Enough about the apocalypse; help prevent it
By Michael M. Barrick
LENOIR, N.C. – Just after 10 yesterday morning I dispatched – politely – a Jehovah’s Witness fanatic from my front doorstep.
I did not run her off because she’s a Jehovah’s Witness; I ran her off because she was fear-mongering. I stepped outside and she handed me a brochure, saying, “You know, this is something that is on people’s minds these days – the return of Jesus.” I handed it back to her and said, “Save this and give it to someone that is interested.” She said “Thank you” and left.
I will not waste my time talking to fanatics about religion – or anything for that matter. I don’t like strangers coming unannounced to my door. It’s rude. Paul wrote that “Love is not rude” (look it up; hint: it’s in the “love” chapter), yet it’s generally agreed upon that he was a real pain in the neck.
I also saw the word “prosperity” on the handout. Having spent a decade researching and writing tens of thousands of words about the totally false “name-it-claim-it, health-and-wealth, prosperity gospel,” I knew immediately I was dealing with a hopelessly deluded person.
I also do not like people using the threat of an impending apocalypse to scare me into “finding Jesus.” It’s cynical. It’s certainly not rooted in a faith of hope. It is also not rooted in a religion of action, but rather fatalism.
Sadly, though, it is effective.
Not with me. First, because of experience. Second, because I believe in logic. What she was peddling is paradoxical. Why, if you believe the return of Jesus is imminent, would you also – and in particular your pastor – be concerned about prosperity? Illogical as it is, obviously millions fall for it.
So, rather than harassing people enjoying a quiet cup of coffee, those of you peddling your religion door-to-door could instead live your faith. Maybe if you do, so many frightening things wouldn’t be happening. “Thy Kingdom come” would happen if people bothering me and my neighbors would instead simply live according to their precepts. Below is one that is quite timely.
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
So, go see what you can do to protect our immigrant friends. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll find Jesus on my own.
© The Lenoir Voice, 2017. The Lenoir Voice is a sister publication of the Appalachian Chronicle.
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NC Chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia says priests and bishops should “ … imitate more strongly the example of Jesus …”
CHEROKEE, N.C. – The North Carolina Chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) has issued a statement of concern regarding the adequacy of local church leadership. Titled “Statement of Concern on Clericalism from Appalachian Catholics in the Smoky Mountain Region,” the statement identifies clericalism – the overemphasis of the power of the priesthood and hierarchy – as a pervasive problem in the region and in the Roman Catholic Church as a whole.
The central office of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia is based in Spencer, W.Va.
The statement is based on negative experiences of lay Catholics in the region in their interactions with parish priests, including inadequate pastoral care of the dying and demeaning attitudes toward Catholics from diverse local cultures. The Chapter opted to share these concerns with the media after more than two years of attempts to address the issues with the bishop of the Charlotte Diocese, who the chapter says has been unwilling to meet with the people.
The Chapter statement calls on the region’s bishops to acknowledge these problems and engage in dialogue with the people to work toward creative solutions, and offers prayers for a “change of hearts, minds, and pastoral practice,” that the region’s priests and bishops “would imitate more strongly the example of Jesus who came not to be served but to serve.” The statement can be read in its entirety below or at http://ccappal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/CCA-NCStatement-on-Clericalism.pdf.
Catholic Committee of Appalachia North Carolina State Chapter
Statement of Concern on Clericalism from Appalachian Catholics in the Smokey Mountain Region
To evoke the Holy Faithful People of God is to evoke the objective we are invited to look towards and reflect upon… A father cannot conceive of himself without his children… A pastor
cannot conceive of himself without a flock, whom he is called upon to serve. The pastor is the pastor of a people, and the people need him within…. (Pope Francis, “Letter to Pontifical Commission for Latin America” (March 19, 2016)
Pope Francis tells us that in order to meet the spiritual needs of the community, the people need their pastor “within” that community. While many priests are wonderful shepherds for their people, our experience reveals that this is not always the case, and our connection with other Catholics in the Appalachian region indicates that our experience points to a much larger problem.
Many Catholics in the central and southern Appalachian region feel they are talking to the wind. Their priests, especially the younger ones, do not listen to them. Their bishops do not listen to some of the priests or the people, and many of them seem not to be listening to Pope Francis. We realize the pressures on our clergy caused by the shortage of priests and the increasing spiritual needs of the people, but we feel there are pressing issues that need to be addressed in the short term.
