July 20, 2015 | Volume 90 Number 19
The view from Holy Spirit Church in Jonesville symbolizes the underpinnings of faith and spirituality and the Catholic Church’s concern for the region expressed in all the Appalachian pastorals.
A Renewed Call to Consciousness from the World’s Oldest Mountains
Forty years after the Church introduced the first of its two pastoral letters addressing poverty and environmental exploitation in Appalachia, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia is preparing a “People’s Pastoral,” a renewed call to consciousness and action in the still-struggling region. The CCA plans to publish the new document this November.
The far southwestern part of the Richmond Diocese is at the geographical center of the region where the Appalachian Mountains — the oldest mountains in the world — rose out of the sea some 300 million years ago. This ancient land, untouched by the Ice Age, holds a life force that some would say is the spirit of God.
People of faith certainly recognize that these mountains speak of God’s presence: God in the region’s physical beauty and diverse life forms; God in the land’s rich natural resources; God in the particular way human life is lived there — in relationship with the land and each other — and celebrated in its folk arts, music and poetry.
In recent decades, these mountains, paradoxically, also have spoken of struggle against the poverty, both environmental and human, that has visited the region and debilitated God’s creation.
Sisters Smiling. “Notre Dame Sisters Beth Davies, left, and Jackie Hanrahan both have been serving in this diocese’s Appalachian region for decades and have been actively involved in the CCA’s activities, including developing the pastorals.”
The new pastoral message, currently being written under the auspices of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, is intended to accentuate the voices of the region itself. “The People’s Pastoral recognizes the legitimate teaching authority of those who are struggling,” explained Michael Iafrate, chair of the CCA’s committee developing the latest document.
“The magisterium (teaching authority) of the poor explains the struggle from the ground up,” Iafrate said. “Hearing their voices, we must determine our response by how their stories move us to reshape our politics and our communities, to re-orient our whole society to change. The poor and marginalized need to lead us — and the rest of the Church has to listen.”
Traditionally, a pastoral letter is addressed by a bishop to Catholic clergy, laity and all people of good will and contains instruction, consolation or directions for responding to particular circumstances.
While not officially authorized by the bishops, the People’s Pastoral is grounded in Catholic theology and Catholic social teaching, Iafrate explained. It flows from and builds on the previous documents, which were signed by the 26 Catholic bishops whose dioceses include part of the 13-state region, and like them, is addressed to the whole Church as well as to all people of faith and conscience.
Iafrate, a Catholic and native West Virginian who has served on the CCA board for the last five years, is drafting the new pastoral. He is a doctoral candidate in theology at St. Michael’s College of Toronto and lives in Wheeling.
Early calls to the faithful
The Catholic Church, mostly through the efforts of missionary nuns and Glenmary Home Missioner priests, began ministering to the poor in Appalachia in the 1930s. But it was the bishops’ 1975 pastoral letter that brought a deeper, wider awareness of the region’s plight and a call to people of faith to respond.
St. Charles Community Health Center is a successful example of a local initiative established in the 1970s by the town’s coalminers. Known at first as “the nickel and dime clinic” because it was funded by the miners’ small but constant donations, it has thrived and grown into a network of health facilities for low-income families.
“This Land Is Home to Me — A Pastoral Letter on Powerlessness in Appalachia,” published by the CCA, resulted in an influx of more religious women, missionaries and environmental and social justice activists committed to addressing the region’s poverty and its root causes.
Twenty years later in 1995, the CCA issued an updated letter by the bishops called “At Home in the Web of Life.” It praised the sisters, local leadership, church congregations and other groups that over those two decades contributed to improving life in Appalachia, including the bishops’ own Catholic Campaign for Human Development program that invested more than $4 million in community projects.
But while acknowledging progress, it emphasized the need to find sustainable solutions to economic, social and environmental problems that continued to plague the region.
In 2007, the CCA reprinted both pastorals in a single volume “to help reinvigorate the sense of mission and ministry to the mountains.” Father John Rausch, then director of the CCA, noted the bishops’ pastorals indeed had “sparked creative ministries in health care, addiction counseling, education, economic development, family violence and environmental work.”
Now, the People’s Pastoral reiterates the ongoing challenges that face the region and calls for a new response.
“It seeks to amplify the voices of the people,” Iafrate said, explaining that the new document draws heavily on individuals’ personal stories gleaned from “listening sessions” conducted throughout the entire region over the last 18 months. “As the writer, I see my job as taking what we’ve heard at the listening sessions and making theological sense of it by reflecting on it through the social justice structures of our Church.”
A stained glass window in St. Anthony’s Church in Norton depicts the fundamental place coal mining has in the regional culture.
However, “Appalachia has both changed and remained the same,” he said, explaining that the region “has lost the cache that once drew national attention and initiated ventures to enhance community life.”
Notre Dame Sister Beth Davies came to work in Lee County, Virginia, in the early 1970s and has witnessed first hand the circumstances that beg for the attention of the whole Church. She’s been involved in the process of developing all three pastorals.
She explained that the first Appalachian pastoral focused on the region’s exploitation by industry — especially coal — where outside entities made the crucial decisions affecting the local population. The region’s rich natural resources were being extracted and transported out — and all the associated economic benefits went with them.
