In wake of Bishop Michael Bransfield scandal, group calls for ‘specific, achievable actions’
CCA also claims that Archbishop Lori cannot be trusted to be an impartial investigator
By Jeannie Kirkhope and Michael J. Iafrate
WHEELING, W.Va. – As the Roman Catholic Church reels from new revelations of the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse, thousands of Catholics from various corners of the church have loudly demanded the mass resignation and/or dismissal of U.S. bishops in order to “clean house.” In the midst of this turmoil, Bishop Michael Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston offered his resignation to Pope Francis, not as penance, but in the manner customary for bishops who have reached the age of 75. (Bransfield turned 75 on September 8th.)
Pope Francis accepted Bransfield’s resignation in a matter of days and appointed Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore as temporary administrator of the Diocese. Further, the Vatican charged Lori with the task of conducting an investigation of Bransfield’s alleged sexual harassment of adults.
The swift acceptance of Bransfield’s resignation and subsequent investigation is not surprising. Abuse allegations have haunted Bransfield, resurfacing most recently during the criminal trial of Catholic priests in Philadelphia in 2012. But more, Bransfield’s lavish lifestyle and flaunted political allegiances marked his episcopacy with signs of clerical privilege and entitlement that are the root cause of abuse by members of the priesthood, including sexual misconduct.
As lay leaders who represent many Catholics in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia, we certainly welcome a full investigation into any alleged sexual harassment of adults by Bransfield, both during and before his time as Bishop. We also urge an investigation into the unresolved allegations of past behavior while working in a Philadelphia high school and into his time serving as a senior cleric in Washington D.C. under the leadership of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, including any knowledge Bransfield had of McCarrick’s abusive behavior.
Nevertheless, we have serious reservations as to whether Archbishop Lori would be an impartial party to head up such an investigation, having been Bransfield’s guest at a “Red Mass” celebrated for lawyers and government officials in January 2017. Ordinary lay Catholics and women religious from the state should be an integral part of any internal church investigation. Most importantly, beyond a church investigation, all files related to allegations against Bransfield must be turned over to the proper civil authorities.
Those familiar with sex abuse in the Catholic Church know that Bransfield’s alleged actions are likely the tip of the iceberg. Last week, Catholics gathered at St. Michael’s Parish in Wheeling to discuss the abuse crisis. Comments given there by diocesan spokespeople (including diocesan attorney James Gardill) signaled deeply entrenched defensiveness, denial, and an accusatory posture toward “the media” as supposed “persecutors” of the Catholic Church. The claim was repeatedly made that this diocese has not been affected by sexual abuse as “other dioceses” have. Claims that minimize abuse have almost always been proven false, most recently in the Diocese of Buffalo where the opening of diocesan secret archives revealed over double the previously self-reported number.
Church and civil investigations must go beyond Bransfield and open the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston itself to deeper scrutiny. In the strongest terms possible, we urge the Diocese to implement the following specific, achievable actions:
- publish the names of credibly accused abuser priests, religious, and lay pastoral workers on the diocesan website (dwc.org);
- willingly open diocesan records related to sex abuse to State and/or Federal authorities before any inevitable forced investigation takes place;
- apologize for the past statements of diocesan spokespeople which accuse secular media of inventing and/or exaggerating the severity of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church;
- denounce the continued scapegoating of gay priests relative to sexual abuse; and,
- establish a permanent system for diocesan staff and clergy to speak up without retaliation.
The legacy Bransfield leaves to West Virginia is uncertain, and ambiguous at best. The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s handling of the allegations against Michael Bransfield will shape the church’s legacy as well, speaking volumes about what kind of church we want to be and whether we really want to break with the destructive and abusive clericalism of the past. Together with other concerned Catholics, we raise our voices in faith and in hope for truth, transparency and accountability in the church we love, and for the justice and healing of her abuse survivors.
© Catholic Committee of Appalachia, 2018. Jeannie Kirkhope and Michael J. Iafrate are the Co-Coordinators, Catholic Committee of Appalachia
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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West Virginia chapter of Catholic Committee of Appalachia calls coal mining CEO’s trial ‘emblematic of the larger systemic disregard for human life and dignity in Appalachia’
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – On April 5, 2010, just as miners were changing shifts in mid-afternoon at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., an explosion roared through the mine. Instantly, the 29 miners working in the mine for Massey Energy were dead, families were devastated and communities of southern West Virginia were forever changed.