There are flagrant examples of some of the clergy failing to care for their people and failing to see the suffering imposed on them, not only in the liturgy, but in the wider sacramental life of the church and in outreach to the community. A lack of responsibility is evident, even with regard to pastoral care of the dying. In one parish in our region, this happened at least four times in less than two years and two parishioners died without the sacraments. Likewise, funerals have not been scheduled in a timely manner, not allowing adequate input from the family of the deceased in the funeral arrangements. To date there has been no apology or acknowledgement, or even a response from the bishop in the diocese where this occurred.
Many of our younger priests insist upon imposing a uniform Roman culture while ignoring the rich diversity of Appalachian, Latino/a, and Cherokee cultures. We feel this is contrary to the examples of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. One bishop with a sizable Native American population in his diocese has failed to respond to the concerns of parishioners about actions of the priest which have offended Native people and their friends.
Again, many of the younger priests, particularly those fresh out of seminary, have an arrogant, self-righteous and condescending attitude. These “restorationists” seem to be more intent on taking the church back to pre-Vatican II days rather than minister to the people. They seem to be steeped in doctrine and theology, but are unwilling to participate in ecumenical activities, and are lacking in compassion, love and mercy. They are doing the job of the theologian, but not the job of the pastor. This is directly opposed to what Pope Francis and Vatican II are teaching us. Many seem to have the attitude that the Second Vatican Council never happened, taking the church back in time while ignoring the teachings of Pope Francis that have brought a vibrant new energy to the church, reviving the Church’s relevancy for many Catholics.
Many longtime Catholics who recall the days before Vatican II, and who have been faithful to the church over the years, feel they are being treated like children by priests in their thirties. As a result, they are leaving their parishes in search of meaningful liturgies. In rural areas, this is hard to do, given the distances involved in traveling to other parishes. Some Catholics are going to Protestant churches, some seeking alternative intentional communities, and others not attending church at all. This has caused a great sadness on the part of many people who, for many years, were part of parish communities now fractured by clerical ambivalence.
We recognize that we are blessed with some very good priests who give a lot to the people and who minister in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. It is not our intention to vilify the clergy as a whole, but to raise a prophetic voice in the spirit of love for the church in order to address some of the problems we encounter. Better communication and acknowledgement of issues raised by the people would go a long way in addressing the feeling of alienation that many parishioners experience. Addressing structural issues like the priest shortage necessarily take a long time, but some long-standing problems are able to be addressed more immediately, and it is past time to deal with them. Some of these problems, especially those related to the pastoral care of the sick and the dying, could be addressed creatively, for example, by empowering the laity to anoint the sick. As Catholic writer Matthew Kelly has stated, “God never goes back; he always moves forward. Adam and Eve were banished from the garden. God could have redeemed them and sent them back to the garden, but he didn’t, for two reasons: God always wants our future to be bigger than our past, and God always moves forward” (Matthew Kelly, “Rediscover Catholicism: A Spiritual Guide to Living with Passion & Purpose,” Beacon Publishing, 23).
We pray for our priests and bishops here in North Carolina, throughout Appalachia, and indeed throughout the world, as the issue of clericalism affects the church globally. We pray for a change of hearts, minds, and pastoral practice among our clergy, that they would imitate more strongly the example of Jesus who came not to be served but to serve.
About the North Carolina chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia
As a network of Catholics committed to practicing the reforms of Vatican II in the region, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia has nurtured region-wide relationships of engaged laity working to create a church of the people. These relationships help us to see that the local concerns expressed by our North Carolina State Chapter are in fact shared by Catholics in many dioceses throughout the Appalachian region. The Catholic Committee of Appalachia Board of Directors endorses this statement and joins our N.C. State Chapter in asking bishops throughout the region to respond in a pastoral manner to address the concerns raised herein.
About the Catholic Committee of Appalachia
Since 1970, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia has existed to serve Appalachia, her poor and the entire web of creation. Mountaintop removal, labor, private prison development, sustainable lifestyles and communities, poverty, health, clean water, racism and climate change are among those issues which CCA has addressed. CCA has taken responsibility for the organization and ongoing promulgation of two groundbreaking pastoral letters of the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, “This Land is Home to Me” (1975) and “At Home in the Web of Life” (1995). CCA released a third pastoral letter, “The Telling Takes Us Home,” in 2015. Learn more about the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. Complimentary copies of the pastoral letters are available from The Lenoir Voice.
