Stewardship is a Likely Place to Start: Mountain Valley Pipeline Resistance

Jenny Chapman stands in protest alongside five other people
Dominion Energy Protest Rally in Richmond, VA. Dominion is Virginia’s largest utility and leads the coalition building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Photo: Will Solis

By Jenny Chapman

Jenny Chapman, a birthright Quaker whose ancestors made the pilgrimage to America with William Penn, lives on a farm on Bent Mountain in rural southwest Virginia and is a member of Roanoke Friends Meeting. She and her husband raised their two sons on the Mountain and now her 10-year old daughter, Evelyn, visits often and has grown up loving the Mountain as well.

She and her community have been fighting the installation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), a natural gas pipeline that would be installed through their property by EQT Midstream Partners, a for-profit energy company based in Pittsburgh.


What is the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP)? Starting from well sites in northwestern WVA, this 303-mile-long pipeline will transport fracked natural gas through Southern VA. The pipe itself is 42” in diameter, the largest pipe ever used in the natural gas industry. It is expected to pump 1.2 billion cu ft. of gas daily, along with highly toxic chemicals, silica dust and diesel sludge, at high pressure (1500 psi). Besides the destruction to land and forests in the installation process and air pollution from compressor stations, pipelines are well-documented to leak and explode.

Influence Of Quaker Testimonies
My faith as a Quaker has had tremendous influence on my life as a pipeline resister. I want to share with you how Quaker testimonies have framed my involvement, my work and my actions.

Our testimonies bear witness to the truth as we interpret it in our life experiences, as we believe it to be. We seek to live our lives according to our interpretation of these truths and strive to let our lives speak as example. As a Quaker, I knew and always thought the testimonies seem straightforward and self-explanatory. In my work with pipeline resistance, I have come to recognize nuances that I never noticed before. Deeper Reflection on our testimonies challenged me and my preconceived notions and caused me look at things a bit differently.

Stewardship – the likely place to start
As Quakers, we want to live in harmony with the earth. We use resources wisely, we recycle, we are sensitive to the finite resources of our planet. But that doesn’t quite go far enough. Stewardship calls me further – into service. Service to the earth. Stewardship cannot only be something we do in our spare time. So I knew that I needed to respond, to apply my life to work in service. To dedicate my time and talents to protect the earth – and also the inhabitants.

The peace testimony dovetails nicely with the stewardship testimony.
In our work as pipeline resisters, we are working for peace, working for harmony with one another. We cannot aspire to peace if we do not have justice. Resisting the pipeline is working for justice. It is no coincidence that pipelines are most often routed through areas where people are poor, marginalized, and powerless. Working to defeat pipelines is helping people find their voice, who did not know they had a voice, and work in solidarity together. We aspire to protect our region from the pipeline but also to promote greater harmony, to work for a more just process.

Many concerned folks have come together across county and state lines. I was fortunate to assist in creating a multi-county, interstate coalition of persons from each county in WV and VA dedicated to working together, people I have come to know, love and respect. In Solidarity, that’s how we sign off all correspondence. Community became more than my immediate village – it is over 300 miles long.

But what about my immediate village? Bent Mountain is small and somewhat insular, but people generally know one another. A 42” pipeline threatening our mountain certainly brought our small mountain community together. An example of this is our response to survey access. Landowners along the route in my area almost unanimously rejected the attempts of survey crews to come onto their property. When surveyors came, we rallied and stood in solidarity to prevent them from entering private property using non-violent resistance, behaving peaceably and treating these oppressors with dignity even when it was not returned. When the company sued the landowners, we supported them in court. The small community of Bent Mountain has exerted the greatest amount of resistance the company has encountered.

Equality as treating everyone as equal regardless of race, faith or socio-economic status, doesn’t go far enough. We need to include those who do not agree with us, who do not share our goals or have our best interests at heart, yet we are called to seek that of God in everyone.

We came into contact with people who lied to our faces and used deception in various ways to gain their objectives. There was no shortage of underhanded tricks and manipulation.