Six years and a day after that avoidable tragedy, the misery continued for families of the dead miners, as they watched former Massey CEO Don Blankenship receive only one year in prison and a $250,000 fine. However, it was the maximum penalty that United States District Judge Irene Berger could impose. In December 2015, after a two-month trial, a jury found Blankenship guilty on just one misdemeanor count brought against him – conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. The same jury found him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements.
The Blankenship trial and sentencing accentuates this disregard for human beings. The loss of life and justice for miners and their families call us to greater responsibility for one another, and we call for this responsibility to be reflected concretely in law.” – WV CCA Statement
Consequently, the trial’s outcome – both verdict and sentencing – compelled the West Virginia chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachian (WVCCA) to release a statement saying they are “outraged.”
In the statement, the WVCCA said it, “ … commends the judgment that Blankenship willfully put his employees in danger, a danger that cost twenty-nine miners their lives at Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5, 2010. Still, like many other West Virginians, we are outraged that conspiracy to violate mine safety regulations is categorized merely as a misdemeanor.”
The WVCCA pointed out, “Had he been found guilty of the charges of which he was acquitted – lying to the federal security regulators and lying to his investors – Blankenship would have received a sentence of up to 25 years.” The WVCCA continued, “It is startling that, in our justice system, lying to those who have power in our society is a felony, while taking tragic risks with human life is a misdemeanor. The Blankenship case is another example of low sentences for those who take risks with public safety, a disturbing trend in our state seen also in the lenient sentencing of Freedom Industries executives responsible for the 2014 chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia.”
The WVCCA noted that West Virginia’s bishop, Michael J. Bransfield, stresses “the temptation toward ‘maximization of profit’ can lead to a disregard for human beings and their needs and lead to ‘a new kind of powerlessness” (Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, “On My Holy Mountain: Mine Safety in West Virginia,” p. 4).
Indeed, in May 2011, a report affirming that conclusion was released by the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) that was convened by former Governor (and now U.S. Senator) Joe Manchin. Among the panel’s findings were:
- The disaster was preventable because basic safety systems failed and/or were disregarded;
- These failure of safety systems was caused by a corporate culture by mine operator Massey Energy that put profits before safety;
- Massey Energy was able to operate with such a corporate culture because its dominant influence in the West Virginia coalfields allowed it to exert inordinate influence on West Virginia political officials responsible for ensuring mine safety; and,
- Those with regulatory oversight at both the state and federal levels failed in their roles as watchdogs.
At the time of the tragedy, the mine was owned and operated by Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. According to the GIIP report, “The explosion was the result of failures of basic safety procedures identified and codified to protect the lives of miners. The company’s ventilation system did not adequately ventilate the mines. As a result, explosive gases were allowed to build up. The company failed to meet federal and state safe principal standards for the application of rock dust. Therefore, coal dust provided the fuel that allowed the explosion to propagate through the mine. Third, water sprays on equipment were not properly maintained and failed to function as they should have. As a result, a small ignition could not be quickly extinguished” (p. 4). In short, Massey’s safety systems failed and both federal and state inspectors “…did not provide adequate and proper oversight” (p. 4).
Massey’s operating principles included political influence peddling without regard for campaign finance laws. “What is factual and well documented is that Massey Energy Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship had a long history of wielding or attempting to wield influence in the state’s seats of government” (p. 85). And, state inspectors knew that UBB was troublesome. Even though the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Safety and Training is notoriously understaffed, inspectors considered conditions at UBB so perilous that inspectors were on site at the mine for about 85 days in the year preceding the disaster, and had issued 330 violations totaling nearly $155,000 in penalties.
Inspectors can only do so much, though, asserted the panel. “The state’s failure at Upper Big Branch does not stop with safety issues inside the mine. The inability to protect the lives of miners is also a political failure – a failure by the state’s government to nurture and support strict safety standards for coal miners. If miners’ lives are to be safeguarded, the cozy relationship between high-ranking government officials and the coal industry must change, as must the relationship between the enforcement agency and the industry it regulates” (p. 89).
