Lessons from a Coal Mine

Last Friday, West Virginia observed a “Day of Honor and Mourning” in remembrance of the 29 men killed at an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine.

In his proclamation, Governor Joe Manchin asked miners and mine operators to “commit to one day focused completely on making their workplace as safe as possible in honor of the [killed] miners.”

For our part, we should commit to not taking the people who make our way of life possible for granted.

The April 5th explosion that killed 29 miners was only the most recent such tragedy in West Virginia. In January 2006, an explosion in Sago, West Virginia, killed 12 miners. As if to underscore the lesson about the fragility of human life in a coal mine, less than three weeks later, a mine fire in Melville, West Virginia, killed two more miners.

It isn’t only West Virginia. Last year, 19 men died in coal mine accidents in the United States. That’s tragic, but good in comparison at least to previous records. In some years, the number has been in the hundreds and even thousands.

The threats don’t only come from accidents. Coal mining is hazardous for your health in ways that few jobs are. Even when you take into account non-mining-related factors, miners and their families “are much more likely to suffer from an array of chronic, life-threatening health problems.” These include cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, diabetes, and lung and kidney disease.

Any way you look at it, coal mining is dangerous, which is why governor Manchin asked miners and operators to honor the dead by focusing on mine safety.

For our part, we should honor them, first of all, by appreciating the risk they take on our behalf. Fifty percent of the electricity in the United States is produced by coal. If you are hearing or reading this, it’s likely that you have a coal miner to thank for it.

The other way we can honor them is not to see them as victims but as people whose life and work was marked by dignity. As the Los Angeles Times puts it, many miners see “coal mining…[as] not merely a profession, but a distinction, almost a public service.”

And in the best Christian model, they find meaning and purpose and dignity in their work.

Miners like Benny Willingham, who died on April 5th, found, as the L.A. Times put it, “joy and sustenance in working coal seams.” They have “an abiding faith that God will protect every man who earns his pay underground.”

Many of these miners and their families are Christians—they live in the center of the Bible belt. They know that there are no guarantees in life. And this knowledge makes them lean all the more on God. Willingham told his pastor before the accident that “he prayed the Lord would take his soul if he didn’t make it home from his shift in the coal mine.”

In addition to trust, this faith produces gratitude. As one pastor told mourners, “I’m not angry at the mountain…That mountain has supported my family for 90 years.”

These are people who deserve our gratitude. More than that, they deserve to be emulated. Their faith and dedication, and good work done to God’s glory, are lessons for all of us—no matter what line of work God has called us to.

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