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United Methodists minister to families in mine tragedy

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The Rev. Mark Flynn
Jan. 11, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

When the community of Buckhannon, W. Va., gathers to remember the miners who died in the Sago Mine tragedy, it will probably be the voice of a 10-year-old boy they will never forget.

Ti (Thomas Issaic) Anderson, son of Tom Anderson, will read Psalm 91 at a community memorial service being organized by church leaders who were with the families throughout the ordeal. The service will be at 2 p.m., Jan. 15, at United Methodist-related West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon.

Psalm 91 was his father’s favorite, Ti told the Rev. Mark Flynn, a United Methodist pastor, as they waited in the Sago Baptist Church for news about the miners.

Flynn, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Buckhannon, went to Sago Baptist Church early Jan. 4 after getting a phone call from his wife, who had heard news reports of a mining accident that had left 13 men trapped underground. The families were gathering at the Baptist church to await news about their loved ones.

Flynn, the Rev. Carol Duffield and the Rev. Clifford Schell were with the families when they received word first that the miners were alive and then later that 12 men — including Ti’s father — had died.

“I am not sure I have the words for it yet,” Duffield said of that night. “It was overwhelming.” She is pastor of the Upshur Parish House, a United Methodist mission project in Buckhannon.

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Photo courtesy of West Virginia Wesleyan College

A memorial service for the miners will be held in the chapel at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon.
“I can’t imagine this happening in a worse way,” Flynn said of the erroneous reports that the miners were alive. “I was angry at how the coal company had handled the families, but these folks showed a lot of grace and a lot of faith and really ministered to me.”

Schell, superintendent of the Wesleyan District of the West Virginia Annual (regional) Conference, said the news that the miners were alive went through the crowd like “a brush fire.”

Then at 2:30 a.m., Jan. 3, after three hours of celebration, a coal company executive accompanied by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III and state troopers, came into the church and told the families only one miner had survived.

“Immediately the joyful elation of the families turned to disbelief, indescribable grief, anger, accusations and an emotional spin down that hurt as they had never hurt before,” Schell said. “After anticipating their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers would walk into the church, they now had to suddenly deal with their deaths.”

The surviving miner remains in critical condition.

The long hours of waiting with the families in the sanctuary were punctuated with many wonderful moments of sharing with the families, Duffield said.

“Steadfast hope and faith” were the overriding emotions within the sanctuary, she said.

“I think the overall atmosphere within the sanctuary, which no news media really reported, was this oneness. You would see families moving around and trying to support each other. I think that unity was amazing to me. There were moments where anger prevailed, but that was not the norm; the norm was families sitting together or walking around and checking on other families.”

Flynn is working with the college chaplain to plan the community memorial service. He said one of their biggest problems is so many people want to participate. For him, working with so many church leaders in the community has been a blessing that has arisen from the experience.

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A UMNS photo by Doug Duffield

The pastor of Upshur Parish House, the Rev. Carol Duffield, is among those ministering to the miners’ families.
“Most of the pastors I worked with in this effort were from churches that are not part of the W. Va. Council of Churches, pastors who are not in our ministerial association — Baptist churches, Pentecostal churches, independent churches — and these folks were all so gracious, so good to work together.

“It occurred to me if the only other folks we talk with are mainline denominations, we are not as ecumenical as we need to be, and we are not as prepared as we need to be to handle a crisis like this. We really need to be talking with pastors and lay people in these other churches too.”

Both Flynn and Duffield said Buckhannon is not a mining town and is different from the way it has been portrayed in the media. The main employer is the United Methodist college. Flynn said only 5 percent of the population makes a living in the mine fields.

At a visitation for one of the families, Flynn said the family shared with him the letter the miner wrote while trapped underground.

“After telling me some of what was in the letter, the widow’s grandmother said, ?And he had perfect grammar!’ One thing that says to me is that people’s stereotypes about West Virginia miners need to be revised, need to be shattered. The other thing is that man had a deep and abiding faith, and he knew he was in God’s hands. If he could say those things — and say them perfectly — he was composed. To me, that was something to rejoice about after all we had been through.”

In addition to Anderson, Gov. Manchin will participate in the memorial service by escorting the families into the chapel. The governor spent many hours with the families during the ordeal. Flynn said a family member told a colleague, “Mr. Manchin stepped out of his role as governor and became part of our family.”

One of the 12 miners who died was a member of Corley United Methodist Church. A memorial service for Jackie L. Weaver, Philippi, W.Va., was conducted Jan. 8 in Philippi led by the Rev. Destry Daniels, pastor at Corley, and the Rev. Arden Beck, retired.

Schell said many pastors and United Methodists helped minister to the families during those fateful hours. Several other United Methodist pastors stood watch with the miners’ families during the ordeal, including the Rev. Mitch Griffin, retired; the Rev. Dan Lowther, Frenchton Charge; the Rev. Sue Lowther, Wilsontown Charge; and Tim Kelley, Burnsville Charge.

“Folks did what they could,” Schell said. “God knows this, and the rest was in God's hands.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

Audio Interviews

The Rev. Carol Duffield: "There was always this oneness."

The Rev. Mark Flynn: "I can't imagine this happening in a worse way."

The Rev. Mark Flynn: "It will be an image that will never be gone from my mind."

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