Larry Gibson died of a heart attack earlier this month, at the age of 55, while tending the land he loved and the mountain he protected.
For the last few decades, Larry helped lead the fight against the unjust and highly destructive practice of Mountaintop Removal coal mining (MTR) in Appalachia. He was known as a “Keeper of the Mountains” and his message was simple: Love them or leave them, just don’t destroy them. Larry doggedly delivered this message to thousands of audiences ranging from local churches and college campuses, to elected officials and the United Nations. Along the way, he unexpectedly became an internationally acclaimed activist who was featured widely in the news and was even named one of CNN’s heroes.
“I never wanted to become an activist,” Larry once confessed in an interview, “but I had to. If I hadn’t, I would have been torn off this mountain a long time ago. There are thousands of people around the world who have heard me speak since I started this work, but honestly I wish to God no one knew my name. I wish I didn’t have to leave my home and talk to people about mountaintop removal. Last year I traveled eight months out of the year talking to people about this stuff. But I know I have to bring this message to the world and I’m gonna fight for justice in every way I can.”
Stopping MTR was an intensely personal fight for Larry. In addition to coming from a long line of coal miners—Larry often told stories about the abuses they endured at the hands of the corrupt coal companies—he lived on a swath of coal-rich land on top of Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, that had been in his family for generations. It was there on Kayford Mountain that Larry took his moral stand, refusing to sell out what was left of his land to the coal mining industry, no matter how much money was offered or how many times he was threatened with violence.
To corrupt politicians and coal bosses, Larry was a thorn in the side that just would not go away. And to the rest of us who knew him, Larry was a hero. Though small in stature and with only a fifth grade education, he embodied great courage, wisdom and vision. The coal companies tried hard to tempt him away from his land, but he never gave in. He was often ignored and marginalized, but he never gave up. He was regularly a victim of corruption and persecution, but he never wavered in his commitment to non-violent resistance. And he never lost his love for the land and for those who came to see it. He was a modern-day David standing up to an often pernicious and always rapacious Goliath, and he inspired many of us.
I was blessed to have visited Larry at his home on Kayford Mountain as I was writing a book on environmental stewardship entitled Green Revolution (IVP 2009). He took me to the edge of his property where we could look out and see the coal company machines at work, blasting away and shoveling off what used to be a mountain. The sight was gut-wrenching. The photos I had seen leading up to my visit could not compare with the scale of devastation before my eyes. He also showed me the bullet holes in the buildings on his property, and related some of the other ways the coal companies had tried to scare him into submission.
That visit to Kayford Mountain had a profound impact on me. I wrote about it in my book, and included a story about Larry contributed by Allen Johnson of Christians for the Mountains. Allen recalled that the first time he brought a group of Christians to visit Kayford Mountain, Larry did not mince his words: “Where have you been? Our mountains are being destroyed, our lives ruined, our culture annihilated, and the churches are nowhere to be found.”
Thankfully, this has been changing. More and more Christians have been waking up to the devastation that MTR is causing to communities and ecosystems across Appalachia. Nonprofits, such as Restoring Eden, have teamed up with Christians for the Mountains, bringing groups of college students over to witness the effects of MTR coal mining firsthand, and then helping them get involved by serving the local community and by lobbying their elected officials. A couple years ago, staff and friends of the Evangelical Environmental Network embarked on a prayer walk from Appalachia to Washington, DC, and we stopped by to visit Larry. This time around he was much more encouraged by how Christians were getting involved. I’m so glad he lived to see the church begin to step up here.
We don’t just remember people like Larry with words; we remember them by our actions and with our lives. Larry Gibson was a hero, and the best way we can remember him is to continue the fight for the mountains that he championed so well and for so long.