For me, already, it had been a difficult fall and I was looking forward to some time after Christmas and New Year’s when I could rest and reflect on the events that had made the fall difficult.
I remember that year to be a year when I buried so many people from the churches and the community where I was serving as pastor in Barbour County, WV. There were dear people that I knew well, had preached to Sunday after Sunday, visited, stopped to talk to in the grocery store or at social events. There were some that I barely knew or didn’t know at all, but there was some connection that brought me into their families’ lives at that particular moment. And always, after each of those funerals, my soul felt such sorrow for the families whose lives were suddenly different.
I spent so much time that year wondering how to make a difference for these dear people who were hurting so, wondering if there was any way to make a difference.
Then, in December, my family experienced the heartbreak of my mother-in-law’s death. She had been battling cancer for quite some time. All that fall, I watched my husband Gary go night after night to stay with his mother so that his sister could rest, as she was the primary caretaker. I know that all through that fall neither Gary nor his sister rested much those nights. In mid-December, she died and all of us were grieving as we moved from the funeral into the celebrations of Christmas.
Christmas was on Sunday that year. After a Christmas Eve service and a Christmas morning Sunday service, my soul was tired and I wanted to rest. I remember thinking that it would be nice to visit my family in North Carolina and reflect upon the very difficult year that had proceeded.
When the news of the Sago Mine Disaster came to me, I was sitting in my beloved Aunt Helen’s kitchen. I remember feeling like something was torn out of me. I remember closing my eyes and feeling an incredible amount of pain and agony and knew that so, so many people were hurting. I remember thinking: “Maybe I need to go home.”
It was after I heard the news that only one person survived that I was able to start home. As I heard the names of the miners who had been trapped I remember thinking that I didn’t really know any of them, but over the next few days I learned that the people of my congregations knew them. They were family members, dear friends, parents and grandparents of children who went to school with my own children. Throughout North Central West Virginia, the lives of these miners interconnected, intertwined with almost everyone.
What could we do? How could we help? How could we grieve anymore? Where was God?
The passing of ten years has brought some healing, but for those immediate family members, we know that life will never be the same. Maybe it is easier to get up and get moving in the morning. Maybe there have been celebrations like weddings and graduations and the births of children into the families, but even in these joyful occasions there is the memory, there is the pain, there is the anger, there is the hurt, there is the thought of what might have been.
There are a two, powerful observations that come to my mind as I think about this event that has shaped the recent history of our community. First, it was the coming together of so many concerned people that offered the strength for so many people to move through those awful days. People did not always know what to say or what to do, but the very presence brought comfort. The very presence of these folks proclaimed that the family members were not alone. The presence of others brought compassion and hope, steadfastness and love, even if the right words were not available or even if the wrong words might have been said. This community knew that we were not alone and that the love and prayers and energy of people all over the world was directed to this small community that was in sorrow.
My friends, this is the very meaning of Emmanuel—God with us! We are still in the midst of observing the coming of Emmanuel—God with us—into a deep, dark world. God with us means that we are not alone in the dark, that there is light shimmering in the darkness, that there is the possibility of life no matter how much tragedy and death there is around us. God with us means that there is love and comfort and forgiveness and grace all around us. God with us means that life still has precious and treasured moments with us and through God with us we find strength to go on.
During that time of the Sago disaster, during the recent days of our lives as well, there have been and are those people in our lives who are the faces of Emmanuel, people who help us to see the light in the darkness, who help us to feel the hope, who sit with us when there are no words that can mean anything. God is with us in the presence of friends, family members, church families, even strangers. And strength comes to us. And sometimes that strength gives us the ability to speak where there is silence or act when something needs to be done. Emmanuel, still with us.
The second observation is one that I have pondered since becoming director of the Upshur Parish House nearly six years ago. Within this community is a generous spirit that makes it possible to do what we do through Crosslines at the Parish House every day. This generous spirit supports us financially and with donations so numerous that I am astounded over and over again.
Just an example is the outpouring of supplies and money for our Thanksgiving and Christmas meal packages as well as support for Christmas Day Dinner. The meat for the holiday meals was nearly $20,000 and the money was raised through private donations and grants before we even began distributing Christmas food. The money to support the Christmas Day dinner was also raised through private donations and grants before December began. This has been astounding to me. I am deeply grateful for this outpouring of concern and support for our neighbor families.
In addition, the extra “fixings” for the holiday meals were donated, as well as our food pantry continuously stocked and countless hours of volunteer efforts were logged by more volunteers than ever. The generous spirit has been so alive!
Why is there so much generosity here? I think that much of it goes back to the times of disaster, when we were surrounded by the faces of Emmanuel through our neighbors and friends and family who are with us no matter what. Understanding Emmanuel—God with us—means that our lives are transformed because we understand that our lives are also a part of the presence of God with us. Our love, our compassion, our generosity is part of the love and compassion and generosity that is Emmanuel—God with us. When our neighbors are in need, that love and compassion and generosity is Emmanuel—God with us, springs into action and people are cared for in a way that responds to the presence of God in our lives.
Ten years ago, in the midst of a horrible tragedy, God was with us—Emmanuel. Ten years later and beyond, God is with us—Emmanuel—and will be with us—Emmanuel still!
To God alone be glory!
Sago Mine Memorial, Sago, Upshur County, WV