MONTCOAL, W.Va. — The West Virginia coal mine tragedy was an opportunity for Southern Baptists to show compassion to individuals who may not have had much experience with church, a North American Mission Board worker said.
“So many people were ministered to and loved on through genuine care from different pastors, and I think some people for the first time realized that it wasn’t just about gaining something for the church,” Charlie Minney, associational missionary for the Coalfields Association of Southern Baptists in Logan, W.Va., told Baptist Press April 12.
“The chaplains and the pastors were there because we cared, not because we wanted something or needed something,” he said. “So many people did such a tremendous job, just doing what God calls us to do as ministers, to share the love of Christ.”
Minney said between 17 and 20 Southern Baptist ministers were on site at some point during the ordeal, which began April 5 with the nation’s worst mine disaster in four decades. After days of trying to reach four possible survivors, rescue teams learned Saturday the men had perished, raising the death toll to 29.
When the news was announced, Minney said, the families dispersed to begin the grieving process after having waited all week in a building near the mine.
Photo by Jeff Gentner/AFP
Drilling efforts take place above Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Coal Mine April 7 in Montcoal, West Va. The 560-foot rotary drill, which is 6 inches in diameter, was the second hole drilled in an effort to release gas from the area where miners were believed to be trapped.
“At that point the families transitioned over into their local churches for counseling and those sorts of things,” Minney said.
Southern Baptist ministers in the state who had responded as counselors now are making plans to work with a church of another Baptist denomination in the area, Minney said. The church, he said, already has friendships established and can more easily connect with families.
Minney recounted the last few hours he spent with the families Friday night, when they knew the rescue crews had gone back into the mine in search of the four missing men.
“We knew at that point that we were coming to the end of whatever was going to happen. They had put the nitrogen in and we knew we were getting ready to get some answers,” he said, referring to the process of counteracting the dangerous gases within the mine.
“We knew that we were within hours of finding out if there were four alive or not. The people were strong. They continued to hold on to hope. They continued to trust that God was going to reveal something miraculous in their lives,” Minney said. “Even when they were being told that there was almost no chance that anybody got to a refuge chamber, they still held on to hope.”
Minney is a West Virginia native, and for 11 years he was on staff at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., before being commissioned in March to serve in his home state.
“It was a quick growing process for me,” he said of the timing of the coal mine tragedy.
“God revealed to me a lot of things about the people in West Virginia that I really didn’t know. I was born and raised in the northern part of West Virginia, but it’s different from the coalfields.
“God allowed me to see a lot of that. This was a fast-paced training for me to know that there’s a different view from what I’ve been told or what I’ve heard before,” he said.
What he’ll remember most from the experience is the hope that the people had in God’s power to bring good from the situation.
“The hope that I was seeing from those people was phenomenal,” he said. “They never relinquished it through the entire process. They never gave up the belief that God was going to do a miracle. The way they trusted in Him, relied on Him and clung to Him was so awesome.”
As he considers the tragedy from an eternal perspective, Minney looks forward to what God might do even through the loss of 29 lives.
“Sometimes when we’re in it, we don’t understand it. We may never understand, but I think there will be a time when we’ll be able to look back on these days, April 5 through April 9, and just realize that God had this in the palm of His hand even though we wouldn’t have done it this way or we’re not excited that it happened this way,” Minney said.
“Who knows what God is going to do? We just have to follow His will from this point forward and continue to let Him have His way in our lives.”
Funerals for some of the men began Friday, and by Monday crews were retrieving the remaining bodies from the mine. Not all had been identified, but among those who were, their ages ranged from 20 to 61, according to the Associated Press. Some had been miners for decades, others for only a few months.
Reports indicated that Robert Clark, 41, committed his life to Jesus at Beckley Church of God a few months before the explosion, and his pastor said it was a relief to his family to know “all is well with his soul.” The pastor remembered seeing Clark’s smile as he left church on Easter, the day before he died.
Crissie Scott, whose husband Deward was among those who died, said they enjoyed being outdoors together.
“He was a Christian man who loved to help people,” she told AP. “He’s one of those people that once you met him, you wouldn’t forget him.”
And friends remembered Benny Willingham, 61, as a generous and religious man who worked for 30 years as a coal miner. Some reports said he testified of his relationship with Christ at church on Easter.
At churches throughout the region April 11, people gathered to remember the lives lost and to honor the coal mining profession, AP said. A series of nearly two dozen funerals was expected in the weeks ahead.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and his wife were scheduled to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony on Monday at the state capitol honoring the 29 miners who died and the two who were injured at the Upper Big Branch mine. The governor asked for people across the nation to observe a moment of silence to honor the men and their families.
“We want to show the miners’ families and all of the first responders that we are keeping them in our hearts and prayers,” Manchin said. “West Virginians are the most caring people and we come together in a time of need. These families are not alone and their loved ones will not be forgotten.”
Minney has established a fund for the families of those who died in the blast. Checks should be addressed to the Coalfields Association of Southern Baptists, 226 2nd Avenue, West Logan, WV 25601.
“Every bit of what they contribute will go to the miners’ families,” he said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.)