It added, “…Massey is equally well known for causing incalculable damage to mountains, streams, and air in the coalfields; creating health risks for coalfield residents by polluting streams, injecting slurry into the ground and failing to control coal waste dams and dust emissions from processing plants; using vast amounts of money to influence the political system; and, battling government regulation regarding safety in the coal mines and environmental safeguards for communities” (p. 92). Indeed, for the first decade of this century, Massey had the distinction of having the worst mine safety record in the United States. The 29 killed at UBB brought the company’s total deaths to 54 for the decade.
Even at the time of the disaster, Massey employees seemed to delay in their response. Though the explosion occurred just after 3 p.m., the first call for an ambulance was not made until nearly 4:30. Initially, the mine dispatcher called company officials, who in turn activated their own rescue teams and notified state and federal officials. It was not until the early morning hours of Tuesday, April 13 that all of the miners’ bodies had been recovered.
Blaming it on God
Nobody speaks to the corporate culture which allowed this preventable disaster better than Blankenship. Holding to the theory put forth by Massey that high levels of methane or natural gas just suddenly burst in through the mine’s floor (despite evidence to the contrary), he coldly said to the National Press Club on July 22, 2010 – less than three months following the accident – “The politicians will tell you we’re going to do something so this never happens again. You won’t hear me say that. Because I believe that the physics of natural law and God trump whatever man tries to do. Whether you get earthquakes underground, whether you get broken floors, whether you get gas inundations, whether you get roof falls, oftentimes they are unavoidable, just as other accidents in society” (p. 70). Yet, 94 years previously, Coal Age magazine asserted, “The next time you are about to say, ‘Accidents will happen,’ stop and think first; then you won’t say it. Only weaklings and incompetents evade responsibilities in this age of industrial safety and efficiency” (p. 74).
Or, as the WVCCA said, “ … as we noted in our recent pastoral letter, ‘Coal industry villains come and go, but the attitude which places profit above safety is deeply embedded in the coal economy.’”
The WVCCA concluded, “The Blankenship trial and sentencing accentuates this disregard for human beings. The loss of life and justice for miners and their families call us to greater responsibility for one another, and we call for this responsibility to be reflected concretely in law. We, again, join our bishop in saying ‘The Church has an obligation to continue to remain vigilant in these areas to ensure that justice is served and human dignity is protected. This is an essential part of proclaiming the Gospel of Life’” (Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, “On My Holy Mountain: Mine Safety in West Virginia,” p. 5).
The day after his sentencing, Blankenship filed a notice of appeal of his case to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Of course, the dead miners and their families have nowhere that they can file a notice of appeal to reverse the course their lives took six years ago. But that is justice in Appalachia.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2016
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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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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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Public health, environment and property rights under siege from crony capitalism; people respond vigorously, despite odds
By Michael M. Barrick
BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – While the fossil fuel extraction industry has dominated West Virginia’s political system, economy and communities since it became a state in 1863, the assault upon public health, the environment and property rights in 2015 by corporations and the Mountain State’s legislature was historic. Not since United States senators were appointed by legislatures, in the days when corporate robber barons owned the coal fields, the railroads and the politicians, and efforts to unionize coal miners were met with government-sanctioned violence, has there been such a blitzkrieg of shenanigans and skullduggery unleashed upon the state’s citizens.
Yet, the people have responded energetically. Easily outgunned by corporations, outspent by PACs, and surrounded by apathetic neighbors possessing a sense of inevitability that the energy industry will have its way in West Virginia, many citizens and groups have fought the attack vigorously and widely. The events of 2015 affecting the ecology of West Virginia is about far more than policy, it is about people – about those people making a difference, whether for well or ill.
While corporate interests and most of the state’s mainstream media promote a continued reliance upon what is essentially a bust-and-boom economy, more and more voices standing in opposition to the status quo are being heard. With solid evidence of harm to public health, damage to the environment and abuse of eminent domain from the industry – particularly through fracking and mountaintop removal – more people are joining forces to hold government, industry and even the church accountable.
These stories are not necessarily listed in chronological order and are not offered as a ranking of importance. Instead, it is an attempt to assess the whole year much as one would look at a quilt after it has been completed.
