Sacred Places Journal
19 October, 2001: Rhondda Valley, Wales: Bible Studies in Hell
Douglas points to a grassy green hill topped with trees as we drive through the Vale of Neath, "This used to be a coal tip." Most places where smooth green football pitches (fields) are now are where collieries stood. Very few are working now, but Douglas points across the green valley, "There's a mine right there." The piles of coal spread across the green appear as a dark black bruise against the foot of the hill.
Aberdare is a bustling town, but I think how black and dreary the hills on each side must have loomed a hundred years ago when they were covered with coal dust. And they are none too cheery today with the heavy, grey clouds hanging low. There is no tourist information office so we go to the Post Office. They suggest the library. This can be a lot like detective work. The library is large, new, well-lighted, and, like everything else in Wales, completely bilingual--except here English gets the top billing. They have a computer, but the local histories are located by turning pages in hand-typed, loose-leaf notebooks.
Ebenezer Congregational Chapel: Revival fires spread worldwide from here
I am given a file of yellowed newspaper clippings, hand-written notes and small pamphlets tied in bundles with white string. Unfortunately, almost all of them are in Welsh. I can read, however, the account of the Ebenezer Chapel, the mother church of Congregationalism in Aberdare, which I have come to find, as after Moriah Chapel, the revival spread outwards from here. There are numerous pictures of the entire town marching in procession for the pastor's funeral in 1959.
We find the church, an impressive building in a quiet street. But we only see the outside. We meet a lady in the street who tells us in her lilting voice, the wind whipping her red raincoat, that the caretaker left for Spain this morning, and the secretary is in Cardiff. She attends this church, "But there are only 10 or 12 of us now. We have a choir, though." She shows us the poster. With another choir they are doing Fauré's "Requiem" next week. The Welsh live up to their legendary choral tradition.
In spite of the low-hanging clouds and heavy rain we take the scenic route and get glimpses of the fabled Rhondda Valley: Tiny villages tucked in a narrow valley with steep, steep hills on both sides, the rows of terraced houses sitting on shelves running up the wides of the hills. I can't think how depressing it must be in the winter. It must get dark by 2:00 in the afternoon with what little sun there is blocked by the hills.
Tynewydd, Treherbert, Treorchy, Tonypandy... we drive past seemingly endless miles of grey stone terrace houses lining the narrow road, personalized only by their painted doors and window surrounds: yellow, pink, blue, green, red, white, pink, yellow, green, blue, white, red. . .then a sombre strip of black, grey, brown. The only open spaces the football pitches occupying the places of former collieries. What must it have been like when these oases of freshness were belching black smoke and heaps of blacker coal?
My hosts before a miner's lamp at Rhondda Heritage Park
We learn much of that answer at the Rhondda Heritage Park, a former colliery where the life of a hundred years ago is recreated. "In the winter men went to work in the dark, went down into the pit, came up in the dark. They only saw the sun one day a week," we are told. The statistics flash on the screen: One miner dies every 6 hours. One is seriously injured every 2 minutes.
Well, I could probably have done it if it hadn't been for all that went before: the rain, the dirt, the lecture about fireballs, flooding, explosion--all with actual photos. I mean, it's really brilliant the way they've transformed an actual colliery into a heritage centre so the visitor can experience the life of a coalminer like Evan Roberts. And I'm only very mildly claustrophobic. I only panicked that one time in a lava flow cave--also on a research trip. But I just couldn't go down in that pit. (Imagine my chagrin when I later found out it was only simulated.)
But perhaps nothing less than experiencing those 3 minutes of terror as the cage descended could have shown me the absolute miracle that took place in those pits when the miners began using their 20 minute breaks for Bible study. Who would have thought it possible--Bible studies in Hell?
I've always loved Welsh Male Voice choirs. When I read years ago that they welcomed visitors to their rehearsals I thought, "Someday I want to do that." Today was that someday. The Swansea Male Voice Choir rehearses on Fridays, and this was Friday, and I was in Swansea. As I walked into the rehearsal hall I heard a woman's voice leading out in "Sunrise, Sunset." Could that be right? Indeed. Their director is a woman. And what a woman. Mair Lewis can sing over the entire 50 voice choir--and keep them all in strict order.
They were preparing for next Saturday's concert--a benefit in aid of the American Disaster, presented by the Mid & West Wales Fire Brigade. In preparation they sing, "The Star-Spangled Banner," which brings me to my feet with a lump in my throat. Afterwards, I am warmly welcomed and given a CD they made for last spring's tour of the US--including a concert in Swansea, Illinois.