Last week I had the opportunity to travel to the beautiful state of Montana for a seminar put on by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE). In a quaint, 1920s era railroad hotel, a group of professors, pastors, rabbis, activists, and others of various professions discussed “Faith, the Economy & Social Justice: Lessons from Butte, America.” Why Butte? Well, as the site of one of the largest natural resource booms, and consequently, one of the largest busts, Butte provides a clear case study for considering the costs and benefits (both human and material) of rapidly discovering and harnessing the power of natural resources.
Butte, known as “the richest hill on earth,” was the site of a copper mining boom beginning in late 1800s and tapering off after the end of World War I in 1917. Butte copper helped provide for the rapid development of electricity during the early 20th century, and drew thousands of men from all over the world and the US to work in the mines. As is often the case with a mining boom, working conditions were dangerous, and the pay was low. After 1917, Butte entered a steady decline. Before the end of WWI, Butte’s population was about 90,000. Today, the population is around 30,000.
We took a field trip to Butte during the seminar to get a first hand sense of what happened there almost a century ago. The city was abandoned in a hurry, and it still looks that way today. Rundown brick buildings line the streets with intermittent open lots, many of which are the result of arson. Some parts of the city are more pleasant, namely the downtown district where some historic buildings have been renovated and attract a modest number of tourists.
The Berkeley Pit, however, is the most vivid and permanent reminder of the boom and bust of Butte. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed to establish open pit mining in 1955 Over the years, the Berkeley Pit expanded and forced entire communities to relocate. The pit is massive, almost surreal to behold. It is one mile long, a half mile wide, 1,780 feet deep, and full of 1,000 feet of toxic water.
Much of the group’s discussion centered on the human costs of the mines. What does ‘social justice’ look like in a place like Butte? Was any one entity, namely the massive Anaconda Mining Company, to blame for the suffering that happened there? Thousands of men died in the mines, many died premature deaths due to lung disease, and women were often left on their own with young children and no means of income. Nevertheless, those who worked in the mines often came from all over the world to escape even worse conditions.
One thing that struck me as we drove through Butte, was the number of churches. Each nationality, it seemed, had its own place of worship. Unfortunately, we did not hear any stories of how the churches played a role in caring for the community in Butte, but they undoubtedly played a role in some capacity.
During our discussions, one thing everyone agreed about was the role the local church has in meeting the needs of its community. Arguably no other institution is as well equipped to provide for the unique needs of individuals and families facing poverty, illness, and death.
I’m sure there are plenty of stories of how the churches reached out to Butte’s needy, but unfortunately, the most prevalent stories are those of the strong socialist movement and the militant unions of the mining era. The answers to how things should have been done back in the early 20th century Butte and other troubled communities are far from straight forward. The human costs in Butte were real, but the benefits to both the workers and the world were also enormous.
Throughout the week, I was often deeply saddened by the stories we heard. It’s natural to hope to prevent such tragedies from happening ever again – to do it better next time, but most often we aren’t able to completely overhaul such systems. Despite this reality, I found many “lessons” from Butte. The simplest – and the one I too often forget about, is to be present and ready to serve the desperate, lonely, and afflicted right where we find them in our communities. Our actions will probably not be recorded in the history books, but as Matthew 25:35 says, to feed even one hungry person is to feed Jesus Christ.