It was spring of 2001 when my family and I arrived in the tiny village of Cheshire, Ohio (pop. 221). Having been called to pastor the only Baptist church in town, I accepted the position with no real concerns about either of the two power plants which sat less than a mile away. Sure, there had been some issues in the past, but they had all been addressed.
Or so I thought.
Within months of our arrival, blue plumes of sulfuric acid touched down on multiple occasions across the village causing serious health problems and significant property damage. By the next spring, American Electric Power, the parent company of the two power plants, had announced that they would be purchasing the village for $20 million.
Though I had been Bible-college and seminary trained, nothing could have prepared me for the chaos that ensued in the small Appalachian church and community. Families divided. Friendships split. Money proved to be the root of much evil. The church nearly fell apart. If only I had taken that course, “Buyout Training for Ministers,” while in seminary.
Oh wait! That’s right. There wasn’t one.
Looking back, I was in way over my head. It was not a scenario that I was prepared for in any way.
The church members voted not to sell the church building or the parsonage in which the pastor (read: me and my family) was required to live. The latter vote was a difficult pill to swallow. By the time this vote took place, many of the residents had moved out, leaving behind empty homes which were being raided and pilfered on a nightly basis.
My family’s safety became a major concern for my wife and me. We didn’t fully understand why the church voted not to sell the parsonage. We had hoped that they would do so and then use the money to relocate us outside the village, away from the pollution and the danger now present in the village.
We wrestled with what to do for some time. We loved the people of Cheshire, and we knew that the church would remain open as most of its parishioners lived outside the village limits. We had no idea of the long-term effects of the pollution raining down upon the residents, however. No one did. As a result, we chose to leave in August of 2003. Two and a half years after my first Sunday at Cheshire, we were packing a truck and relocating to Pennsylvania.
Over the past twenty years, whenever I would talk about our experience in Cheshire and the crazy, unprecedented buyout that made headlines all around the world, and which would become the focus of two award-winning documentaries, people would tell me that it is a very interesting story—one that would make a great book or movie, even.
Writing a book is something I’ve pondered for a long time. I have written quite a bit, including some fiction and some freelance work. Currently, I am completing an MFA in Creative Writing.
All of that to say: now is the time.
The story I want to tell is one of perseverance, faith, and strength of family. I want to relate my own experience as a young outsider desperately trying to win over his new flock, but I will also relate the challenges faced by the members of the church and the community as they attempted to successfully navigate the uncharted waters of being forced out of home and land.
Having already conducted significant research online, I will soon begin interviews with those who experienced the strange ordeal. I look forward to talking with village council members, community members, members of the opposing legal teams, and environmental experts. I am also hoping to acquire transcripts or notes from village meetings and church business meetings during which the issues were discussed from 2001-2003, especially.
Recently, I traveled out to Cheshire and spent time photographing the ghost town that it has become. I did not visit with anyone as I had little time there and was not yet prepared for such a reunion.
I hope to return this fall. See old friends. Attend church. Interview those interested in talking.
A completed manuscript is likely a couple years away, but on this blog, I will provide regular updates and excerpts designed to keep you abreast of the project’s progress and give you a taste of what is to come.