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The Diocese often remains silent, failing to promote its own teachings on justice and the environment
By Michael J. Iafrate
WHEELING, W.Va. – During this presidential campaign, a light is being shined on the way corporate and other wealthy donors influence the political process. We have woken up to the fact that money corrupts politics. During this month of the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster, it is important, too, to see the corrupting influence of coal money on our churches.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield have been admirably engaged in the work of charity in the state of West Virginia. Yet, they have been, on so many occasions, disappointingly reluctant to speak truthfully about one of the major causes of poverty and ecological wreckage in the region: the coal industry.
For example, the takeaway from the Bishop’s pastoral letter on mine safety, issued after Upper Big Branch, was that the tragedy “raises concerns.” But the coal industry itself says that such accidents “raise concerns.” The death of so many human beings at the hands of a systemically negligent industry should do more than “raise concerns.”
Whether faced with the coal industry’s repeated attempts to cheat retired miners out of their pensions and health care packages or the ongoing devastating stories from communities affected by mountaintop removal mining, the Diocese often remains silent, failing to promote its own teachings on justice and the environment. Even after the release of Pope Francis’ powerful ecological encyclical Laudato Si’, Bransfield downplayed its message for West Virginia, promoting instead the myth of “clean coal.” And the Diocese has yet to make any comments about the dangers of fracking which increasingly affects people in West Virginia. Why is this?
People of faith in Appalachia often suspect that dirty money from the fossil fuel industries compromises the church’s prophetic voice. Pope Francis has spoken about the corrupting influence of “dirty money,” saying, “I think of some benefactors of the Church, who come with an offer for the Church and their offer is the fruit of the blood of people who have been exploited, enslaved with work which was under-payed. I will tell these people to please take back their cheques. The People of God don’t need their dirty money but hearts that are open to the mercy of God.”
We must ask about the relevance of Francis’ words for the church in West Virginia, as it in fact has financial ties to the coal industry. Diocesan officials have stated publicly that the church draws money from unspecified “fossil fuel investments,” but will not disclose any further details about these investments or about its endowment in general, and one of the four lay members of Bransfield’s finance council is a former lobbyist for the National Coal Association. In 2008, according to multiple sources, Bransfield gave the green light to Sacred Heart Parish School in Williamson, W.Va. to accept charitable gifts from former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, including the funding of a brand-new gymnasium for the school, brand new sports equipment, and full scholarships for 12 students for their six-year education.
One would think that after Upper Big Branch the church might be more reluctant to accept any more dirty money from coal barons. Yet, Catholic Charities of West Virginia opened a new facility in Greenbrier County in 2013 funded by a donation from mine owner Jim Justice, whose mines have been cited for hundreds of labor, safety, and environmental violations and for failure to pay various debts and taxes.
People like Justice and Blankenship give monetary gifts to the church to improve their community standing. For precisely this reason, Blankenship’s charitable activity was cited in over one hundred letters to U.S. District Judge Irene Berger asking for more leniency in the lead-up to his sentencing.
Despite its continued economic decline, Big Coal wants a return on their investment in the church. What kind of return are they getting? A diocesan spokesperson told me that the church opposes the abuses of the fossil fuel industries, such as mountaintop removal and the abuse of workers, but that it does so “quietly” because “banging a drum” about it would “not be prudent.” But what is the value of opposition that is not made public?
Such responses suggest that the Diocese is very concerned about how the church’s social justice teachings would be received by powerful industries in West Virginia if we were to preach them strongly and in public. When church leaders consistently accept money from coal barons, the “prudent” approach muzzles any social justice teaching the church might offer in defense of workers or of Earth’s ecological integrity.
The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield have … have been, on so many occasions, disappointingly reluctant to speak truthfully about one of the major causes of poverty and ecological wreckage in the region: the coal industry.”– Michael J. Iafrate
Many West Virginia Catholics would like to see their leaders boldly choose the side of justice and to “let justice speak loudly,” as the Appalachian Catholic bishops put it in their 1975 pastoral letter “This Land is Home to Me.” We do not expect the church to call for an immediate end of the coal industry, even as we transition to more diverse, life-giving economies. But we insist that the church must do better at denouncing—without ambiguity—this industry’s abuses.
Specifically, is it too much to wish that Bransfield condemn mountaintop removal and fracking and to apologize for promoting the lie of clean coal? Shouldn’t he promote clearly the church’s teaching on workers’ rights and oppose the continued attack on those rights that we saw in West Virginia’s recent legislative session, especially in the passing of the Right to Work bill? (The brief, vague diocesan statement issued on the legislation will not do). Might we expect him to join so many others explicitly calling for tougher penalties for those who violate mining regulations?