An example: the crews always come with mountainous bodyguards – telling us they were medics – and it was understood that they were carrying concealed guns. They were impassive and silent as stone and frankly pretty scary. Well, one day, I found myself bumping into a crewman. I was looking up (waaay up) and it came to me to say “I don’t know what will happen today but I want you to know that I respect you as a human being.” He looked down and regarded me for a few moments and replied, “I respect you, too.” I wish I could tell you that we locked arms and walked off to share lunch under a tree but that didn’t happen. We simply walked away silently to our respective places and the standoff continued. But it did make a difference to me. I saw my adversary as a fellow human being. My humanity, bound up in his, for “we can only be human together,” as Desmond Tutu put it.

We take this to mean maintaining a simple lifestyle, not living carelessly or lavishly, prizing the spiritual life above material possessions. It occurs to me that this is only one facet. There is also, I believe, simplicity of mind and time. Removing the clutter from our minds – maintaining focus, striving for clarity – is impossible when your mind is filled with constant detail. Along my way, I thought that I had to know everything about pipelines to understand anything. The list of things to learn went on and on. My mind became very full, congested.

We were all doing this to some extent, fearful of missing anything necessary. Eventually it became apparent to me that we must not take on all things, that if our mind is running scattershot, we cannot be effective. I came to understand that If we wish to have right order in our lives, how important it is to have right order in our mind.

Likewise, it applies to our use of time. Most of us are overachievers, probably. We truly believe we must stay busy, make the best use of our time to truly value this wonderful God-given gift. But is filling up every minute the best experience of it? We need to refresh and recreate ourselves, to reflect and cherish the time we are given.

Living honestly, being our authentic selves, letting our outer lives reflect our inner spiritual values. Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selves and to live according to our core principles. Following the guide, seeking authentic service has taken me to places and situations I could never have foreseen. Sure, I felt that I was speaking truth to power when I spoke before various hearings or confronted the field agents, but, there was more to come…

In survey situations, we believed the police were not acting in our best interests each time they arrived on the scene. They were approached by the pipeline representatives first, who pled their case to, unfortunately, sympathetic ears. One day, while waiting for the police to arrive, I decided we needed to speak first. I wasn’t thinking it through, I just felt led to do to do this. A friend and I walked down the road, away from the standoff, and waited for the police cars to come. When they did, I walked out into the middle of the road and stood there. They stopped. Fortunately. Annoyed, they told I was obstructing, that they were on a call and I was gonna be in big trouble if I didn’t step aside. From somewhere deep within me, a strong calm voice said “I am your call. We need to talk,“ and we did. Calmly and deliberately we spoke at length of the inequity that we were experiencing from the police. Ultimately the police drove on to meet with the pipeline crew and advised them to leave and come back another day with a court order.

Going Forward
There are so many stories like these – of seeking and silently waiting for guidance and testing what guidance comes. I give thanks for the testimonies that continue to reveal new truths, for the words that inspire me to action. And I look forward to those times when words become faith in action. We have been David to the company’s Goliath.

Along the way, we have been disappointed and let down by almost every politician, every agency that should support and protect us. But instead of discouragement, we have become even more resolved. Grassroots – ordinary citizens – we have delayed and thwarted the pipeline for 4 years – and counting.

Since this article was written, circumstances on Bent Mountain have escalated. Jenny’s neighbors, Red Terry and her daughter, Minor, became treesitters on their own property, seized by the company using eminent domain, to prevent the cutting of trees for the pipeline route. They endured freezing weather, snow and wind storms, and the prevention of food and water by local police. Faced with court orders and $1000-day fines, after 34 days, they decided to come down.

FERC has just made their final ruling to disallow a rehearing of the permitting process for the MVP, and the company has been given the green light to proceed with construction.


