RALEIGH COUNTY, W.Va., April 7, 2010— -- ''Pray." One word, posted prominently in so many places, is a powerful testament to the faith of this tragedy-stricken West Virginia community.
With roadside signs, billboards and posters taped in windowsills and on church doors, families and neighbors are reminding each other from where it is that they've drawn strength in times of adversity since their ancestors first settled here more than 200 years ago.
Many have also been gathering to pray together inside dozens of non-denominational Christian churches that dot the mountainsides. By one count, there are more than 5,000 churches in Raleigh County to serve the county's roughly 80,000 residents. That's one church for every 16 people.
"This is a strong area in Christ," said Pastor Jeffrey Perdue, a Raleigh County, W.Va. native, whose small Stepping Stone Community Church in Surveyor sits 17 miles south of the Upper Big Branch mine.
"We just trust in the Lord, we're praying all the time," he said.
Perdue, 45, whose 22 year-old son and older brother emerged from the mines safely on Monday, said "trust" in God is what keeps miners and their families going despite hardships.
He and other miners also describe that trust as central to what they call their "miner's religion."
"The Lord is our shepherd," Ronnie McKinney, 62, who worked in Raleigh County mines for 17 years, said of miners' spiritual beliefs. "Hey, you can say that, but he really goes with us down to the dark, cold mines and brought us out time and again. Praise him."
Charlie Athey, a 34-year-old miner and local youth minister, said he escaped death in the Upper Big Branch mine Monday because of the power of prayer.
"The evening shift guy I worked with is a pastor; being with him down there is like church," Athey said, adding the two would pray together and share their faith experiences while working in the mine.
Theirs is a faith that also seems to have delivered them from animosity toward the Massey Mining Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine where the explosion occurred, or the role any potential safety lapses may have played in the death of at least 25 friends and coworkers.
Accident Was 'An Act of Man'
"We like the company a good bit," said Athey, who may have been killed Monday had he lingered five additional minutes in the mine. "Most violations are nothing."
Perdue said, "We're all going to die. Things happen, accidents happen. Things just always don't work out right. ... That day's done and past and now we can only pray."
Federal mine safety officials and some lawyers who represent miners disagreed.
"All explosions are preventable. It's just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring," Kevin Stricklin, the Mine Safety and Health Administration's administrator for coal mine safety, said Tuesday.
Tony Oppegard, an attorney for miners on safety issues, concurred, calling the accident "an act of man, not an act of God."
But to many of the faithful who fill the pews at the distinctly Christian, community-based churches trying to make sense of the tragedy, everything that happens is part of "God's plan."
At a memorial service and prayer vigil Tuesday night that drew two dozen residents from three local churches, several miners, family members and friends gave testimonials of faith and raised their voices in celebration, loudly singing hymns of praise and gratitude to God.
"Glory Hallelujah!" one man yelled during the singing of the hymn "Amazing Grace."
"Praise his holy name!" another said.
"He's got a plan for all of us," said Jerry Ramsey, 63, who worked in the Upper Big Branch mine for eight years before retiring in 2003. "Those that were killed are covered by the blood [died in faith], and that's all you need to remember."
Clinging to Christian faith and community has been a hallmark of the Appalachian people for centuries, religious leaders say, and part of a unique, regional religious phenomenon that's been studied by scholars and theologians alike.
Appalachian Christianity is notably distinct from mainline Protestant denominations in its emotional, personal, experience-based professions of faith, according to Elder John Sparks in "The Roots of Appalachian Christianity."
Mixed Church Affiliation Common
Many houses of worship here were built at the turn of the 20th century as early settlers established their communities. "People didn't have cars then," Perdue said, explaining the number of churches in Raleigh County. "These churches used to have 'circuit preachers' who travelled around to them."
"For me, worship [growing up] alternated between the local United Methodist Church and my grandparents' Church of God," Connie Rice, who teaches Appalachian history at West Virginia University, said of her experience in Christian Appalachia.
The practice of mixed affiliation with churches might seem unusual in other parts of the country, particularly in communities where churches actively compete with each other for members.
"There's no competition here," Perdue said.