To do any of this, however, the church must be free of the corrupting influence of the coal industry’s financial gifts. On this anniversary of Upper Big Branch, the Diocese should exercise financial transparency and make a clear commitment to refuse the financial benefits of a destructive, death-dealing industry. As Pope Francis has said, we don’t need their dirty money.
[This is a shorter, edited version of a longer piece first published at Religion Dispatches, April 14, 2016.]
© Michael J. Iafrate, 2016.
Michael J. Iafrate writes from Wheeling, W.Va. He is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of St. Michael’s College (Toronto) and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.
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Believing the gospel is one thing, living it is quite another
By Andrew Massey
HICKORY, N.C. – Though I worked well past midnight on Sunday, I woke up at 7:00 Monday morning determined to witness history, so I drove to the Donald Trump rally at Lenoir-Rhyne University. My thoughts about what I would experience when I got there were about as clear as fog-covered U.S. Route 321. I had quite a bit of anxiety and apprehension about the day, as this was my first jaunt into political activism of any kind.
Due to the media coverage I had watched about the Trump rally that was shut down in Chicago only days before, I was incredibly surprised at the quiet stillness of both the protesters and the Trump supporters when I arrived around 8 a.m. Aside from the chatter in the line of hundreds of people snaking through the campus and the whisper of hymns coming from the protesters, the scene was very calm. Read the full article here.
Energy industry misuses the name of God for all things deadly and destructive it causes
By Michael M. Barrick
“You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
LENOIR, N.C. – The deaths of three coal miners in the central Appalachian coal fields in just the first three weeks of January has led the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA) to issue a Call to Safety to coal operators and miners. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph A. Main recently issued that call, asserting, “This recent rash of fatal accidents is a WAKE UP CALL to the nation’s miners to take notice and take care of themselves.”
He added, “ … the Mine Safety and Health Administration plans to ramp up its targeted enforcement, education and outreach efforts to respond to the troubling number of mining fatalities that have occurred so far this year. Today, MSHA widely disseminated to industry stakeholders an alert on these deaths, emphasizing the need for continued vigilance in miner safety and health.”
The three deaths have occurred in underground mines in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
Attributing things to God that God has nothing to do with and wants nothing to do with is misusing the name of the Lord.” – Michael Iafrate with the Catholic Committee of Appalachia
Dead miners are more than statistics
It might be easy to dismiss these deaths as mere statistics since MSHA does not list the miners’ names in the MSHA news release, but that would be a disservice to their work and the loss felt by their families, friends and communities.
In Clear Fork, W.Va., the family and friends of Peter “Pete” D. Sprouse know the pain and loss suffered by thousands before them. The 53-year-old miner died on Jan. 4 when he became entangled in a moving underground conveyer at the Lower War Eagle mine in Wyoming County, in the state’s southern coalfields. The mine is owned by Coronado Coal, LLC. According to a newspaper report of his passing, Sprouse leaves behind a wife of 33 years, two children and their spouses, four grandsons, seven siblings and other relatives and friends. He also leaves behind a zest for life that included riding motorcycles and boating.
Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 16, Jeremy R. Neice, 31, of Danville, W.Va. died in a mining accident in Greene County, Pa. He was working in the 4 West Mine owned by GenPower Holdings, LP. Neice, who is seen smiling as he leans against his truck in a photograph from his Facebook page, was the second fatality in that mine in just six months. In July 2015, John M. Kelly, 55 of Albright, W.Va. died in an accident.
Just three days after Neice died in Pennsylvania, Nathan G. Phillips, 36, of White Plains, Ky., died at Dotiki Mine in Webster County, in the western region of the state. That mine is owned by Alliance Resource Partners, LP.
How many lives have been forever changed by the passing of these men? These deaths – like all of those before them in the coalfields of Appalachia – cast shadows that can last generations. Four little boys will never again sit on their grandfather’s lap; a young man will never get to enjoy a day in the woods with his buddies, and now his buddies will only be able to toast his memory; the sunrises and sunsets of western Kentucky will now be absent a soul dear to family and friends.
The ‘Act of God’ defense
While coal operators have expressed the customary sympathy to the families, that doesn’t mean that the coal industry – and indeed the entire energy extraction industry – will quit misusing the name of God in the event of such tragedies. The claim that such deaths are “An Act of God” is as old as the industry itself, and has been an excuse offered by the likes of Don Blankenship for recent disasters such at the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010 that killed 29 miners.
