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Sustaining Life and Faith in Appalachia

The people of Appalachia are turning to the region’s resources and their own human spirits to find local solutions to economic and political problems. The Catholic bishops of Appalachia affirm this trend in their new pastoral.

By Beth Dotson


Local Problems,
Universal Applications
Environmental Work
The Future
Families Helping Families
Business and Church
New Video on Appalachia Celebrates 'Can-Do'

Where is Appalachia? The answer varies according to who’s drawing the map.

Tourists can hike the 2,000-mile-long Appalachian National Scenic Trail from Mt. Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. Appalachia’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park (over 520,000 acres in Tennessee and North Carolina) is the most-visited of the 54 national parks in the United States. This Appalachia is legendary for its mountain vistas, hiking trails, streams and waterfalls, and contains more varieties of plants and trees than all of Europe.

Geologists look far beyond the park to measure the Appalachian Highlands in a wide swath northeast to southwest from the island of Newfoundland to central Alabama, including parts of 20 U.S. states.

Sociologists rein the borders in a bit. To them, Appalachia is 165,000 square miles extending from northern Pennsylvania through parts of Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to central Alabama. Many of these 165,000 square miles have been bled of their veins of coal through invasive strip mining and incurred other environmental wounds as well. The people of Appalachia suffer the consequences in high levels of poverty and unemployment.

The Catholic Church of Appalachia honors the slightly larger boundaries defined by the federal government in 1965. In that year, The Appalachian Regional Commission was established to foster development in 397 counties in 13 states, including all of West Virginia and contiguous parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Where some sociologists have documented destruction and decline in the area’s abandoned mines and denuded forests, however, the Church sees Appalachia’s people and other resources as reason for hope. Over 20 years ago, they stated their hopes in a landmark regional pastoral. Last year they reaffirmed their positive vision for the region in a complementary pastoral message.

Why a pastoral? A pastoral letter is a letter about Catholic teaching or practice from a bishop to his people, or from a group of bishops to their shared constituency.

This Land Is Home to Me wrestled with powerlessness and rooted its message in Scripture and in Catholic social teaching. The pastoral called for a new social order in the spirit of papal social encyclicals. Over 200,000 copies reached nations throughout the world. In response, 600 Church workers heard the call and moved to Appalachia to learn and to serve.

Their commitment made a difference. Bishop Walter Sullivan, liaison between the bishops of the region and the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, said, "I certainly have seen the effects of This Land Is Home to Me....I see small signs of life and hope all around." The Campaign for Human Development, funded by U.S. Catholics, has contributed over $4 million to fund more than 100 projects in Appalachia.

The new letter does not replace the earlier message but is a companion piece to it. In 1975, the flourishing industrial economy cast its economic and political shadow on Appalachia. The 1995 pastoral acknowledges the post-industrial age and places more stress on the region as an example of the global tension between death-dealing technology and life-giving inventiveness, which is often a question of scale and suitability.

At Home in the Web of Life stresses ecology and frequently uses the word sustainability, which suggests patterns of living on the earth that can flourish without importing resources, energy or technologies which extract a deadly toll on the environment.

Local Problems,
Universal Applications

The initial vision for the Appalachian pastorals emerged in a cafe in Bethany, West Virginia, in May 1973. Eight Catholics gathered at the end of a meeting to continue their discussions about Church work in Appalachia. They began to enumerate the injustices the people faced. They recognized the need to listen more closely to what grass-roots Church workers and the people they served had to say. They recognized that an official statement from the Church could be a tool for promoting the justice promised in the gospel.

In February 1975, after months of discussions and drafts, the Appalachian bishops issued This Land Is Home to Me. That this document touched a nerve was clear from early response. Dom Helder Camara, the archbishop of Recife in Brazil, said it was the only Latin American document ever written by North American bishops. A Notre Dame sister who was a missionary in Chile observed that the document didn’t apply only to Appalachia. It was also the story of the people with whom she worked in Chile. The document touched the plight of people everywhere whose land, resources and energies had been exhausted with little return or reward for those left behind with the sludge and erosion.