Interview with Jenny Chapman by Barb Adams

1.    Give us a brief update of where the Mountain Valley Pipeline process and tree sitters are now.

The last tree sitters are now down. Recently, it has come to light that anti-terrorism agencies have been working to coordinate with police, monitoring pipeline protestor’s response and organizational affiliations. It’s extremely concerning that our rights to peaceful protest as well as our constitutional right to free speech could be considered domestic terrorism. This should raise alarm for everyone, not only pipeline opponents.

2. This has been such an emotional and spiritual odyssey. What are some ways that have helped you cope, from your experience as a Quaker and otherwise?

When I am overcome, it helps if I just stop and breathe. Just breathe. Just remind myself to pause and collect, take inventory of myself at the moment. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Breathe, smile and go slowly.” Can’t always manage the smile, but I am learning to breathe and go slowly. It’s so easy for me to outrun the Guide! I often think of Fox’s instruction to seek that of God in everyone, too. Not always easy to find but you know it’s in there somewhere, just gotta keep looking.

Mary Beth Coffey and Jenny Chapman observe tree-cutting on the Coffey farm, flanked by MVP security guards. Photo: Will Solis
Mary Beth Coffey and Jenny Chapman observe tree-cutting on the Coffey farm, flanked by MVP security guards. Photo: Will Solis

3. You’ve had some…interesting…encounters with police, subcontract workers and industry representatives. Can you share one of them and what you went through in deciding how to handle it?

In a recent incident, tree cutters were cutting in high winds – an obvious OSHA violation. I entered their workspace and asked them to stop, out of concern for their safety (and the trees, of course!). I was immediately intercepted by a very large guard who threatened to call the police because I was interfering with their right to proceed. I explained that I could not in good conscience do that because if I left, they would just continue cutting and it was dangerous. It was 45 minutes before the first officer arrived, so the guard and I stood under the tree, waiting. Typically, the guards are impassive, taciturn and intimidating. This fellow was no exception. Eventually, we made some tentative small talk: He told me his name and I told him mine. We shook hands. He then told me about his grandmother (I’m a grandmother) and how he loved her and how she taught him to respect people.

Not all interactions end well. At times the guards are openly rude and take pleasure in our distress, as do the subcontractors. The company representatives were often deceptive and exploitative. It’s hard to witness people behaving spitefully and acting cruelly. Sometimes actions are so egregious, it’s all you can do to maintain control of your response. Angry responses only serve to escalate tensions and they are ultimately not satisfying, either. Respond to hostility in kind only gives it life. How much better, then, for our responses to be measured and peaceable, hopefully changing the dynamics in a positive way. They have told me “We are only following our orders.” I think, “Wow, do they know that was the Nuremberg Defense?”  It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now.

4. Opposition to the pipelines proposed for Virginia definitely has often been presented as a “fight.” How do you see this through a Quaker perspective?

Some do refer to this as a fight or a battle and while I can understand the analogy, I never have seen this as a fight. I see it rather as a struggle or a challenge. I believe I am acting in good faith, working toward a positive result.

5. What would you like Quakers who have not experienced anything like this pipeline to know or understand, and, importantly, do?

First, obviously, is to become educated on the subject beginning with hydraulic fracturing but also the problems associated with transport of fracked gas. It’s a complicated process associated with so much risk, damage and destruction. How are Friends investing their money? Divest from companies that invest in fossil fuel industries – invest in green energy and examine one’s own carbon footprint.  Reflect, examine and act as led by our Inner Guide. Write legislators and agencies that are involved in decision-making, request meetings, write letters to the editor. Ask Friends Meetings and faith communities to take a stand. Join an organization. There is no shortage of direct actions that we can take.

6. What gives you hope in the face of such a formidable situation?

I don’t really think about hope. I suppose I’m just pragmatic and think about what needs to happen next, evaluate that, consider next steps, that sort of thing. I am reminded of Pandora’s box, which is a fitting analogy in many ways. After all the evils spilled out, the one thing remaining in the box was hope. So maybe there is hope remaining. I don’t know. There is no guarantee of our end result. Whatever happens, what matters most to me is that I have followed my leading and done all that I could do, and all that my conscience requires of me.