Now operators might say that, in these three cases, they have expressed condolences and are conducting safety reviews. Of course they’re doing the latter; it is required of them. As for the condolences, that is what PR departments are for. None of this changes the fundamental truth, however, that it is the attitude of energy industry officials that they exercise a sort of “divine right” dominion over Appalachia’s land and people.
Whatever industry officials might say, these recent coal mining deaths are not “Acts of God.” Rather, they are acts of greed by coal operators, desperately compromising worker safety because they’ve invested in a commodity that is outdated.
Now, it might seem unfair to hold businessmen to a biblical standard. They’re not preachers after all. Yet, it is clear these industry officials believe in God – as Blankenship has proven. He is not alone. Gas companies blame cancer deaths and other health problems in the fracking fields on God. I have read such documents addressed to families where they refer to “Acts of God” as causing death and destruction for which the industry is clearly responsible. There is no question that the industry does not hesitate to use God to justify their greed. Last year, Executive Director Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said, “God didn’t want us to be farmers, or this place would look like Kansas. God put us here in these mountains that are 450 million years old with the best coal in the world and the most natural gas in the world. And we have a responsibility, and I think companies like Dominion and others have seized on the opportunities that these mountains have provided and will continue to do this.” (Read the full story here).
In short, from their own mouths, we hear that industry officials believe in God – when it is convenient. So, it would be beneficial for them to reflect upon Exodus 20:7, which says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain.” If industry leaders were honest with themselves and with us, and would accept their responsibility rather than hiding behind the “Act of God” hoax, there would be far less death and destruction in Appalachia.
Indeed, in “The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape us,” a recently-released “People’s Pastoral” by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, the document’s author, Michael Iafrate, alluded to stories told by coalfield residents of death and destruction, and observed, “These tragedies and others, deemed ‘acts of God’ by industry, are fresh in our mind in Appalachia.”
Asked if he thought that calling man-made tragedies “Acts of God” was a misuse of Scripture, Iafrate answered, “Yes.” He continued, “It is a more direct violation than when we think of swearing for example. Attributing things to God that God has nothing to do with and wants nothing to do with is misusing the name of the Lord.”
In the “Call to Safety,” MSHA Director Main concluded, “In light of current market conditions, we all need to be mindful that safety and health protections necessary to protect our nation’s miners need to be in place every day at every coal mine in the country. All miners deserve to work their shifts and return home at the end of the day, safe and healthy.”
Theological arguments aside, it would seem that everyone could agree with his statement. However, based on the first three weeks of January, it seems pretty clear that coal operators will dismiss it. As these tragedies continue, Blankenship and his ilk will continue to blame God. It’s worked for them for a century, so why stop now?
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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Evangelist’s ‘Decision America Tour’ ignores harm to workers of Appalachia
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Well, Franklin Graham began his “Decision America Tour” this month. I was surprised to look at Graham’s schedule and see that he is not scheduled to be in West Virginia tomorrow, where the West Virginia House of Delegates will be holding hearings on the so-called Right-to-Work bill.
It seems only logical that Graham, the Board President, Chairman and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), would make an appearance at the hearings in West Virginia, as according to the BGEA website, “Franklin will ask Christians to pray for the country, vote for people who hold biblical values and run for public office at every level.”
This should be good news for the workers of Appalachia – in particular coal miners, oil and gas workers, farmers and all those folks laboring for the benefit of others, often to their own detriment. Indeed, since Graham has made it well known that he interprets the Bible literally, I am surprised he will miss the opportunity to speak truth to power, as we know that the earliest evangelists did. For example, he could stand up, hold his Bible high above his head, and with his Southern-tinged baritone exclaim, “Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. … Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 1; 1, 4-6).
He could then talk about Don Blankenship and Lochgelly. He could warn of the resurgence of black lung among young miners or about the people who have died because of mountaintop removal. He could tell about the workers and residents in the fracking fields being exposed to dangerous and deadly levels of methane, benzene, radioactive waste, polluted water and a host of other public and environmental health hazards.
Instead, we will hear nothing. The tour website offers mostly platitudes, essentially outlining that the United States has lost its “Christian” moorings. Still, those fearful of a theocracy might want to take a closer read. Translated, what Graham simply means is that he is going to save us from the Great Gay Menace. It is his obsession, as was proven again recently during a broadcast of Focus on the Family, in which he told churches and families to not have anything to do with gay people.
The working class of West Virginia and all of Appalachia know better. The LGBT community has absolutely nothing to do with the boom and bust fossil fuel mono-economy that has dominated the state’s economic/political environment for more than a century. What West Virginia’s workers might not know, however, is that Graham’s salary is nearly $1 million per year, as various outlets have reported. One can easily understand now why we won’t be hearing from the Epistle of James from Graham.
