Ask Illyn if his efforts are moving the needle, and he’ll cite the stunning growth of Restoring Eden. In the months leading up to the publication of this story, the group added 4,000 new members. Between October and December of 2009, it delivered 70 students to Capitol Hill to conduct more than 50 meetings with congressmen from their districts. Protests and arrests over mountaintop removal continue, though Illyn declines to put a number on the latter. He prefers to highlight triumphs like the White House invitation to a summit on youth and energy, and the credit Restoring Eden received for bringing two new signers to the Clean Water Protection Act in March 2010.
Successes like these equate to more donations, which have allowed Illyn to open a main office in Minneapolis, hire a Rocky Mountain coordinator to fight for wilderness areas in the West, increase his MTR “witness tours” in Appalachia from two to five per year, and underwrite flyovers for high-profile church leaders and politicians.
But success has also placed more demands on Illyn. In the coming year, he’ll lobby D.C. two to three times and spend 120 days campaigning at Christian colleges. His road time is taking a toll. Since I met him in the fall of 2008, Illyn has packed 20 pounds onto his already husky frame, and he had to stop and catch his breath every few minutes when I snowshoed with him in Colorado in 2010. Soon after I saw him, he developed blood clots in his lungs and discovered that the cancer that had previously attacked his eye, bladder, and right leg was back. While he insists that this melanoma is not terminal, he admitted to me last spring that he might have a “shortened future.”
There will come a time—possibly in the very near future—when Illyn will hand the reins to his primary acolyte, Sage Vekasi-Phillips, the MTR activist and seminarian. Born on Cold River Mountain in North Carolina, Vekasi-Phillips is an intense character. Raised by his mother, he says he recognized social injustice from an early age, as he watched her struggle “to bring home the hot dogs” while working three jobs. Angry at the world, he spray-painted coal-train cars—but he also joined his grandparents every summer at a Methodist retreat on Lake Junaluska, in the hills of North Carolina.
At 16, Vekasi-Phillips became the youngest elder in his Presbyterian church. At Warren Wilson College, he spent his spare time playing fiddle along the Swannanoa River—mournful, beautiful airs like “Lonesome John” and “Gospel Plow.” He liked to pray by the river, and it was in nature, he says, that he most deeply met God. “I looked around and thought, There wasn’t just one molecule that spasmed and became a fish. This can only have been created by something bigger, by a higher spiritual power.” Like Illyn, Vekasi-Phillips’s epiphany led him to environmental activism. He fought “big timber,” then in 2004 received a second calling to stop the injustices of mountaintop removal. It came on August 21, when he learned that three-year-old Jeremy Davidson had been crushed in his crib by a boulder that had dislodged from an illegal Virginia MTR site and rolled 650 feet down the mountain and into his bedroom.
A month later, Vekasi-Phillips helped start Mountain Justice Summer, an enviro training camp (and now year-round campaign) that teaches nonviolent protest methods. For the past four years, the avid hiker, who also works for Christians for the Mountains, has focused on the principles of community organizing. His role: bringing hope to affected towns by letting them know that “Jesus hears them.”
Vekasi-Phillips believes that thoughtful prayer, coupled with righteous activism, is the answer to stopping MTR. In March 2009, I saw him in action. On the night before we headed out on a hiking trip in the Appalachian Mountains, he helped organize a protest that would result in three arrests that grabbed national media attention. And a few months later, he would help lead a movement called Operation Appalachian Spring, in which 17 protesters chained themselves to Massey bulldozers and floated a “West Virginia Says No More Toxic Sludge” banner atop the multibillion-gallon Brushy Fork slurry impoundment.
As we hiked along an old logging road on Coal River Mountain, my companion prayed often and quietly, dropping his head and sometimes falling to his knees. He thanked God for “the beauty of his handiwork in all creation” and for help in stopping the destruction of MTR. When I asked him how he reconciled participating in illegal protests with his faith, he told me that his role is to bring Christ into potentially hostile situations. “I realize that not everybody shows up with the same spirit,” he said. “I go to lead prayers and help focus the energy, so we can all be more Christlike in our tone and approach.”
Vekasi-Phillips’s leadership potential is hard to measure. He doesn’t display Illyn’s outgoing magnetism or boundless energy, and his radicalism concerns some. There are hard edges—tough talk, a zealot’s intensity, and a spiky pastiche of tattoos across his back and arms—but there’s also an underlying softness. Allen Johnson, Vekasi-Phillips’s boss at Christians for the Mountains, calls him “a spiritual shepherd of the people, like Jesus, just standing there, fighting the empire while holding a little lamb.” And Vekasi-Phillips says the tattoos—of fire, a wolf’s eye, rivers, and the Chinese characters for Faith, Diversity, Unity, and Love—speak to his belief in “the oneness of humanity and the environment with God.” The art memorializes his missionary grandparents, but he also knows the tribal ink helps him connect with dissenting young evangelicals.
Vekasi-Phillips’s charisma—if quiet and complex—is unmistakable. Illyn mainly worries about his acolyte’s impatience. “The Christian world is just coming into this conversation,” he says. “They’re like a llama—willing to eat out of your hand, but if you move too quickly, they’ll back away. I fear that Sage, because of his pure and true heart for the issue, could move too quickly.”
When it comes to saving the planet, though, Illyn and Vekasi-Phillips are in lockstep about that born-again moment. They both believe that the single best place to transform other evangelicals is deep in the mountains, in places accessible only through backpacking.