Recalling the document’s success at drawing attention to social problems in Appalachia, some of the original re-searchers and writers reunited to celebrate the pastoral’s 20th anniversary. They again listened to Church workers and other people throughout the region to find out what their greatest concerns were and how the Church could help address them.

They discovered that the original pastoral had encouraged Catholics to address issues of oppression in the region. With a new document, they could celebrate past successes and use the lessons learned to put forth a new vision for the region--and the world.

Sister Beth Davies of the Congregation of Notre Dame has served on the writing team for both pastorals. She says, "At Home in the Web of Life is seeking a new vision of reconciled human community and a healed, living earth. Such is the vision that shapes the prophetic course."

Sister Beth recounted the birth of the earlier document during the Catholic Committee on Appalachia’s (CCA) annual meeting in September 1995. At that gathering, many who had been drawn by the original pastoral shared their thoughts on the new document, which they previewed at their meeting. The bishops officially issued At Home in the Web of Life in December 1995. CCA members have been working since then to implement its call for creating sustainable communities, communities that can maintain themselves without wiping out their resources and without requiring repeated infusions of capital and resources from outside the community.

"The whole pastoral is not a document with a plan, not with a prescription for healing society in the sense of, ‘Take this pill.’ But rather, ‘Here is a new vision, a direction to go and you will feel healthier,’" says Father John Rausch, a Glenmary priest who works with Appalachian Ministries Education Resource Center in Berea, Kentucky.

Father Rausch shared his experience in the region as a member of the 12-person advisory team that critiqued and revised drafts of the pastoral. He says the team wanted a document that would challenge U.S. readers to question their very way of life.

The advisory team believes that the problems of Appalachia illustrate the ills of American society in general. Clear-cut hillsides and abandoned strip mines that deface the land mark the culture of death in Appalachia, a culture which Pope John Paul II critiqued in his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life. Some of this environmental devastation is done in the name of economics and employment, but provides only a temporary salve to the wounds of the poor. They become temporary workers in low-paying positions and are then left to live in the degraded environment.

The Catholic Church has provided funds and personnel to address some of these problems. Churchworkers have worked with miners afflicted with black lung disease, communities that want to learn sustainable environmental practices, families that face the difficulty of feeding, clothing and housing their children on little or no income. These problems, or variations of them, exist throughout the entire country, not only in Appalachia.

"We do not see this conflict between a culture of death and a culture of life as simply an Appalachian crisis," the pastoral reads. "Rather we see the Appalachian crisis as a window into a larger crisis which now threatens the entire society, including the middle class, and indeed the full ecosystem across the entire planet."

As the document sounds an alarm, it also draws hope from the life-affirming experiences of Catholics throughout Appalachia who have begun to build sustainable communities. The pastoral writers recognized that, in this region where the struggle against injustice continues, the fight has given birth to answers that can be gifts to the rest of the country and, indeed, the world.

Families Helping Families

A result of the Catholic presence in Appalachia has been the organization of a variety of nonprofit organizations. They range from Appalachia Science in the Public Interest (ASPI), which was founded by Jesuit priest Al Fritsch to address environmental issues, to Growing for Carter County (GFCC), a small grass-roots group that addresses local social issues. Although GFCC was cofounded by Mercy Sister Dorothy Mahon, it is now run by a group that is not Catholic in religious tradition, but does follow Catholic social teaching.

One of the group’s main precepts is to treat people and the earth with dignity. GFCC volunteers are Appala-
chians who have experienced poverty themselves and can minister to people from their own experience.

GFCC codirector Margaret Tilsley says she volunteers with the organization "because I don’t want to think about children going to bed hungry at night. I know what hunger is like and I don’t want people from my hometown to go to bed hungry. And what we’re doing here is not only helping to put food on their table, it also is giving them their life back."

Tilsley believes people are beaten down by "systems" in society. "When you need help, in most places they really put you through a lot to receive that help. After so long of having to go through that, you lose self-worth and it just looks like things are never gonna pick up for you.