But, if we did, he could cite the following statistics provided by Kathy McCormick, the Executive Vice President of the Service Employees Industrial Union (SEIU). She is with District 1199, which represents workers in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. States that have passed Right-to-Work laws have experienced the following:
- Household incomes are $535 less per month;
- You or your children are more likely not to have health insurance;
- More working people and their children live in poverty;
- States spend less per student on education, which has led to students being less likely to succeed in math and reading;
- Workplace deaths are 36 percent higher;
- More people can’t find work. The unemployment rate in West Virginia is already too high, but six out of ten states with the highest unemployment rates have passed Right-to-Work laws.
I agree with Franklin Graham that the church can and should do more to improve the lives of people in any community in which they live. However, religious-based bigotry has been used too long and often against minorities. It was used to justify genocide of Native Americans. It was used to justify slavery. It is still used to justify white supremacy. It is used to bash people in the LGBT community. It is being used to hate immigrants. It is used to exclude women and gay people from ordination.
Now, it is being used to oppress workers. The cronies in crony capitalism not only include rich industrialists and politicians, but also much of the clergy.
This turnabout is an insult to the sacred work of generations of miners, labor leaders, politicians, clergy, journalists and others who marched across Blair Mountain, died on the Mingo County Courthouse steps, drowned in a chilly February morning in Buffalo Creek, have fought the natural gas industry in Doddridge County, or were forever entombed in a collapsed mine.
The last thing we need is “ … to go back to where the Church is in the center of this nation,” as Graham argues. If that ever was the case – and that is certainly in doubt – it sure didn’t work out too well for native peoples and minorities. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that Graham’s brand of religion will turn out well for working class people.
Fortunately, as we reported about the CCA People’s Pastoral, there are people and groups whose faith does compel them to offer a prophetic voice, to speak truth to power. Sadly, at the same time, the very wide divide between the two approaches is beyond concerning. Consider the words of Jesus: “I pray not only for them (his disciples), but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may be all one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17: 20, 21).
Franklin Graham, an evangelist, says he wants to spread the Gospel. Yet, how will people believe in the story he tells if it runs counter to the message of the one whom Graham claims sent him? Equally as concerning, what are the consequences for the working class and the poor if Graham’s brand of religion reigns triumphant, as he is determined to make happen?
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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People’s Pastoral by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia rooted in the concept of ‘Magisterium of the Poor’
By Michael M. Barrick
SPENCER, W.Va. – Reading the latest People’s Pastoral from the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) is like lingering over a classic work of art – especially if that artwork is Picasso’s “Guernica.” That is because, just like Picasso’s most famous work forces us to reflect upon man’s inhumanity to man, the CCA pastoral immediately challenges the reader to learn about and then expose great social injustices being perpetrated upon the people and land of Appalachia.
The pastoral, titled, “The Telling Takes us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us,” pulls the reader in with eloquent but blunt free verse, breathtaking artwork, photographs and even the rare literary element of an Interlude.
It is 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. They remain in print and available from the CCA.
The CCA identifies itself as “… a network of faith-based people raising a prophetic voice for Appalachia & her people.” This new pastoral seems entirely consistent with that mission.
Notably, unlike the first two, this one is 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 Iafrate, the pastoral’s writer, explained, it is “Speaking truth to power.”
This includes not only traditional church structures, as evidenced by “Lifting up ‘The Magisterium of the Poor’” as Iafrate said, but also political and economic structures as well. Additionally, the pastoral also acknowledges that “The earth has an authority that the church needs to acknowledge and respect,” noted Iafrate, echoing thoughts expressed by Pope Francis in his ecological encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home.”
Jeannie Kirkhope, the coordinator for CCA, added, “Current bishops told us that had they been around when the first two pastorals were written that they wouldn’t have signed it.” She continued, “People have their own authority in the church. We didn’t feel it necessary to get their endorsement.” Iafrate added, “We felt that there were number of issues that the CCA wanted and needed to speak to – mountaintop removal and fracking, as well as marginalized people in Appalachia and the church. We needed to speak about this. We have asked bishops to speak to these issues, but they don’t’ for a variety of reasons. We knew they would not sign on as a body, that maybe one or two would sign. Out of that realization came that sense that the first two pastorals were voices of the people and the bishops endorsed it. We decide to push forward whether they participated or not.”
