The UConn Reads theme for 2016-17 is “Religion in America,” with Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America as the book.
On April 5, 2010, there was an explosion in the Upper Big Branch coal mine, near the little community of Montcoal, W.Va. Officials identified 25 miners who had been killed, but said there was a chance that four men were still alive inside the mine, in specially designed safety chambers.
A desperate four-day rescue effort commenced, in which people all over the state kept their porch lights burning day and night, and hung signs on front gates that said things like, “We Need Four Miracles.” Late on the night of April 9, then-Gov. Joe Manchin announced, in a small elementary school that served as a media base, that the four men’s bodies had been located. They had not been able to reach the shelters in time. It was the worst coal mine disaster in the United States in 40 years.
At the time, I was a reporter for the Associated Press. Although I had been transferred to the Raleigh bureau the month before the blast, I had spent the previous four years working in the news service’s Charleston, W.Va. office, about 30 miles north of Montcoal. Accordingly, my bosses dispatched me, along with many other reporters, photographers, and editors from the region, to cover the unfolding disaster.
When Manchin announced that Friday night that the four miners had been found dead, I filed an alert to the wire, added to the story as it developed, and then, when there was nothing more to do, I went outside and cried.
Saturday passed in a daze of grief, and when Sunday dawned I went to Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral, the Catholic parish I attended when I lived in Charleston, hoping for some kind of comfort after the week’s awful events.
When Mass had ended and the congregation filed outside, I saw the precise opposite of comfort: a flying picket from the Westboro Baptist Church.
The tiny, Kansas-based group has become, over the years, something of a folk devil for people who want to invoke the presumed intolerance of Christians in a political argument. With their gleefully profane expressions of hatred, their desire to exploit any tragedy to publicize their loathsome message, and (let’s face it) their genuine media savvy, they’ve attracted far more attention than any group with a few dozen members should expect.
And there they were, three adults and about as many small children, waving placards that said “Thank God for Dead Miners,” “Miners in Hell” and, since they were outside a Catholic church, “Priests Rape Boys” and “The Pope is a Whore.” The leader of the small band, Shirley Phelps-Roper, was wearing the American and Vatican flags as a skirt, with both spattered in fake blood. She was chanting to the tune of “Country Roads,” the unofficial anthem of the state, replacing the original’s “Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water,” with “Miners’ bodies, blown to little pieces,” and the like.
About eight times as many counter-protesters had gathered across the street, which tends to happen when the Westboro Baptist Church comes to town. There were teenagers wearing homemade shirts with messages ranging from lofty (“Your god is false; Jesus loves”) to earthy (“Go home, douchebags”). Joining them were some punk rockers, members of Charleston’s gay community in camouflage baseball caps that said “PRIDE,” and, because no protest is complete without this, a shirtless hippie playing a didgeridoo.
Soon, worshipers from the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church came out from their service, with the priest and altar servers still in their cassocks, to stand alongside the people coming out of Sacred Heart, including the choir, which was singing “Ave Maria.” Coming down the street from St. Mark’s United Methodist Church were some well-dressed worshipers holding signs that said, “West Virginia is no place for hate.”
It was at that point that three or four miners arrived, spoiling for a fight. One of them leaned over a terrified-looking little boy in the Westboro group and bellowed in a voice that carried several blocks, “Hey! You’re going to hell, you know that? Hell-bound!” Police officers shifted their weight nervously, and Mayor Danny Jones, still in his track suit from a morning run along the Kanawha River, stood between the miners and the Westboro group, trying to prevent anyone from throwing a punch.
And then, someone began to sing “Amazing Grace.” Written in the 18th century by the English slave trader turned abolitionist John Newton, the hymn has long become something of a cliché, its title adorning everything from ad campaigns to a DC Comics super villain. But it’s also a song that, in a place like West Virginia, just about everyone knows, regardless of how long it’s been since they’ve sat in a pew, or whether they’ve ever been to church at all.
And so, before long, maybe 60 or 70 people – Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter, as the old saying goes; gay men in camouflage hats and miners in their work clothes; punk rockers and a church choir; the mayor in his track suit, the hippie with the didgeridoo, and even the police officers – were singing, loud enough to drown out the hateful chants of the Westboro group:
The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures
The mistake here would be deciding that the people singing “Amazing Grace” represented “real” religion, with the Westboro church a counterfeit version. The truth is more complicated: there are real theological differences between the people that came together and sang that morning, which assuredly included atheists and agnostics as well as different varieties of Christian, that in some ways are just as profound and insurmountable as their differences with the Westboro group who, after all, are just as entitled to their version of faith as anyone else.
But to see people who normally have so little in common, whose differences would in many cases keep them from even acknowledging each other on the sidewalk during a regular day, stand together in the street and sing John Newton’s old hymn, was to understand, at once, the concept that underlies so much religious faith: transcendence.
For a few minutes on Quarrier Street in Charleston, W.Va., in 2010, on the Sunday of a week that spilled grief and sorrow all across that little state, that transcendence was real. As long as I live, I hope I never forget what it felt like.