Since we’ve moved to Pennsylvania, most weekends present opportunities to explore the area and see things we haven’t seen before. As a history buff, Southwestern Pennsylvania is a paradise of places to go, from half a dozen sites where George Washington slept, to places that are associated with events that go back to the French and Indian War. A two hour drive in any direction is a rich, historical experience.
There are also some events of modern history that are close by. We’ve been talking about going to Shanksville, to the 9-11 memorial, for quite some time now. That’s about an hour and a half from where we live. This past weekend, however, brought us to another place we’ve been wanting to visit for quite some time–the Coal Miner’s Memorial at the Sago Baptist Church, near the Sago Mine where thirteen miners lost their lives in 2006, just south of Buckhannon, West Virginia.
It’s about two and a half hours from here to Buckhannon, but it is a drive from the suburban and urban environment of Pittsburgh into the heart of rural West Virginia. Not only is it a beautiful place, in the mountains with everything in bloom in the spring time, but it has a lifestyle all its own. People are open and friendly and proud of their heritage. My wife was pulled into a deep interest in the tragedy that occurred there, and I think it was because it was so easy to sympathize with people who represent the best of who we are as Americans.
We stayed in Clarksburg, which is my Dad’s hometown, and where he and my Mom met and married right after the Second World War. We made the drive down a highway that still winds through the mountains through the hollows and along the creeks to Buckhannon, and then turned onto the road leading to the Sago mine, now named “Coal Miner’s Memorial Highway.” The memorial stands at the eastern end of the gravel parking lot that serves the Sago Baptist Church. It is a simple, but fitting tribute to the men who died, and to the one who survived. Their photos are etched into a smooth stone plaque, topped with a coal miner’s hat. There’s a flag pole, a short walkway, and benches with the names of the men etched into them. It’s the kind of place where you will spend about ten or fifteen minutes, but which you will leave having been changed.
It is fitting that the memorial is located on the property of the Sago Baptist Church. This small congregation opened its doors wide, and ministered in a way that justified their whole reason for existing. It was the only building in the community close enough to the mine itself, and large enough, to hold the families of the miners, the public officials, other miners, mine company officials and the host of people from the community who came to help. For three days, the doors were open, the heat was turned on against the cold January weather, and the members of the church provided food and shelter. The church had recently added a new worship center, otherwise, it couldn’t have held the crowds of people who gathered inside. The building took a beating, with throngs of people coming and going, and by the time it was all over, the floors and carpets had to be replaced, and the parking lot was a field of ruts and mud. But the congregation felt they had fulfilled a God-directed mission and purpose. They had.
The mine itself is closed. Coal is piled up at the end of chutes where it fell the day before the miners were trapped. The railroad tracks leading in have weeds and grass growing up between the rails, testifying to the inactivity. The mine itself has become sacred ground, a memorial of its own to the thirteen men who lost their lives inside. Their deaths were not in vain. Safety for coal miners all over the country has improved as a result of what happened there.
It was a special place for us, as well. We attended Sunday School at the Sago Baptist Church, and one of the first people who came up and introduced themselves to us, among many, was the brother of one of the miners who died. He and his wife were willing to speak about their loss, showed us around the church and its collection of memorials sent in by people from all over the country. They shared their feeling that their church was, perhaps, established and led to the point where it was called to minister “at such a time as this.” Between the mining company, public officials, and many generous givers, the church repaired the damage to its building, replaced its parking lot, and constructed the memorial. They feel blessed. So did we, by being there.
It was like having our own little mini-revival, and it came at a time when it was needed. It was, indeed, a very special weekend.