A Prophetic Voice Dies Young, but His Words are Everlasting

Michael J. Iafrate was a relentless, blessedly subversive voice of truth

May 30 Update: You can read Michael’s obituary here. It was written by his wife, Jocelyn. She notes, “A Wild Church mass in his honor will be held: Thursday, June 3rd, 2021 at 2 p.m., Camp Russell Park-Ogelbay, Wheeling, W.Va.” In addition, you can listen to a brief tribute to Michael here at the conclusion of this week’s episode of “Inside Appalachia,” a program of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In it, you will here Michael sing “West Virginia, My Home” with his daughter Hazel.

Michael J. Iafrate

SPENCER, W.Va. — It has been roughly a week since the soul of Michael J. Iafrate escaped the bonds of gravity and sailed into the Mystic.

Those left behind — his young family, friends and co-workers — are devastated, as one of his close friends and associates with the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) shared. Another called his passing a great loss for Appalachia.

Both are true statements, even understatements, indeed, even inadequate statements, just as is this essay. Michael was that kind of man. A musician, he also wrote beautifully poetic prose. That is demonstrated marvelously in “The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking our place in the stories that shape us.” While an effort by the entire CCA staff, it was primarily Michael’s work. His mystical and practical outlooks are merged perfectly in what the CCA called “A people’s pastoral.” Excerpts from it follow at the end of this essay.

It is in this third pastoral issued by the CCA that Michael’s prophetic voice will live on. But he will be remembered for much more. Michael was, indeed, blessedly subversive. For sure, the pastoral itself was subversive. It was the third pastoral published by the CCA in 40 years. “This Land is Home to Me: A Pastoral Letter on the Poverty and Powerlessness in Appalachia,” was released in 1975. “At Home in the Web of Life: A Pastoral Message on Sustainable Communities in Appalachia,” was released in 1995. However, unlike the first two, the third one was not endorsed by the bishops of Appalachia; instead, rooted in Catholic social teaching and liberation theology borrowed from social justice movements in the Southern hemisphere, it is a direct appeal from and on behalf of the poor and the earth itself. As Michael told me then, it was “Speaking truth to power.”

He understood, “Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak,” as the late Howard Thurman wrote in his book, “Jesus and the Disinherited.”

Somewhere along the way, Michael determined that was not acceptable. That is why Michael saw in his beloved Catholic Church, especially in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (DWC). Whether is was the ongoing coverup of sex abuse, financial shenanigans by the bishop, or other diocesean skulduggery, Michael unhesitantly hounded the diocese to be transparent and truthful.

It was not received well by the diocese and then-Bishop Michael Bransfield. In time, despite fierce resistance and denials by diocesean officials, Michael and the CCA were proven correct, time and again, as you can read here, here, here and here.

That is because Michael also understood Thurman’s observation, “The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed.” Michael asked the same question Thurman asked in response to this reality. “What does our religion say to them?”

Michael not only asked it. He answered it in word and deed. Others who knew Michael more intimately than I did have offered lovely tributes to his tenderness and kindness.

I did experience his grace, something that is generally in short supply. I was privileged to work with Michael. We teamed up to write this investigative article. In it we reported that despite the DWC’s claims, church officials were informed of sexual abuse by one high ranking priest as early as 1974. As two writers sometimes do, we had fierce debates. Yet we completed it despite the repeated stonewalling by the diocese. Michael obviously was capable of holding his own, yet he extended a great deal of grace to me, as I generally don’t play well with others.

In “The Wisdom of Tenderness,” Brennan Manning wrote, “I’ve heard stories of people stripped of their dignity, publicly humiliated and even ‘shunned’ by their congregation. Yet in almost every case their loyalty to Jesus Christ was not only undiminished but was strengthened by sharing in the fellowship of the suffering.”

It is clear from Michael’s family, friends, music and writing that his love and fierce loyalty to Jesus was born out of the fellowship of suffering. That’s where the blessedly subversive end up. We honor his brief life by emulating it.

NOTE: You can support Michael’s family through a gofundme fundraiser here.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2021. Eucharist photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

Below are excerpts from “The Telling Takes Us Home.” All excerpts below are © 2015 Catholic Committee of Appalachia. Used with Permission.

  • In this statement, / we recognize a deepening ecological crisis / and new pressures on our struggling communities.
  • We remember and recommit / to hearing the voices of the poor and of Earth / and to voices we are still learning to discern.
  • To listen deeply to the authority / of the poor and of Earth in this way,… / as magisterium, …  / (is) a recognition / of the different gifts and roles / among the diverse Body of Christ, / and of the truth that there are authorities / to which all of God’s people, / including the powerful, / must bow in humility and reverence.
  • Many Appalachians, / especially those who live close to desecrated places, / have come to believe that Jesus’ commandment / to love and serve one’s neighbor / includes a special love for our neighbor, Earth.
  • Accidents are not as random as they appear, / but are the result of a culture of disregard / for worker safety. / Coal industry villains come and go, / but the attitude which places profit above safety / is deeply embedded in the coal economy.
  • The widespread presence of food insecurity / is an ironic reversal for a region / that was once populated by subsistence farms / and where family gardens were once popular.
  • Residents near fracking sites / in both rural and urban areas, / as well as health officials, / have begun to describe serious health concerns / connected to this industry.
  • We know that the way of life / enjoyed by a small percentage of the human family, / and the distribution of wealth / enjoyed by an even smaller percentage, / are profoundly unjust and unsustainable / and climate change is rapidly / bringing us to the brink of disaster.
  • Creation is God’s garden, / and … human communities / exist within God’s garden as caretakers, / receiving with gratitude all of God’s good gifts / and using them only in ways / that nurture and sustain life to the full.
  • We shall no longer be crucified / upon the cross of coal.
  • Appalachian activism has a long history, / and in the struggles of history and of today, / being an activist is not a hobby or a luxury. / People have decided to act, / and to act boldly, / because life depends on changing / the way we live together. / As Larry Gibson often said, / “We’re either going to be an activist, / or we’re going to be annihilated.”

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