The top stories
- The “People’s Capitol” no more
- Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing
- Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
- Eminent domain abuse
- Public health threats
- Environmental degradation
- The people respond
- The Don Blankenship trial
- Poor and biased press coverage
The “People’s Capitol” no more
The gold-domed state capitol along the Kanawha River in Charleston is known as “The People’s Capitol” because of its openness to the people. While that is changing physically this year as security officials add metal detectors and other security steps, the event that really denied the people access to their government was the takeover of the legislature by the Republican Party. Not that the GOP has a patent on arrogance. The Democrats had grown entirely too comfortable after more than 80 years of control. Their arrogance was on display for all to see. All one had to do was visit the offices of the legislators before the GOP takeover. The Democrats had the largest offices and those in special authority – such as the speaker – had not only their titles but names affixed to the doors. As I walked through the capitol on a snowy February day in 2014 just a few weeks after the Elk River spill, I was pleased with how many legislators made themselves accessible; more than a few seemed genuinely interested in serving the people. However, the display of arrogance on the office doors by the party’s leadership was disturbing. It was clear proof that the lure of power had seduced them to promote themselves, not serve the people.
So, in a sense, the Democrats got what they deserved in November 2014. Unfortunately, beginning in January 2015, so did the people of West Virginia. Why people vote against their own interests is beyond my comprehension. For instance, coal miners voted for the very people who protect men like Massey Energy’s Donald Blankenship (more about him later) and are doing all they can to destroy the United Mine Workers (UMW).
Additionally, the GOP is pushing for “Forced Pooling” legislation that would rob landowners of their most basic rights. That issue died in the legislature on a tie vote in committee last year and is a legislative priority for the GOP this year when the West Virginia legislature convenes on Jan. 13. Forced pooling allows the gas industry to force landowners to allow gas companies to access the gas under their land even if the landowner doesn’t agree to it so long as a certain percentage of their neighbors have agreed to sell. And, despite the devastation done by the Elk River spill in 2014, the Republican-led legislature rolled back vital provisions of the West Virginia Storage Tank Law. This led to weakened oversite, restrictions on public access to hazardous chemical information, and loopholes which severely undermine the stated intent of the law. (Read the full story here).
Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing
In West Virginia, approximately three out of four people identify themselves as Protestant; only seven percent are Catholic. As with political parties, these two major Christian sects hold quite disparate views on ecological issues; indeed, within each denomination, congregation and parish, one can find division about what the faith teaches regarding environmental stewardship.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists generally hold a “dominion” theory of stewardship. It is not only reflected in sermons, but is referenced by energy industry officials as justification for their attacks upon public health and the environment. Indeed, a leading energy industry executive shared that view here in Bridgeport in March. 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).
Yet, Allen Johnson of Dunmore, who leads the evangelical organization Christians for the Mountains, took several other evangelicals and reporters to Kayford Mountain, West Virginia’s most infamous mountaintop removal site. As a result of this effort, national publications noted that some evangelicals are serious about creation care. (You can read articles here and here). Another, not available online, was published by the conservative Christian World magazine based in Asheville, N.C. Explaining the outreach, Johnson said, “It’s a lot easier to preach to the choir, so to speak, than to step across the divide, but that is what is needed in our polarized culture – build trust, tell stories, show, listen, find common ground somewhere.”
Catholics, however, have become accustomed to their clergy – in particular the bishop – to be a prophetic voice for the land and its people. Indeed, the West Virginia-based Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) has published two pastoral letters by the Catholic bishops of Appalachia – “This Land is Home to Me” in 1975 and “At Home in the Web of Life” in 1995. Both of these letters were signed by the Roman Catholic bishops of the region. So, for the last 40 years, the Catholic laity has become accustomed to its leaders standing up for the poor. Not in 2015 though. Instead, the CCA felt compelled to challenge West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield – as well as other Appalachian Catholic bishops – for not supporting the pope strongly enough when the Vatican released the pope’s ecological encyclical in the spring. (Read more here and here).
Indeed, in December, the CCA published what it characterized as a people’s pastoral. It explained, “For this third letter, called a ‘People’s Pastoral,’ the planning team did not seek the signatures of the region’s bishops, but rather sought to lift up the authority of the people, their stories, and earth itself as an expression of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of the ‘preferential option for the poor.’” (Read more here).