As it turns out, shared Iafrate, the election of Pope Francis was affirming of the pastoral, which was in the works for several years. “Little did we know there would be a new pope. Little did we know that this pope would have his own encyclical in the works. It was well timed. Of course it was not related to the people’s pastoral, but it was a grace-filled incident.”
While the CCA did not reach out to bishops, a bishop new to the region did offer to provide a cover letter to be sent to all bishops in the United States along with a copy of the pastoral. Iafrate shared, “Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky. shares with the bishops that CCA is living out what Pope Francis has called us to do. We are thankful for his support.”
Iafrate acknowledges that just as the encyclical by Pope Francis has been labeled as extreme in its criticism of market-driven consumerism, so too might this pastoral. In fact, he admitted, “We hope it is subversive because there are a lot of political, economic, and church relationships that need to be subverted.”
He added the pastoral is consistent with the CCA’s mission. “This goes along with being prophetic.” He continued, “This new letter is radical in what it says. It calls for radical changes to church” He argued, though, “It is not a call to radical change apart from examples of how people are already doing things. That is really important.” Besides, he argued, “People can resist radical change all they want, but everything is going to have to change whether we want it to or not, whether we participate in it or not. The planet is going to make sure things change, whether human beings participate in it or not. We can only resist it so much and for so long. That’s on a global scale and in Appalachia.”
The pastoral is written in free verse, as were the first two. Iafrate pointed out that this literary approach was chosen because “It is consistent with the Appalachian heritage of writing poetry and storytelling. It fits with the lyrical way of writing in Appalachia.” Kirkhope added, “It is easily readable. We’re lucky because Michael is both a theologian and musical artist. So we got the best of both worlds with Michael as author. It is both history and artistic.”
The dedication page says simply, “For Walter Sullivan.” Sullivan served as bishop for the Diocese of Richmond for roughly three decades, including the earliest year of the CCA. He is considered its greatest champion. He passed away in 2012. Kirkhope shared, “Before he retired, Bishop Sullivan was talking about the need for a people’s pastoral focusing on mountaintop removal. He was very involved with the first two letters. He was one of the founding bishops of CCA. He was our liaison to the church hierarchy and our biggest fan.” Iafrate added, “There is not a title in the dedication because that’s just not the kind of bishop he was. His ministry was focused on empowering the people of God. He was not worried about different classes of clerics.” Kirkhope recalled, “He was concerned about the earth. Early on, we invited the bishops of central Appalachia to participate in a flyover of mountaintop removal sites. Only three showed up. He was the only one that understood and was completely behind us.”
As the pastoral undeniably ties together the poor and the earth – that to listen to the poor is to listen to the earth – it manages to do so based upon Catholic social justice traditions without being limiting in its appeal. Iafrate explains, “We talk about the planet we live on as having sacredness. That is something we share across traditions when our traditions are at their best. We form a community across traditions. It is deeply rooted in our Catholic faith, but goes beyond it as well, knowing that is how we must all work together.”
The pastoral is divided into three parts. Part One, “Our Stories: The Grounds of our Struggles” tells of the stories gathered through hundreds of interviews by CCA over the last few years, including minorities, those in vulnerable communities and coalfield residents and miners. Part Two, “Our Traditions: The Ground of our Vision,” is rooted in Catholic customs and traditions. Part Three, “Our Actions: The Ground of our Hope,” offers examples of what others are doing to build a region free of the fossil fuel mono-economy and provides some other possible alternatives for consideration.
Artist Christopher Santer, a West Virginia native now living in Minnesota provided the artwork for the covers and a center spread. Iafrate offered, “It’s very striking. We wanted it to be top notch and as prophetic as the words.” The design was done by Liz Pavlovic from Morgantown, W.Va.
Additionally, the Introduction was written by Beth Davies, a Virginia resident and founding CCA member. An Afterword was written by Eddie Sloan of Wheeling, W.Va. and a doctoral candidate at Boston College. His remarks were directed primarily to young people. Notably, the pastoral also includes an Interlude, which was written by Janet Keating, the executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in Huntington, W.Va. While Iafrate said the use of an Interlude came along out of necessity in determining the arrangement of the pastoral, an Interlude is an old literary device that is generally allegorical and rooted in morality. That is certainly the case with Keaton’s piece, as it is titled, “A Cerulean Warbler Speaks.” Keating explained, “The … interlude is one example of the creative listening that is possible when we take seriously the intrinsic dignity of the smallest voices of creation.”
