Just down the road, across the rolling fields and woodlands where most of his congregation grew up, the most powerful corporation in Virginia plans to build a natural gas compressor station. Dominion Energy’s facility is integral to the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will tunnel under the nearby James River and march across the county.
The pipeline has drawn protests along its planned path from West Virginia, through Virginia and into North Carolina. But the Union Hill community in Buckingham County, founded after the Civil War by freed slaves and near the geographic center of the state, is the only place in Virginia that faces the additional issue of a compressor station.
Federal documents say such stations — which keep the gas flowing — emit toxic chemicals that can harm health. They can be noisy, and they light up at night. Once in a great while, such facilities explode — causing damages and fatalities for a significant distance all around.
State regulators say Dominion has promised to take extraordinary steps to make the compressor station safe. Federal authorities say the station will have minimal impact because the area is sparsely populated. Dominion has touted economic benefits to the low-income county, claiming the 68-acre site will generate as much as $1 million a year in tax revenue.
The easiest path for local residents would be to shrug and accept it. But Wilson, who preaches on alternating Sundays at two Baptist churches in Union Hill, is leading his community down the harder path.
“They’ve approached us in the historical manner that big business and government approach communities such as ours,” Wilson said, “and that manner has always been that ‘we’re going to do what we want to do.’ ”
Next month, after at least two years of marches and rallies, even getting arrested in Richmond to draw attention to their plight, Wilson and his community face what could be a final opportunity to try to prevent construction of the compressor station. The State Air Pollution Control Board will hold a September hearing in Buckingham County as it considers a vital air permit due by the end of the year.
The choice to resist has put Wilson and his congregation in step with an unlikely group of allies. As he neared the end of his sermon last Sunday at Union Grove Baptist, Wilson noticed a figure in orange just inside the entrance to the church.
“Swami Dayananda!” Wilson exclaimed at a diminutive woman with short gray hair and the robes of a Hindu monk. She had stopped by from the nearby ashram at Yogaville, bearing diet books to help Wilson in his quest to lose weight, and looking to plan their road trip the next day to meet with civil rights leaders and environmentalists at a conference in North Carolina.
If nothing else, the looming threat of the pipeline and compressor station has wrought one small miracle in Union Hill: The Baptists and the yogis have come together.
Getting past the wariness
Yogaville used to draw considerable suspicion around Buckingham County. Founded in 1979 by Sri Swami Satchidananda as a retreat for the study and practice of yoga, the 660-acre site on a bend in the James River welcomes as many as 8,000 guests a year.
It features a dramatic lotus-shaped shrine on an artificial lake that serves as an international interfaith center, with altars commemorating all the world’s religions. “Many paths, one truth,” was the outlook advocated by Satchidananda, who died in 2002 and is interred on the property.
The pipeline will cross under the James River alongside the Yogaville property. Building it will require blasting through bedrock. Residents at Yogaville, like everyone else nearby, rely on well water and worry about what could happen to their supply. Construction will disturb the tranquility of the site, and the finished pipeline will leave a 50-foot-wide bare path across the scenic landscape.
Despite their shared concerns, the Baptists at Union Hill were initially wary of Yogaville. Then Pastor Paul, as everyone calls him, paid a visit.
Wilson, 65, has been preaching at the Buckingham churches for nearly two decades. He calls himself an evangelical, apostolic, Pentecostal preacher who believes the Bible is the literal word of God. So when he went to Yogaville a couple of years ago, he was unprepared for what he experienced.
Standing on a hilltop next to a shrine to Lord Siva Nataraja, looking down across the pink and blue Lotus building, Wilson was lifted by a sense of holiness. When he went into the Lotus shrine and saw its altars to Christianity, Judaism, Islam and many other faiths, he was overcome.
“All I wanted to do was pray and cry,” Wilson said. “Because that place is spiritual. . . . That was a major turning point for me over there.”
He struck up a friendship with Dayananda, 70, who has been at Yogaville more than 30 years. Eventually, he invited her to speak from the pulpit.
“I spoke about nonviolence,” Dayananda said. “I would be saying a few sentences and they’d be saying ‘amen!’ You know, I’ve never had [such] an experience — it was so uplifting!”
Church members began to grow accustomed to guests from Yogaville showing up at services and joining with them for potluck dinners.
A group called Friends of Buckingham, led by local resident Chad Oba, has formed to coordinate efforts among the church, Yogaville and other members of the community.
Charles White Sr., 88, recalls when two Gulf War veterans in the neighborhood expressed anger about the yogis in their midst.
White said he took the two to visit the Lotus shrine and see its message of religious tolerance. “Guess what one of those boys said? He said, ‘You know, if the whole world was like this, I wouldn’t have been over there having people shooting at me.’ ”
An invisible heritage
No one knows more about the forces that shaped Union Hill than White, who poured a lifetime of research into a book about blacks in Buckingham County called “The Hidden and the Forgotten.”
White was inspired partly by the life of local native Carter Woodson, one of the first scholars to study African American history, to unearth the heritage of a place where blacks outnumber whites but were largely invisible in the public record.
It was difficult work. The county courthouse, designed by Thomas Jefferson, burned in 1869. Slaveholder records were destroyed.
White found that descendants of slaves were sometimes reluctant to dig up the past, and in some cases still lived alongside descendants of the white families that had owned the local plantations.
One plantation, known as Variety Shade, gave rise to the Union Hill community, White said. The plantation’s families founded Mulberry Grove Baptist Church in the late 1700s, and brought their slaves with them on Sunday mornings to worship outside under a “brush arbor.”