In short, while the church leadership has abandoned its prophetic voice in support of the people they are called to serve, the people in the parishes and congregations are filling the void. In addition to the CCA pastoral, several other examples demonstrate this.
In April, during the week of Earth Day, North Carolina-based St. Luke’s United Methodist Church joined with the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and West Virginia Interfaith Power & Light to hold a two-day conference at the Catholic-owned St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston. The conference included people from various faith traditions, scientists, educators, preservationists, educators, artists and others. The theme of the conference, “Preserving Sacred Appalachia,” was organized out of a faith-based view of environmental stewardship, but was intentionally designed to welcome people from all walks of faith and life. (Read more here).
That same week, Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church was a first-place winner of Interfaith Power & Light’s annual Cool Congregations Challenge. The church earned its award for being the top renewable role model in the nation for, among other reasons, having the largest community-supported solar system in West Virginia. (Read more here).
In August, at its annual gathering, the West Virginia Sierra Club chapter considered how it, as a secular group, could apply the ecological encyclical by Pope Francis to its preservation efforts in West Virginia. That gathering led to the writing of this article.
Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
While the church, as an institution, was offering mixed messages on environmental stewardship, the state’s primary agency charged with protecting the environment for the people of West Virginia was sending a clear message – it is, at best, mediocre. In fact, its acronym – DEP – is referred to sarcastically as the “Department of Everything Permitted” by public health experts and environmentalists. In 2015, it was unresponsive to citizens expressing concerns about the health impacts of mountaintop removal. (Read more here), and its leader was unprepared for and even hostile to questions about the most basic of safety considerations regarding the impact of the energy extraction industry. (Read more here).
Eminent Domain abuse
Among the most egregious attacks upon the people of West Virginia was the misuse of eminent domain by the energy extraction industry. This is not surprising though, as without approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and others in the future to extract gas from the shale fields of northern West Virginia, the industry will not be allowed to use eminent domain to seize the land of private landowners. Without that weapon, the energy industry is facing billions of dollars of losses already invested in what the industry obviously considered a slam dunk.
In March, Pittsburgh-based energy company EQT sent out letters to landowners threatening legal action if they did not allow EQT access to their property for surveys. The company’s lawyers argued that the pipeline would serve the interests of West Virginians, so eminent domain should apply. (Read more here and here). Opponents saw it differently and won in court – for now. (Read more here).
Public Health threats
Whatever one’s political outlook, it is generally agreed that a basic function of government is to guard the public’s health. This is part of its mission to “…promote the general Welfare…” as stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution. Again though, even fulfilling this most basic responsibility of government seems beyond West Virginia’s capability – or willingness.
As already noted above, West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman out-of-hand rejected the Precautionary Principle as a reasonable, scientific method of protecting the environment and public health. This, despite clear evidence from health experts about the dangers of fracking and mountaintop removal (read here and here). The facts are supported by personal stories of destroyed lives from the extraction industry. (Read more here).
Those attempting to stop the environmental degradation caused by fracking and its related infrastructure got a good taste of what they will face should the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines receive FERC approval. Because those proposed pipelines would cross state lines, FERC approval is required. However, beginning in the spring and going well into the winter, another pipeline – the Stonewall Gas Gathering (SGG) pipeline – was constructed, traversing only about 56 miles of West Virginia. Hence, as an intrastate pipeline, FERC approval for it was not required. The SGG was built by Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC, which was incorporated in Delaware on June 4, 2014. SGG is a subsidiary of Momentum (officially M3Midstream), based in Texas and Colorado. The Stonewall Gathering line is part of Momentum’s Appalachian Gathering System (AGS). The SGG connected to the AGS in Harrison County and terminates in Braxton County, where it connects to the Columbia pipeline. It runs also through Doddridge and Lewis counties. It began operation in December, but in the process disrupted the lives of thousands of West Virginians, harassed opponents, and caused significant damage to farmland, streams and roadways.
The West Virginia DEP did issue several Notice of Violations to Precision Pipeline, the company that built the pipeline. However, it did so only after numerous complaints from citizens. (Read more here).