"We have a lot of people who come to us with no self-esteem at all," Tilsley says. "When they leave us, I think they pretty much know they can do anything they set their mind to."

GFCC encourages this outlook through a variety of efforts that support creating a sustainable community. Its programs aim to help families gain economic stability, while helping them build stronger relationships within their families and the community. They offer emergency food from a food pantry, seeds for gardens, help for small farmers (through Heifer Project International) and education programs for families and children.

GFCC is also building a cordwood home to demonstrate an inexpensive and ecological method of construction. Cordwood homes are built from mortar and 12-inch lengths of timber.

Through the Jobs-at-Home program, Sister Dorothy has seen how people undervalue their abilities. Jobs-
at-Home helps people who quilt, do woodworking and other crafts learn to market their goods for a profit.

"The most difficult thing was people accepting the fact that they had that skill and that their goods were marketable," Sister Dorothy says. She has helped them see that what they have previously made only for family members is also valued outside the region. Their talent can actually help them pay their bills.

Sister Dorothy believes that addressing problems of poverty and creating sustainable communities don’t have to be difficult if folks are willing to open their minds and adjust their attitudes. "If people would believe that people are the resource, and trust that everybody has something to offer, then go for it, it works," she says. "If they keep knocking people down, then they will respond as if they’ve been knocked down."

Like most Appalachians, the GFCC volunteers can’t quote the pastoral. Yet Sister Dorothy sees their work as an example of what the Church is encouraging people to do. For example, food pantry volunteer Harvey Parsons explains that he is there because he realizes he must play a role in the community. "There’s an element of spirituality that comes out of this for me. And I truly believe that society is only as good as the people who make it up. I do believe that I have obligations to that society, and I say I do it for myself because I sleep easier at night," Parsons says.

Environmental Work

The Rev. Al Fritsch founded Appalachia Science in the Public Interest (ASPI) in 1977. The organization is dedicated to ecological research and has a demonstration facility that makes science and technology responsive to the needs of low-income Appalachians.

For example, ASPI has a cordwood building on its property, a yurt (another low-cost housing alternative), an organic garden, a greenhouse and compost toilets (they don’t require water, but they’re more sophisticated than outhouses). They offer instructional papers on how to implement these technologies, as well as occasional workshops or speakers on a variety of environmental topics. Individuals and organizations from around the country have used their resources, which include Father Fritsch’s books linking spirituality with care for the earth.

Father Fritsch says that Appalachia is a good place for learning about the environment because Appalachians are very attached to and familiar with the land around them. He hopes the pastoral will help people from outside the region see that Appalachia is more than a region which struggles with poverty. It is a place that offers a deeper understanding of living in harmony with the earth. "The mountains have something to offer others," Father Fritsch says. "We share things. Because we’re poor, we don’t have to take just the largess of other people. We also have something to offer."

ASPI’s influence has already extended far beyond Appalachia through its Service Resource Auditing Service. Consultants have worked at more than 100 church and nonchurch properties to perform environmental assessments that offer suggestions about how the property managers can be more environmentally sensitive. This type of training helped the Knoxville Diocese form Eco-Church Ministry teams in each of its four deaneries.

In the Diocese of Knoxville, Marcus Keyes has worked with volunteers throughout eastern Tennessee to understand how families and the Church institution can be sustainable. Keyes and his wife, Glenda, run the diocesan Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation. In 1995, they invited Father Fritsch to conduct a workshop in their diocese.

As a result, each deanery has undertaken its own projects related to creating sustainable communities. The deanery teams meet to share what they have accomplished so they can replicate the successful initiatives elsewhere in the diocese.

One initiative that everyone is watching is taking place in Chattanooga. A team is working on a plan to encourage the formation of groups of six to eight households that will be coached in simple family-living patterns. Once these families have learned to live more earth-friendly life-styles, they will adopt another group to coach.

