By Margaret Gabriel, Special to The Record
RAVENNA, Ky. — The Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) held its 46th Annual Gathering at Aldersgate Camp and Retreat Center near Ravenna Sept. 9-11. Committee members came from Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and Indiana and included priests, vowed religious and lay people.
Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington welcomed the 80 attendees and told them about the first time he read the committee’s pastoral letters, “This Land is Home to Me,” and “At Home in the Web of Life.”
At the time, he said, he was a graduate student at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkley, Calif., and recalls telling his classmates, “Look how the church teaches here. Minds and wills have come together to make something happen.”
After his ordination as Bishop of Lexington in 2015, Bishop Stowe was invited to serve as the bishops’ liaison for CCA.
“He’s brought a great renewal of energy to CCA,” said long-time member and keynote speaker Glenmary Father John Rausch.
Bishop Stowe asked conference attendees to focus on being “beacons of hope in beautiful surroundings with beautiful people.”
Integral to the annual gathering was the committee’s third and most recent pastoral letter — “The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories That Shape Us.” The letter was published in 2015 and is known as the “People’s Pastoral.”
The gathering’s keynote — given by Father Rausch and Dr. Ron Eller — addressed the current state of economic affairs in Appalachia, the history of the church’s involvement and thoughts on the future from.
Eller, a historian who served for 15 years as the director of the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center, is the author of several books about the Appalachian region and its history.
Father Rausch holds a master’s degree in economics, and has been involved in worker and environmental issues in the Appalachian region since 1970. He writes about such topics through the lens of Catholic social teaching.
Eller opened the conversation by highlighting two books that helped set the stage for his work as a historian: “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” by Harry Caudill and “This Land is Home to Me,” the first pastoral letter of the CCA, which “helped me to think through the religious tradition I had grown up with and set the context for what I was doing.”
Eller recalled that at his first training session for the “war on poverty” in 1968, he was handed a copy of the book “Yesterday’s People,” by Jack Weller, and was told that it would tell him about the Appalachian people with whom he would be working. The book contains many stereotypes of mountain people, and since he read it, Eller said he has come to see that the problems of the region are not Appalachia’s but America’s system.
“We’ve put money and effort into Appalachia but failed to address the fundamental problems. We approached it by blaming the people for being poor,” he said.
The current discussion of the demise of the coal industry, Eller said, is not new. It has been going since the 1950s and stems from some crucial questions, including “Who owns the land?” and “Who benefits from the land?”
Father Rausch said that when he, as a young priest, was assigned to work in Jackson, Ky., he felt at home, even though he was born and raised in Philadelphia. He stressed the importance of relationships in working with the people of Appalachia, and said he has learned during almost 50 years in the mountains that the people of the region value family, community and a sense of place over profits.
“The idea,” Father Rausch said, “is not to go to heaven, but to enter into the power of God by helping people to realize their own potential.”
The afternoon session featured Michael Iafrate, the primary author of the “People’s Pastoral” and Jessica Wrobleski, who served as the primary editor.
They said that Pope Francis’ highly anticipated encyclical “Laudato Si’ ” “tilled the ground for the pastoral.”
“There was an emphasis on things being connected, social and environmental, and we must look at all pieces of the puzzle,” Iafrate said.
They also discussed the importance of promulgating the pastoral, and asked CCA members to think creatively about ways it can be disseminated via print, as well as the CCA website, ccappal.org/thetellingtakesushome2015.
During the gathering, Jesuit Father Al Fritsch and Father Rausch received the Bishop Sullivan Justice and Peace Award for 2016. The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development received the Federation of Communities in Service Award for its creation of economic alternatives and its work to make Appalachian communities better places to live.
Father Fritsch was instrumental in the creation of the CCA’s first pastoral letter. He also founded Appalachia: Science in the Public Interest and “Earth Healing,” an online daily meditation/forum on nature and environmental issues.
Father Rausch’s devotion to Appalachia and her people is evident by his long commitment to improving the lives of others through his promotion of peace, justice and Catholic social teaching, organizers said.
Amy Williams accepted the FOCIS Award on behalf of MACED. Through tears she said, “Recognition from groups like CCA assures us that the work we do makes a difference.”
The 2017 Annual Gathering will take place in North Carolina and will focus on sustainable communities.