As has already been demonstrated, the extraction industry operates from a position of arrogance – of “dominion.” In the next section are several links to stories about people and groups who learned this hard lesson and immediately began responding. Before reading those accounts though, you might want to refer to the articles, “A Dirty Dozen Reasons to Oppose Fracking” and “Filmmaker Finds Compelling Story in Her own Backyard.”
Citizens stand up to crony capitalism
Despite this relentless assault upon public health, the environment and property rights by the unholy alliance between government and business – known otherwise as crony capitalism – no small number of people and groups have organized and coordinated efforts to safeguard their human rights. The outreach has even extended across the states bordering West Virginia, as alliances have been formed with people and groups in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and Kentucky.
As a result, I was fortunate to meet some incredible people giving completely of themselves and resources during the year. Following are a few examples.
The McClain family, farmers in Doddridge County (about 8,000 residents), though quiet and deferential people, stood their ground against the industry for ruining some of their crops. (Read more here).
Also in Doddridge County, residents joined with folks from neighboring counties to demonstrate their solidarity against the fracking industry. (Read more here).
Earlier in the year, a landowner in the mountains of Randolph County was a one-man army fighting Dominion Resources. He is working to protect some of the most pristine mountain valleys in West Virginia. (Read more here).
Also early in the year, several environmental groups challenged FERC to abide by its charter and deny approval of the pipelines because they would benefit private shareholders, not the people of West Virginia. (Read more here).
In a proactive response to the industry, a Harrison County couple modeled, for the public, their homestead powered by solar panels. (Read more here).
As the year came to a close, dozens of people and groups gathered in central West Virginia to learn more from each other and to coordinate efforts to oppose the fracking industry. (Read more here).
The Don Blankenship trial
The year concluded with the conviction of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship on charges brought by federal authorities because of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 coal miners in Raleigh County in April 2010. Sadly, the jury found Blankenship guilty on just one misdemeanor count brought against him – conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. The same jury found him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements. His lawyers have said he will challenge the verdict. So, in light of the expected appeal and mixed verdict, it would seem the opportunity to send a message that crony capitalism would no longer be allowed to kill West Virginians was missed. Hence, it is an important chapter in this story of West Virginia’s reliance upon the fossil fuel mono-economy. Still, while it was covered by media from the United States and beyond, I consider it less important of a story than the stories above, in particular the response by average citizens to the assault they and their land face from the energy extraction industry.
Poor and biased press coverage
These are serious times requiring serious and devoted people. While I generally try not to be snarky about the mainstream media, I must say that I was quite disappointed that West Virginia Public Broadcasting considered a little dustup about pepperoni rolls as one of the top eight stories in West Virginia in 2015. Now, I’ve transported more than my share of pepperoni rolls across state lines. But the debate over fracking – a debate that continues savagely in every corner of the Mountain State – is a far more important story. Yet, this important issue did not even make the list from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which claims to be committed to “Telling West Virginia’s Story.”
In this instance, it failed miserably.
Meanwhile, in Clarksburg, which is at the epicenter of the fracking industry, the city’s only newspaper – The Exponent-Telegram – has an owner who also owns interests in oil, gas and coal companies. The newspaper, which touts itself as “The Independent Voice of North Central West Virginia,” had not disclosed this conflict of interest to the public, even as it served as a cheerleader for the energy extraction industry. (Read more here and here).
The point is this: The Fourth Estate has become part of the establishment. Just as our three branches of government are intended to serve as a check and balance on the other two branches, so too, since the Revolutionary War era, has the press been counted upon to serve as a fourth check on the three branches of government. Now though, the courage required to honor that legacy is rarely found in a newsroom or TV studio. In short, the modern press, whether for-profit or not, will not challenge government, church and academia beyond the boundaries which might hit them in the pocketbook.
Consequently, it does not report what we truly need to know.
So, it’s up to the people. Last year left social justice and environmental activists exhausted, even burned out. Yet, the battle continues. While 2015 was not a good year for the people or environment of West Virginia, 2016 offers hope. It also offers great peril. The extraction industry has unlimited resources – cash, marketing departments and lawyers – that groups fighting for justice simply can’t match. The industry is working 24/7 to assault the people and natural beauty of West Virginia. So activists cannot rest. They are gearing up for a busy year, beginning with the legislative session that convenes next week. They have doggedly fought the industry hard in 2015. However, if they do not get additional manpower this year – an army of volunteers – 2017 will likely be too late to keep West Virginia from becoming an industrial waste zone that is unsuitable for any living thing.