The result for the local population was “their bodies were torn apart by health issues, mining injuries, disability and family violence,” she said, adding that their schools, roads and housing “were the worst” due to prevailing poverty. “They were grappling with it but felt powerless to do something about it.”
“After the second bishops’ pastoral,” Sister Beth said, “people began feeling for the first time that their voices were being heard, and now we’re moving toward what we can do with that.”
Her colleague, Sister Jackie Hanrahan, CND, who has been ministering in the region since 1982, recalled a recent case in point when an individual requested a zoning change from the Lee County Board of Supervisors in order to open a rock quarry. When a number of local residents forcefully raised concerns because the property in question held other possibilities for progressive economic development, she said, the individual withdrew his request.
“The vigilance has to be ongoing,” Sister Jackie explained. “There are always people who want to continue the ways of extracting resources — with more benefits going out of the region than coming in — because that has been the pattern for over a century here.”
Support and Watchfulness
The Richmond Diocese has responded to the needs in its part of Appalachia in numerous ways, notably with ongoing support of the Health Wagon that provides medical care to the poor and underserved in rural areas; pastoral ministry to inmates in the region’s maximum-security prisons; and the various outreach ministries of small parishes to the poor of their communities.
Nevertheless, “vigilance,” as Sister Jackie put it, is a key word. Many of Appalachia’s problems persist and new ones have added to the struggle. Among them: mountaintop removal, industrial plants polluting water sources and endemic drug addiction and abuse. They still beg for the attention of the Church.
“Regional Worker” Father Les Schmidt served in Virginia’s Appalachian region for 50 years and was a primary contributor to the writing of all three pastorals.
Iafrate said the People’s Pastoral will touch on some new issues such as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and climate change. “But mostly it will be new takes on the old story. We’ll also celebrate the small victories we’ve had — the things people are doing to change the story.”
Glenmary Father Les Schmidt, a “regional worker” in Appalachia for the entire 50 years of his priesthood, has been a key player in developing all of the Appalachian pastorals.
He explained that the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, formed in 1969 by the Glenmarys and religious sisters working in the region, has been the driving force behind the pastorals.
The CCA provided much of the groundwork, with Father Les coordinating the listening sessions at the heart of the collected wisdom underlying the documents.
“It’s the power of a story that evokes connection and compassion like nothing else can,” Father Les said. “This is the way I develop a sense of myself as part of the other, and then I respond as one in the Body of Christ. It leads to “deep solidarity,” he said.
Father Les, who lives in Big Stone Gap, suggested that the central themes emerging from the People’s Pastoral indeed will be the power of the story and deep solidarity. “You won’t see those words (‘deep solidarity’) in the pastoral,” he noted, “but that is the central motif running through the whole thing: We are all one — creation, humankind and one with the Risen God.”
In his advanced studies, Iafrate said he’s lately recognized applications of liberation theology to his own home land of Appalachia while working on the People’s Pastoral.
“There’s an agency given when people can tell their stories. There’s a liberation in that because they are not letting other influences and powerful entities tell their stories for them,” he explained.
“People in Appalachia are now taking their place in the story.
From these mountains has come the coal that for years drove industry in the region that now echoes with a renewed call to action addressing economic, social and environmental challenges.
“For example, people realized that the existing systems that supplied food to the region had an adverse effect on climate change, the environment and people’s diets. So they responded by creating a locally based food system that is easier on the environment and provided healthier food for families. The people saw the need, and what they did about it changed the story here.”
Sister Beth, who still runs the Addiction Education Center in Lee County, pointed out that the listening process for the latest pastoral “was all about hearing the voices in Appalachia that haven’t been heard before—those of people on the margins, such as gays and lesbians, atheists and people in prison, who hadn’t previously been part of the conversation.”
Iafrate added that while the first two Appalachian pastorals “had serious nods to ecumenism,” this one included more participation by other Christian and non-Christian sources that contribute to the region’s culture.
Yet Sister Jackie explained, “We use the model of the inclusive Gospel: Everybody has a place at the table. It’s a spirituality based on knowing Christ and the inclusiveness of Christ so we can connect to each other.”
The sessions were conducted in a variety of places and — formats, including parishes, community and interest groups as well as through the CCA website.
Continuing the Conversation
The People’s Pastoral will be published as a printed document and also disseminated through a variety of media to reach and inspire as many people as possible. A stage play is in the works and the committee intends for the pastoral to become a dynamic, continuing conversation through social and online media.
The effect of the new pastoral, Father Les noted, depends on how the church responds. “The pope tells us people should see [the church] as ‘one with an ocean of mercy’ — that is, as already one with the risen God. If the people of Appalachia experience us as an ocean of mercy, that leads to their transformation, which in turn transforms us and eventually brings about transformation of the whole world.”
Sister Beth puts it in simpler terms. “For some people in our churches, the only voices they are hearing are contained within the church walls. Hopefully, this will open us to listen and walk with these people and let their voices and experiences touch and expand our hearts and move us beyond our normal activity to think of the things we can do to change laws and policies and make difference. Not with everything — but just with what touches me or you,” she said.
Learn more at www.ccappal.org/the-peoples-pastoral.