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Faith to Keep Mountains: Larry Gibson's Legacy

Many students over the years have gone with Restoring Eden to visit Larry Gibson’s property overlooking a mountaintop removal coal mine site. Last month, Larry passed away from a heart condition. Allen Johnson, of Christians for the Mountains has written an obituary honoring Larry’s life and work.

Larry Gibson (1946-2012) was born in Kayford, West Virginia to a coal miner family.  While he only had a 5th grade education and was a diminutive height of  5’2”, Larry was a hero and a giant for many of us.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27b). Larry Gibson exemplified this truth. Gibson spoke truth to power with his uncompromising integrity, unflagging determination, and heroic courage that inspired thousands of persons to become activists for justice.  “Larry Gibson changed my life!” So says 98-year old Ken Hechler, Ph.D. historian, Nazi war criminal interrogator, speech writer to President Truman, two-decade congressman, prolific author. I agree. “Larry Gibson changed my life, too.”

Mountaintop removal is an extreme form of coal extraction practiced in Central Appalachia. Coal companies literally blast a mountain apart to remove the coal. The remaining rubble typically is shoved into the adjacent valleys, burying small streams. In other words, mountains are leveled, valleys are filled up. Mountain regions are severely degraded for the long term. Furthermore, 19 peer-reviewed health studies within the past four years show high rates of cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, birth defects, and morbidity in mountaintop removal communities.  Restoring Eden has played an important role collecting data in the two primary studies.

Larry Gibson was one of the first persons to take up the fight against mountaintop removal, a struggle that had him speak across the county from the most prestigious universities to the UN. Yet his influence was greatest when individuals and groups such as Restoring Eden young people trekked to his Kayford Mountain home place, a 57 acre “island surrounded by a sea” of mountaintop removal devastation. There Larry Gibson challenged his listeners with core values. “What in your life is not for sale?” Gibson would ask, his eyes searching the eyes of his listeners. For Gibson, the land of his ancestors, entrusted by God to his care, had no price tag.  When I phoned Larry Gibson, I would often get his answering machine. “We are Keepers of the Mountains. Love them, leave them, just don’t destroy them.”

Larry Gibson’s trademark attire was his blaze yellow sweatshirt and cap, “Keeper of the Mountains” on countless protests, rallies, lectures, even coat-and-tie affairs. His pickup truck was festooned with bumper stickers. His outspoken views evoked numerous assaults and acts of vandalism. Undaunted, Larry Gibson always chose the path of integrity over a life of security and ease.

The legacy of great men and women is that their blazing torch is passed on to those who live. May we carry that torch brightly for justice with the passion and resolve that was Larry Gibson.

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