After the Civil War, those black Baptists started their own church — Union Hill Baptist, which later spun off the nearby Union Grove.
It was the descendants of the owners of Variety Shade — which lapsed into disrepair and was demolished by the 1970s — who sold a 68-acre plot to Dominion for construction of the gas compressor station.
A few years ago, community members discovered that the woods around the Variety Shade property are pocked with old graves. Hundreds of them, most unmarked, some with simply a rock at the head, a handful with crudely made headstones. Generations of slaves and their descendants lay forgotten under a thick carpet of leaves.
A company's plans
Dominion says it is careful to avoid those burial grounds in plans for the pipeline and compressor station.
“We have a profound respect for the Union Hill and Yogaville communities,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said in a lengthy email detailing the company’s efforts. “We believe this pipeline is going to help build a better economic and environmental future for Buckingham County and communities across Virginia.”
The company estimates that property tax revenue will jump more than $1 million a year, though it does not spell out how. It has offered to create a natural gas tap for a local industry that it says can help boost efforts to create an industrial park.
Through community input, Ruby says the company has modified plans for the compressor station — adding sound buffers and landscaping to conceal the facility from neighboring houses. It also promises to install “some of the strongest emission controls ever used by the industry to keep air emissions far below regulatory limits.”
Environmental advocates say the federal permitting process gave short shrift to local concerns. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 800-page environmental impact statement makes one mention of the compressor station’s impact on Union Hill’s “history of African American settlement after the Civil War.” But it says this is no problem because the pipeline’s builders found that the area “does not exhibit a cohesive cultural landscape.”
The lack of attention to history makes it seem “as if [the project] were to be built on the moon,” Lakshmi Fjord, a visiting scholar in the anthropology department at the University of Virginia, wrote in a response to the federal report.
The report says compressor station emissions could include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds, and it notes that African American populations are more susceptible to related asthma.
But it concludes that Union Hill is not populous enough to be of concern.
That’s based on Census Bureau data suggesting a local population density of about 28 people per square mile and a minority percentage of less than 50 percent. But Fjord says those numbers are wrong.
She and student volunteers from U-Va. have been surveying households in a one-mile radius of the proposed station. Though they have not finished, they have already identified 158 people living in that zone, and 129 of those people are minorities.
Opponents are racing to prepare their data for next month’s public hearing of the Virginia State Air Control Board, hoping to thwart a permit that’s necessary for work on the station to begin. Giving them heart: Recent federal court rulings that found other aspects of the pipeline permitting process to have been hasty or inadequate.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has frustrated pipeline opponents by proclaiming himself an environmentalist but failing to oppose the project. Like other Virginia politicians of both major parties, Northam has taken thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Dominion. But his administration says it is monitoring the compressor situation.
“We’re listening to them,” said state Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler, who has attended meetings in Union Hill. The draft air quality permit being considered next month “is designed to be one of, if not the most, restrictive compressor station permits in the country. [The state] is holding Dominion’s feet to the fire.”
As outside attention has started to focus on Union Hill, Dominion has contracted with a community liaison to explore ways the company can foster goodwill: Basil Gooden, who served as state agriculture secretary under former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), grew up in Union Hill.
He did not return a request for comment, but residents say they have talked with him about things such as scholarship funds, a recreation center, maybe even a fund to help landowners who want to sell but can no longer get full value. “We’ve heard a lot of good ideas, and we’re exploring a number of them with community leaders and residents,” said Ruby, the Dominion spokesman.
Even White, who adamantly opposes the project, said that if it is inevitable, the community is right to see what it can get in return. Maybe those burial grounds, he said, could be cleaned up and given some respect.
A turning point
Pastor Paul is well aware that Dominion has a lot of resources to spread around. He preaches about it.
“You know, when folks start waving a few dollars, that sure confuses a whole lotta folks,” he told the congregation last Sunday.
These days, Wilson always has the pipeline and compressor station in his mind when he is preaching. He looks out at his aging, dwindling flock, and sees people who need to be reminded that they still count for something.
On Sunday, he talked to Union Grove about the apostles Peter and John being arrested for healing a man. Brought before the most intimidating authorities of the land, they were asked, how dare they defy the law?
“There’s a turning point,” Wilson said. Peter, filled with spirit, replied that he was acting with God’s authority. “Listen!” Wilson said. “It does not matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you come from.” If you speak with moral righteousness, he said, you can face anyone.
“And y’all know I’m going to say something about the pipeline and the compressor. Y’all knew that was coming, didn’t you?” he said from the pulpit. “When we question things about our water quality — listen! — and about the environment, when we question things about animal habitats, when we question things about land erosion . . . we better make sure that the answer is coming from God.”
After the service, Wilson huddled with Dayananda and Susan Liebl, another Yogaville resident. The three would travel the next day to North Carolina for an environmental justice summit with the Rev. William Barber II, in hopes of getting him to journey to Union Hill to rally support.
Earlier this year, Wilson hosted the famed singer Krishna Das at Union Hill Baptist, and Yogaville and church members have been holding weekly prayer vigils — scaled back lately to monthly because of church revival season.
John Laury, 74, is a deacon at Union Grove who initially watched all this with dismay.
He spent three decades in California before retiring to 98 acres near the Buckingham farm where he grew up. He was hoping to enjoy his cows and the changing seasons. Yogaville and the pipeline were distractions.
“Yogaville — they’ve been with us,” he said at home after church. His wife, Ruby, was preparing to go out collecting signatures for people to speak at the upcoming state hearing. “God loves all of us,” John Laury said. “We’re in it until the end. It’s the resistance, standing against injustice.”