Priest says social ministry is ‘all about hope’

Record Assistant Editor

Father John Rausch addressed the Social Action Summer Institute at Bellarmine University Aug. 1.

Father John Rausch, a Glenmary priest and columnist who works in Appalachia, told a crowd of fellow social ministers gathered at Bellarmine University last week that there is cause for hope in their work.

His Aug. 1 presentation at the national Social Action Summer Institute centered on environmental poverty in Appalachia and on the small steps one can take to alleviate suffering. His presentation was called “Small Changes Ripple Out and Bring Hope.”

The gathering, sponsored by several Catholic ministry groups, was organized by Roundtable, an association of Catholic social ministers from Catholic dioceses and agencies around the United States. About 250 people from 35 states attended, including about 50 people from the Archdiocese of Louisville. Poverty and Catholic social teaching were the focus of the institute, sponsored locally by Catholic Charities and JustFaith Ministries.

Father Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, opened his presentation by explaining the effects of strip mining in Eastern Kentucky, a place where he said one million pounds of dynamite
explode a day.

“Once you blow up a mountain, it will have a ripple effect in the area,” he told his listeners. “Wells will crack. Rain causes flooding and erosion. Air pollution (causes) asthma and other respiratory problems.”

He said he organized a trip to a mountain damaged by mining last Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, because “you have a right to a healthy environment.”

“We went up onto the mountain,” he recounted, and found “as much grass as is growing on the floor (in Bellarmine University’s convocation hall) is how much was growing there.”

He described it as a moonscape — a desolate environment devoid of life. The group on the mountaintop prayed, sang and read Scripture, he said. Then Father Rausch said he handed wildflower seeds to people, telling them, “Let’s take back the mountain for God and community.”

“I thought that people would fling them onto the mountain” and quickly head down to town for a hot cup of coffee, he said. Instead, they very carefully buried their seeds around the landscape.

“When we talk about poverty,” he told the group gathered at Bellarmine, “we think about the poverty of Africa or Asia.”

Poverty looks different in the United States, he noted.

It means that people “won’t have a voice, they won’t have a choice” to stand against the forces that threaten their community.

“In my area, I started out working in economic development,” he noted. “Now I’m very much into the environment which I very much want to say is a pro-life issue.

“We can’t imagine the fragility of our planet at this moment,” he said. “We’ve got to do something about that.”

When Father Rausch takes action, according to his stories, he tends to act in two ways. One is physical activity meant to bring about visible change. The other is spiritual — employing symbolism — that changes attitudes or viewpoints.

Returning to his story about planting seeds on a barren mountain, Father Rausch told his listeners at Bellarmine that a flood came to that same area six months later. This time, he said, he took begonia’s to
places that were eroded by the flooding. He and about 30 others prayed with the people in affected areas and planted flowers with them.

“It’s all about hope,” he said. “The human spirit needs beauty.

“A mountain is not intangibly out there,” he said. “It is alive; that mountain is breathing. That mountain is giving glory to God. For us to take it down is to insult the God that gave us the garden.

“Our children are having more and more asthma attacks in Eastern Kentucky because of our bad environment,” he said, noting that some also are experiencing health problems unusual in children, including an 18-year-old girl with gall stones and a 12-year-old with tumors.

One community, where a church held “living water baptisms” in local creeks, has had to abandon the practice because the water is too polluted, he said.

“Everyone has a right to clean water,” he said. “Everyone has the right to healthy air” in order to grow.

“Our job as people of justice is really to bring about a sense that everyone has enough, so he or she can grow to his or her own potential,” he added.

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