists of about six pastors too.

“We are deeply concerned for the families,” Beall said. “This state largely is a coal mining community, and we are greatly grieved for their struggles right now and pray for God’s sustaining grace in their lives. We call our churches to continue to pray for them and be ready to minister in the days to come.

“We ask all of our Southern Baptist family to pray for these families right now. It’s a horrific event to have to endure,” Beall added. “We want to convey our deep concern and sympathy to the families, and we are looking at some extended care projects, but right now they’re in the formative stages.”

President Obama asked for prayers for the men killed, their families and the rescue workers trying to reach the missing miners, and he said the federal government stands ready to offer assistance.

“May they rest in peace and may their families find comfort in the hard days ahead,” Obama said from the White House.

The Associated Press said 31 miners were in the area during a shift change when the explosion occurred. Some were able to escape. Eleven bodies had been recovered and identified but 14 had not. A buildup of toxic methane gas, which is believed to have caused the explosion, forced rescue workers from the mine early Tuesday morning.

Manchin said a man who lost his father in the nearby Sago Mine disaster in 2006 now is counseling families in this tragedy.

“The families want closure,” the governor said. “They want names…. These families are good people, hardworking people. They understand the challenges. Right now I told them to do what they do best: Love each other and come together as a family.”

Gary Williams, a miner and pastor of New Life Assembly, a church near the mine, told AP there is always risk associated with coal mines.

“It’s not something you dread every day, but there’s always that danger. But for this area, it’s the only way you’re going to make a living,” Williams said.

The sister of one of the miners killed in the blast said Benny Willingham, 62, was a deacon in his church and was just five weeks away from retirement.

“He was a good man. I know everyone thinks that about their loved ones, but Benny truly was a wonderful man,” she told CNN. “He loved the Lord, and in church the other day, he thanked the Lord for saving his soul, and he thanked Him for watching over him in the mines for over 30 years, and he said, ‘If He takes me tomorrow, I’ve had a good life.'”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

    About the Author

  • Erin Roach