In the Smoky Mountains deanery, a team has been revising the diocesan process for buildings and renovations. "They’ve taken on the responsibility of revising those guidelines to enhance them from the ecological perspective. The idea is to integrate the areas of assessment as outlined by Al Fritsch," Keyes says. The assessments analyze the uses of energy, food, land, buildings, transportation and water, as well as support for wildlife and creation and disposal of waste. That team has developed a brochure to promote the pastor-al’s ideas and is planning a second to encourage resource assessments.

"I would say it [the work of the Eco-Church Ministry teams] is an awareness process at this stage. This seeing ourselves in the context of the earth, the context of our natural environment--up to now, not all of our decisions have been measured by that," Keyes says.

At times, boosting that understanding extends to an international awareness of the issues At Home in the Web of Life discusses. For example, the Cumberland deanery participated in a diocesan justice day called "Forgive Us Our Debts." Keyes explains, "They saw the international debt as part of what must be their concern because of the human destruction and ecological destruction in Third World countries caused by the crippling debt they are in. So they went very global for a period of time."

Business and Church

The pastoral defines sustainability in terms of a way of life that puts back into the community as much as it takes out. To fulfill this mandate, individuals and businesses have to understand the idea of sustainable development.

Berea’s Father Rausch uses a business example to illustrate the concept. A logging company, for example, would use its by-product, sawdust, to make another product--like particle board. Waste becomes raw material for the next product. It is more economical because it turns waste into something that garners profit rather than fills garbage dumps.

To carry the definition further, Father Rausch says, "We have to begin doing sustainable stuff not simply by closing the loop, but rather by redesigning the kinds of production and products that will respect the environment and that will capture fully the costs of doing something."

For example, an industry that has a smokestack that pollutes the forest or water 10 miles away is costing the public. To be sustainable, the industry should redesign its production procedure to bear the full cost of that pollution or, better still, avoid creating it.

Rausch says this is an example of what happens in a consumer culture. "Just as a consumer culture will use
up things and dispose of them, so our society will use up people and things and dispose of them. Now where are they going for disposal? Let’s go to a place that’s economically weak." People have come to Appalachia, Rausch says, to dump material garbage.

The pastoral builds on what Father Rausch has observed: "For the land and the poor people are victims to-gether of the same materialistic consumer society, which promotes the culture of death. It does this by undermining all community, by frequently treating people and the rest of nature as if they were useless waste from the throwaway consumer society."

The Future

As chairwoman of the education committee for the Catholic Committee on Appalachia (CCA), Sister Dorothy Mahon hopes to collect all the study guides, all the group processes, all the retreat formats based on the new pastoral. She said the CCA hopes to create an idea bank that people throughout the country can consult as a resource. In this way, the words of the pastoral will reach Catholics around the country.

Several people who are familiar with the pastoral have been called upon to lead At Home in the Web of Life workshops not only for Catholics but also for other interested parties as well. Some have addressed the pastoral’s contents in general and others have focused on specific topics, such as creating a sustainable home garden. Sister Dorothy is working on a puppet show that will take the pastoral’s teachings to children. CCA also issued a study guide to accompany the document.

Although the motives for implementing the pastoral’s suggestions are all too evident in some Appalachian communities, others around the country may not be ready to welcome the bishops’ message. Yet Father Rausch believes economic changes in the nation have put people in a more receptive frame of mind. He has received inquiries about the document from many states and from overseas.

"Thanks to the redistribution of wealth in the last 20 years from the middle class to the upper five percent of the nation’s population, people are realizing that their economic position is being eroded. They’re working longer, harder, with more stress and less security," Rausch says.

"People would love an alternative, one that connects work and celebration. And when people begin to realize that there is joy in gardening, joy in relating rather than acquiring, joy in joining with neighbors in socially positive groupings such as community choral societies, Habitat for Humanity and other service organizations, joy in working to preserve historical sites or cultural events, whether that’s a homecoming for your community or pioneer days--then such events celebrate something of your soul, something of your spirit.

"People are going to see that as much more attractive than burning themselves out, wasting themselves for elusive wealth so they can get that one-week-a-year vacation for a cruise that is supposed to refurbish them for the next 51 weeks of rat race. People are going to realize it’s much healthier for their children to spend time with them and to help supervise children’s events together with other parents. I don’t think the selling job is all that hard. It’s the realization job."

