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Jul26SatDigging beneath the surface of The Salvation Army's historical ministry to coal miners and their families. July 26, 2014 by Rob Jeffery
Arriving at the coal mine in the early morning darkness, Fred Courtney changed into his work clothes in the washout, picked up a lamp from the lamp house and then descended 300 metres underground in a small metal cage. In the darkness of the mine, he travelled along the coal seam in an electric boxcar called a riding rake. Mining was hard and dangerous work. Cave-ins, methane gas explosions and injuries from heavy machinery were far too common, and for those who survived, black lung (pneumoconiosis) was often the only reward for a life spent toiling underground.
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From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution until the postwar era, coal was king. It fuelled electricity and heated many Canadian homes. Towns sprang up wherever coal was found. Nowhere was this truer than in Nova Scotia, where the first mine opened in 1720. Since then, more than 300 mines have provided employment to generations of miners. During coal's heyday, towns such as Glace Bay, New Waterford, Westville, Stellarton and Springhill, N.S., boomed and bustled, driving the economy of the region and the province.
Courtney worked for the Dominion Coal Company in Glace Bay from 1954 to 1969. Despite the hardships, there was a real sense of camaraderie among miners. “We did our work with a merry heart,” he says. Outside of work time, the miners' social lives revolved around the mine with workers forming sports clubs, choirs and other musical groups. The tradition of Salvation Army banding is indebted to mining culture, which came from the colliery brass bands of England and Wales.
In the late 1880s, The Salvation Army began a ministry to coal miners and their families. When times were tough and miners were unable to provide their family with a Christmas turkey or presents for their children, the Army was there. When accidents resulted in a miner's absence, the Army gave comfort to the family members left behind. Coal miners found a spiritual home in the Army and many gave their lives to Christ, becoming soldiers, local officers and officers.
After he enrolled as a soldier in The Salvation Army, Courtney would put on his uniform on payday and collect money for his corps from his colleagues. Though he was sometimes teased by his friends for doing so, the Army's work was held in such high regard by the miners and their families that Courtney seldom returned from his endeavours empty-handed.
But in the 1960s, things began to change. Rising labour costs made utility companies look to developing countries for cheaper coal. Coal mines across Canada began to close, and mining towns were devastated as their workforce moved away in search of greener fields. In many communities in Nova Scotia, the Army began to struggle as well, as once-thriving corps were reduced in size. Corps that survived did so because they learned how to do more with less.
Speaking about the transition that the town of Glace Bay went through when the collieries stopped operating, Courtney remembers many challenges the corps faced: “With out-migration, families weren't as big as they once were. We had families in the corps with eight or nine kids and they all came to church and Sunday school. We don't have that today. And over the years, not only have the numbers diminished but finances as well.”
Courtney notes, however, the generosity of the soldiers left behind who worked hard to keep their church alive and thriving in the midst of so many challenges. When a new citadel was constructed back in the 1980s, it was paid off in three years.
The closing of the mines did not diminish the ministry of Glace Bay Corps, but extended it. “It just meant we had to do the same things, with fewer people. It was as simple as that. You adapted; you did what you had to do. There were always people willing to pick up the slack.”
Before the mines closed, Courtney was fortunate enough to be offered a scholarship to attend university. After his education, he began a second career as a teacher and left the mines behind, though he still considers himself “a miner at heart.”
When the mines closed in Westville, the town suffered a severe economic setback. The corps was very close to being shut down as well, but the people dug in and pressed forward, continuing to offer loving service in Jesus' name. The corps focused on meeting the needs of the changing community, developing a financially stable community and family services that operated alongside of corps work, and running various thrift stores throughout nearby towns that could help fund mission.
Fred Jeffery, a local officer who has attended Westville Corps since the early 1960s, credits the corps' willingness to adapt and be more intentional about mission as the main reason for its survival. “Coal was an important resource,” recalls Jeffery, “but the people God gives us to serve are our greatest resource. It's important to keep that in perspective.”
Nova Scotia's last experiment with underground mining ended in 1992, when an underground explosion caused by methane gas killed 26 miners. The Westray Mine disaster made headlines around the world as people wondered incredulously how, in this modern age of machinery, safety standards and regulated labour, so many people died tragically.
The soldiers of the nearby Westville Corps, including Fred Jeffery, rallied to the mine site and ran emergency disaster services, ministering to the needs of rescue workers and the miners' families. The song made popular by The Men of Deeps choir, Their Lights Will Shine, captured the heartbreak of the families whose loved ones would not be coming home. The lyrics are: Their lights will shine/Twenty-six all of a kind/Their lights will shine/Facing those who would be blind/Their lights will shine/For the loved ones left behind/From the darkness of the mine/Their lights will shine.
Although a way of life is gone, The Salvation Army continues to be a transforming influence in former mining communities, shining the light of God's love.
Rob Jeffery is a Salvationist at Halifax Citadel Community Church and an employee of the Halifax Centre of Hope, Maritime Division.