Please talk to the coal miners' pastors

STG HZ MinuteByMinute 4pI believe the woman's name was Anna Casto. She appeared several times during the Wednesday NBC Nightly News coverage of the Sago Mine disaster. Her comments were blunt, agonizing and stunningly on target. I wish I could quote them to you, but I do not have Tivo and, for once, got caught without a notepad nearby. For all I know, Casto and others are featured in some of the materials stored online at the broadcast's cyberhome at MSNBC (photo). Here, for example, is a print story drawn from the coverage. And here is the link to the actual online version of the Brian Williams newscast. (However, since all of this material is based on Microsoft products, I cannot get the software to work on either of my computers -- either my iMac G5 or an up-to-day Windows machine. Would someone please alert me when NBC offers a QuickTime or RealPlayer option?)

Anyway, back to Casto and the mourning mine families. I was struck by two of her comments. In one, she said that the whip-lash effect of hearing that their friends and loved ones were safe, then finding out they were actually dead, had left many of the believers huddled in the Sago Baptist Church doubting whether "the Lord is real." I think that was the phrase she used. Later, with an obvious reference to the attitudes she has seen displayed about her region in national media, she said something like this: "We're Christian people. ... We're West Virginians. ... We may be dumb, but we love our families." Again, I hesitate to put that in quotes, but that is very close to verbatim.

Meanwhile, the powerful, yet vague, aura of Bible Belt faith lingered over the evening newscasts like the smoke from the memorial candles held by the mourners on the church step as they sang old hymns, standing in an arc toward the television cameras. Those old, old songs were all chopped up by the video editors, many of whom obviously did not know the words or they would have selected the verses that applied directly to the emotions of the people singing. The people talked about God a lot and the journalists let them talk, sharing faith and doubt in the midst of their pain.

You can see this in the opening of the New York Daily News story entitled "Anguish, rage in church" by reporters Derek Rose (on the scene) and Corky Siemaszko (in New York):

One moment they were praising God, the next they were cursing His name. That's how furious those in a church full of heartbroken West Virginians were early yesterday after reports of the miraculous rescue of 12 miners turned out to be false.

"I believe that everybody was stunned," said John Casto, who was celebrating in the Sago Baptist Church with the miners' relatives when they were hit by a tsunami of grief. "Just a few minutes before they were praising God and then they was cursing because they thought they lost a loved one."

Casto, who lost a pal in the mine, said some of the angry men tried to slug the mine operator who delivered the devastating news. He said the church pastor tried to calm the furious crowd by saying, "Look toward God."

"One of the men said, 'What in the hell has God done for us?'" Casto said, his eyes welling up with tears.

Yes, note the last name -- Casto.

group1I kept wanting the journalists to actually go inside the church or try to find a few minutes with one of the pastors. You see, my father was a Southern Baptist pastor and hospital chaplain. I have been around a few ministers in hard times. I also imagine that the pastors clustered with those suffering people have handled more than their share of mine tragedies and miracles. If they are anything like the pastors that I know, they have moved light years past the kind of one-level Bible commentary that appeared, in splinters and shards, on the national networks last night.

We did get to meet one pastor in a Washington Post piece entitled "After 44 Hours, Hope Showed Its Cruel Side." But, once again, we get to read what I am convinced is only the first layer of what a veteran coal-country pastor would say in this circumstance.

The Rev. Jerry Murrell, pastor of the Way of the Holiness church in Buckhannon, was one of the local clergy members keeping vigil with the families at Sago Baptist. "There were times of intense prayer, and times of softly singing hymns," he said. "Ministers would take turns reading Scripture. The one we seemed to keep turning back to was Romans 8:28 where the Apostle Paul promises that all things work together for good to those who love God."

Memorial services almost always include sermons. The sermons almost always address the tough issues that face the people hit by the tragedy of the moment. In coal country, the sermons have to address the pain, terror, risk, guilt and fury involved in an entire way of life in a region that knows more than a little about faith and sorrow. You want Dante? These people live Dante, with some finding relief in bars, some in churches and many in both places.

Yes, these sermons will be packed with all of that Jesus language and the Bible verses that, to many journalists, sound like fingernails on a chalkboard or the unknown tongues of flyover country natives. But those pastors know more about coal mines, coal miners and death than most of the producers out in the television production trucks. Please. Go talk to them.

P.S. My dear friend (wife of our family's parish priest) Frederica Mathewes-Green has a theological reflection on the Sago tragedy posted over at Beliefnet.com -- click here to read it. Here is her version of another interview clip with John Casto:

John Casto tried to explain, in an accent broad as the hills, how this works, how faith can make it so you're not alone. "You know, I'm not kin to none of these people under that hill over there, but each and every one of 'ems a brother to me. Each and every one of them." He then looked toward the reporter and said, "Because you're my brother," and then turning to the cameraman, "and you're my brother. The way I look at it."

There was something electrifying about that moment. In the midst of bitterness and turmoil, Casto broke through the wall.

"Because I love Christ," he went on. This is not the sort of thing you usually hear on the news, and the camera was already pulling back. The reporter's voice softly murmured "All right, John." But Casto continued, "We're gonna to pray for each and every one of these people." At this point, the reporter patted him on the shoulder, with a "that's enough, now" gesture.

P.S., number 2: Readers who are interested in the many, many journalistic issues raised by the coverage of this event will want to stay plugged in at Poynter.org -- which currently has this round-up on its front page.

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