Acton Institute Powerblog

Reimagining work in the coalfields

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The American coal industry is facing serious challenges. In states like West Virginia, the effects have been particularly painful, causing many communities to struggle under a projected 23% decline in related jobs and leading vast numbers of residents to leave the state altogether.

This is the story of Bluefield, a West Virginia coal-mining town facing decades-long economic decline, with the population of the surrounding county dwindling from 100,000 in the 1980s to less than 20,000 today.

Thankfully, for the churches and businesses of Bluefield, this doesn’t mark the end of the story.

In a new video from Made to Flourish, Pastor Travis Lowe shares their story, explaining how an initial community meeting among church members and business leaders led to a formal network that now seeks to reinvigorate the economic climate of the city, beginning with empowering, enriching, and connecting its human capital.

“Anything can be automated. That’s the future of our country,” Lowe explains. “But we’re the picture of…what happens on the other side. What we’ve done in Bluefield, what we’re seeing here is a return to humanity, a return to image-bearers. Machines aren’t image bearers. People are. And as we return to that, it’s a beautiful thing.”

According to Lowe, an Acton contributor who has shared his story in the past, the local church played a critical role in facilitating the process, offering a strong foundation and spiritual launch pad for people from diverse backgrounds to come together and work toward economic transformation:

I believe that a lot of the biggest issues in Bluefield had to do with poverty, had to do with drug addiction, had to do with broken homes, and all of those are direct results of the economy. So if we want to be the church and to speak into poverty and to speak into broken homes and to speak into drug addiction, then I think we have to address the economy.

I think that we’re a great place, because we have people of all different social structures, people that would maybe throughout the week not cross each others’ paths, people that work in lots of different fields. That’s really what we needed: people with different eyes, looking at these businesses and seeing places they could operate. This is what we were able to bring to the table.

The network now hosts monthly gatherings with over 50 business owners, leading to strategic brainstorming for the community and a unique cross-section of industry collaboration and personal discipleship. The group has also secured a building to launch their own FabLab, a platform from MIT that seeks to equip entrepreneurs and inventors and train workers in new skills and technologies.

There’s a lesson here for a nation that faces increasing pressures from automation.

Rather than responding to their disappointments and displacement by giving up or leaving the community altogether, Bluefield is taking a different path: planting new seeds and new partnerships.

Rather than looking to coercive, protectionist measures to insulate their community from outside pressures, they’re turning to freedom and the future: adapting their skills and developing their resources to create new value in new ways on behalf of their community and the nation.

When it comes to “living on mission” amid economic disruption, the people of Bluefield aren’t dwelling on fear, but are paving a path that recognizes their role as image-bearers — reorienting their hearts and hands toward work that serves and sustains.

Image: Eastern Regional Coal Archive, Craft Memorial Library, Bluefield (Public Domain)

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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