© Michael M. Barrick/Appalachian Chronicle, 2016
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Written from the view of the people, release coincides with the anniversaries of ‘This Land is Home to Me’ and ‘At Home in the Web of Life’
SPENCER, W.Va. – The Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA), a social justice organization based here, recently issued a regional grassroots pastoral letter on the call to be a “church of the poor” and the transformative power of people’s stories in the work for justice.
“The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us,” is the result of four years of planning and listening sessions, interviews, and tours conducted throughout Appalachia and across religious traditions.
The release comes on the 40th anniversary of CCA’s groundbreaking 1975 pastoral letter, “This Land is Home to Me,” and on the 20th anniversary of its follow-up letter, “At Home in the Web of Life.” Both of these letters were signed by the Roman Catholic bishops of the region.
For this third letter, called a “People’s Pastoral,” the planning team did not seek the signatures of the region’s bishops, but rather sought to lift up the authority of the people, their stories, and earth itself as an expression of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of the “preferential option for the poor.”
Since 1970, the CCA 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 the “This Land is Home to Me” and “At Home in the Web of Life.”
The People’s Pastoral is available for download on CCA’s website. It can be read here. Printed booklets are available to order on the website as well. A full website with discussion guides, resources, photographs, art, action plans, and more is forthcoming at www.peoplespastoral.org. The 1975 and 1995 pastoral letters are also available from CCA.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2015
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‘On Care for Our Common Home’ gets to the heart of the challenge facing the region, but environmental and social justice activists have many questions to consider in response
By Michael M. Barrick
ALUM BRIDGE, W.Va. – Much has already been written regarding the ecological encyclical by Pope Francis, “On Care for Our Common Home.” Many have questioned the validity of the claims made by the pope in this, his second encyclical. In short, it has sparked a debate, just as Pope Francis certainly expected.
For the people of Appalachia, though, there should be no debate. Clearly, this pope gives hope to the people of these ancient mountains.
Why is this so? First, Pope Francis understands that the time for urgent dialogue and action is long past. Second – and this is the heart of the matter for Appalachia – Pope Francis has made it clear that environmental and social justice concerns are inseparable. In short, for the people of Appalachia, ecological degradation and the cycle of poverty go hand-in-hand.
So, as the United States prepares for a visit from the pope next week, we may want to ask some questions that will help us apply the encyclical to environmental and social justice work in Appalachia, and why this pope’s message and example is resonating with millions of Americans, including countless non-Catholics.
An encyclical for the world
Usually, an encyclical is written to the bishops of the Church to exhort, challenge and encourage her leaders who serve as shepherds to the faithful; at other times, as is so in this case, an encyclical is a general letter to a larger population. As Pope Francis says plainly, “I wish to address every living person on this planet” (Laudato Si’, no. 3).
Let us pause a moment to consider what Laudato Si’ is not. It is not new. It is not about climate change only. It is not simply a framework for dialogue. And, as the Catholic Committee on Appalachia has pointed out in its letters to West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield and the other Catholic bishops of Appalachia, it is not merely an option for them to reflect upon. As with all encyclicals, it is an exhortation to the world’s Catholic bishops – in this case, to act to rescue the world from ecological catastrophe.
Now, we shall look at what it is. It is rooted in established Church teaching and other traditions which are ancient and time-tested. It recognizes that social justice and ecological issues are more than linked; they are one-in-the-same. It is a call to action. This is consistent with scripture, where we read, “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). It is a plea to all of humanity, regardless of religious beliefs. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is based on the understanding that mankind agrees that ecological preservation is a moral imperative.
Questions for consideration
The pope, in appealing to the world, is appealing to us. So, with this understanding guiding us, let us consider questions prompted by a reading of the encyclical. The questions (in italics) are preceded with a brief introduction to specific points made by the pope. The point of posing these questions is not academic. As the pope says, it is time to act. So, the questions and the background leading to them are posed so that you will not only think about them, but apply them – in action – within your sphere of influence. This is the only way that the pope’s message will actually make a difference – by us taking action.