"It’s time for the Church to do its job," Rausch continues. "The Church has a treasure trove of social principles that they’re sitting on, that they’re not saying because they’re afraid that executives are going to get angry with them. At the same time, when the Church really begins to apply those social teachings and explain to people what they’re about, people are going to be persuaded, if the Church is authentic in how it brings that social teaching to bear."

Catholics in Appalachia are bringing that social teaching to bear in an attempt to discover the pastoral’s promise. In Section Three of the pastoral, "The Call of the Spirit," the pastoral urges, "These sustainable communities will conserve and not waste, be simpler but better, keep most resources circulating locally, create sustainable livelihoods, support family life, protect the richness of nature, develop people spiritually and follow God’s values." And the web they reinforce in faith will expand and strengthen all creation.

Beth Dotson is a free-lance author and editor, specializing in articles on poverty, development and social justice. Her work has been honored by the Catholic Press Association and by the International Network of Young Journalists. Dotson lives in Lancaster, Kentucky, which is in Appalachia.

New Video on Appalachia Celebrates 'Can-Do'
By Barbara Beckwith

Allied to the written pastoral of the Catholic bishops, a new documentary takes a contemporary look at Appalachia and its ongoing struggles.

Voices of Appalachia concentrates on the ways Appalachian people are working together to make a difference and hears from them in their own voices: a high school senior who dreams of being West Virginia’s first woman governor, a union organizer at a food company where the need for better plant safety sparked an 18-month strike, a woman who went back to school for her G.E.D. and now teaches others how to read, a "working poor" couple who own their first real home with the help of the nonprofit Frontier Housing, and a battered woman who mustered the inner courage to leave an abusive husband and now helps other abused women.

Celebrating a "can-do" spirit, the video presents a different image of the region, which is often depicted negatively or patronizingly. The shift in the video, as in the new pastoral of the Catholic bishops, is away from "What can we do to help poor Appalachia?" to "What are the success stories they (and we) can build on for the future?"

The originator of the project, Glenmary Father Les Schmidt of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, worked on the drafting committees for both the 1975 and 1995 pastorals. He involved Stephen Bagnall, a video producer from Covington, Kentucky, and John Bookser Feister, an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger who once lived and worked in Appalachia. With the encouragement of Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, Virginia, they raised funds for the project, mostly from religious orders like the Franciscans, Glenmary and the Trinitarians, and secured a grant of $20,000 from the Catholic Communication Campaign. The film was made on a $200,000 budget, not including contributed services like director Arthur Annecharico’s.

Family Theater Productions ("The Family That Prays Together Stays Together") produced Voices of Appalachia and also put its own money into the film.

The documentary was shown on 62 NBC affiliates August through October, a somewhat unfortunate timing because of Olympics coverage. This March it was released for showings on PBS stations through the Southern Educational Communications Association (SECA). Some dioceses have also convinced local cable stations to air the program.

According to Ellen McCloskey, manager of productions for the Catholic Communications Campaign, the NBC showings of Voices of Appalachia produced wonderful feedback like "beautiful film with dramatic moments" and "high school senior Melia Atwell is a great role model." Sister Judy Zielinski, O.S.F., executive producer for Family Theater who also wrote the narrator’s script, said she’s received some very encouraging letters from viewers. An Appalachian college student complimented the film for portraying the region with integrity and honesty, and not patronizing the people. One abused woman watching in Detroit called to say that it had given her the courage to change her own situation.

The film had a secondary purpose as well: to provide schools and parishes with a useful religious education tool for teaching about the social justice mission of the Church. To that end, Feister prepared a study guide that is included with the video.

The 52-minute film is narrated by actor Monte Markham. Carl Rutherford provided the music.

The documentary succeeds in conveying the spirit, perseverance and hope many people of Appalachia have in the face of adversity, and their love for the hills they call home.

The videocassette of Voices of Appalachia (V3013) has been discontinued.

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