Iafrate said that the focus on the poor is long overdue and is needed to help “change the stories we tell.” He explained, “Appalachians understand the importance of telling their story. At the same time, we’ve gotten use to telling the same old story of Appalachia. Others tell stories that are based in stereotypes. They’ve bought into the same old story that we are an energy region that provides coal and other resources for America’s needs. It’s like it’s our patriotic duty to sacrifice our well-being. We buy into these myths. We live by them. It shapes the way we live life and community together.
“What this pastoral is saying is that we need to live out alternative stories. We need to lift up the experiences of people that run counter to stories of the region. We need to start hearing stories of people who have been hurt by industry in mountaintop removal and fracking. The main new story we need to tell is that God did not give us this planet only as a resource to exploit, but gave us a home. We need to start changing the story of how we live in harmony with one another and take care of the home we’ve been given to live in.”
That storytelling, he said, is up to modern-day “saints.” Iafrate explains, “The word saint in the document has quotes around it, which signals I am doing something different with this word. We do have saints in the tradition of the church like St. Francis of Assisi that can inspire us. What I mean is that modern day saints are people who have a deep sensitivity for the suffering of people and earth in this region. They provide examples of how to live and work for justice. The best word in our tradition is to use the word saint. It does not mean that we are perfect, but have that fire for justice that is so important for CCA and many communities that are struggling.”
He is hoping such saints will emerge from people of all ages, but particularly in their 20s and 30s. “This change isn’t going to happen without them, without young people. We are all aware of the out migration from West Virginia and Appalachia. It is not getting better. If we want this place we love to thrive, we need to listen to these young people to find out while they’re leaving.” He continued, “They have a vision of what they want their lives to be. They love this area. But they feel they need to leave. It’s a love-hate relationship. They want to stay, but can’t find work. The transformation that we need will not occur without younger people.”
Regardless of one’s age, though, Iafrate points folks back to the pastoral’s title. “We need to take our place in this story. It is our small way of helping marginalized people – of lifting up the magisterium of the poor.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016.
Beth Davis writes in the Foreword, “When the bishops gathered at Vatican II, they described the Church as ‘the People of God’—not only the pope, bishops, and clergy, but the entire People of God. They further articulated in Gaudium et Spes how the Church was to be present in the modern world, and their key was dialogue. It is not a new thing for the Church as institution to lead and speak out on issues it chooses to take a stand on, on its own turf. It is a new thing for the Church to listen, truly listen, to what people are saying in their terms, on their turf,”
Like the first two pastorals, this latest is written in free verse rather than prose. Consequently, to conserve space, line breaks are identified by the / symbol.
All excerpts are © 2015 Catholic Committee of Appalachia. Used with Permission. Selected excerpts follow.
Here in Appalachia, / we are people of stories. / These mountains have heard / the stories we tell, / and have told, / across time and space. / The mountains hold our stories, / and they have stories of their own.
Wherever we are, / and whatever our relationship to these hills, / telling our stories / connects us once again, / takes us home, / and gives us a place / from which we can act for justice.
Today, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) / offers this third pastoral letter / as a prophetic word spoken / for new realities among us. / We recommit to reading the signs of the times, / listening to the stories / of the places and people who hurt most, / to create new paths forward / toward greater justice, peace, and wholeness / for our communities and for creation. /
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.
Mountaintop removal is an act / of radical violence that leaves / monstrous scars across Earth’s body / resembling moonscapes, / dead zones on our planet / which cannot be restored to their prior / life-giving condition in our lifetimes.
Women continue to face / significant barriers in our region / which make fullness of life difficult. … / Sexism is transmitted and upheld / through church traditions / which explicitly or implicitly / misuse scripture and faith traditions / to justify the exclusion, domination, / and abuse of women. / Women’s roles continue to be limited / not only in churches, / but also in the family, in the wider community, / and in the region’s male-centered economy.
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.
Miners still struggle regularly / against attempts to roll back / hard-won victories of better pay and benefits. / People of faith, / including laity, religious, and clergy, / have stood with retired miners / in public protests against the attempt / by a handful of mining companies / to eliminate health and retirement benefits / by spinning off their union mines / into new subsidiary companies / and then filing for bankruptcy.
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.
Many people in our church communities, … / must admit that we have not heard or taken seriously / the experiences of people of color in Appalachia.
Although acts of genocide / against Native people are historical facts, / Native communities are alive and present here today, / including Cherokee, Shawnee, / Blackfoot, and Monacan peoples.
Some Appalachians believe / that same-sex relationships / threaten the natural state of things, / including the institutions of marriage and family. / But many Appalachian people / identify as gay or lesbian, / and have done so throughout history.
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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