1. The pope clearly ties together the plight of the poor and the threats of climate change. “Whether believers or not … every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged” (no. 93). He states also, “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (no. 91). Also, he says, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (no. 139). Do you agree that social justice and ecological issues are inseparable? If not, why not? If so, what challenges and opportunities does that present for those working in these two sectors?
2. The pope speaks of the need to “ … repent of the ways we have harmed the planet” (no. 8). Do you believe you should repent, do you believe others should repent, and do you see any value in doing so?
3. Pope Francis alludes to the earth’s sacredness. “ … Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness” (no. 12). Reflect upon this statement in comparison to the outlook of John Muir and other early conservationists. Can we agree the earth is sacred? If so, can we agree why it is sacred?
4. The pope warns, “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” (no. 14). Is this a problem you have experienced in Appalachia? If so, how do we overcome such attitudes?
5. The pope criticizes “rapidification.” He says, “ … the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution” (no. 18). What challenges does this present in Appalachia?
6. Referencing pollution and climate change, he says, “Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths” (no. 20). Where and how have you seen this manifested in Appalachia?
7. Speaking of water, he says, “Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term” (no. 28). He says also, “One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor” (no. 29). What are the major threats to Appalachia’s water supplies and what is the proper response?
8. He continues, about water, “Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” (no. 30). Where are we seeing examples of this in Appalachia and what is the proper response?
9. Also, notes Pope Francis, “Certain places need greater protection because of their immense importance for the global ecosystem, or because they represent important water reserves and thus safeguard other forms of life” (no. 37). Can this be said for Appalachia?
10. The pope says also that we should apply “ … legitimate means of pressure” (no. 38). What are legitimate means?
11. He returns to the theme of vulnerable populations and vulnerable ecologies being linked. “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet” (48). In fact, he says, “ … we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (no. 49). What are the implications of this for the many diverse organizations in Appalachia dealing with the environment and vulnerable populations?
12. The pope seemingly alludes to the history of central Appalachia when he notes, “Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, (businesses) leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable” (no. 51). This statement alludes to third world nations. Using this statement, what can we say to the people of Appalachia about what business is doing for them?
13. He states plainly, “We lack leadership” (no. 53). As we consider politics, policy and field-level workers in state agencies, what can we do to strengthen and/or challenge the leadership of elected and appointed officials?
14. The pope, not surprisingly, refers to Jesus. He states, “When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus” (no. 82). Can this statement be used in outreach to other Christian denominations and other faith traditions in Appalachia?
15. The pope speaks to the value of work. “Seeing manual labour as spiritually meaningful proved revolutionary. Personal growth and sanctification came to be sought in the interplay of recollection and work. This way of experiencing work makes us more protective and respectful of the environment; it imbues our relationship to the world with a healthy sobriety” (no. 126). How can we apply this statement in the context of the energy extraction industry constantly talking about the employment they provide?
16. The pope points out, “We know, for example, that countries which have clear legislation about the protection of forests continue to keep silent as they watch laws repeatedly being broken” (no. 142). How does such inaction impact not only the environment, but people’s faith in government?
17. The Church has traditionally demonstrated “ … a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (no. 158). Historically, Appalachia has had champions for the poor. That seems less so today. Do you agree? What do you see?
18. In calling for solutions, he says, “Society, through non-governmental organizations and intermediate groups, must put pressure on governments to develop more rigorous regulations, procedures and controls. Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment” (no. 179). How can we engage citizens in Appalachia so that they can accomplish these tasks?
19. He notes, “In some places, cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable sources of energy which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy. This simple example shows that, while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference” (no. 179). Where in Appalachia have we seen this? Can we help facilitate this?
20. The pope endorses the precautionary principle. “This precautionary principle makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it” (no. 186). How do we convince our political leaders and policy makers to adopt the same attitude?
Essentially, and not surprising, Pope Francis calls for conversion. He calls for conversion of our attitudes, our lifestyles, our priorities, our educational systems, our economic systems and our political systems. This call leaves us to question how we might achieve such conversions of the heart, and significantly, what happens if we do not?
© Michael M. Barrick/Appalachian Chronicle, 2015
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