For 40 years, pastoral letters focus on sustaining Appalachian culture

An owl rests on a tree branch in the forest of Kermit, W. Va., Aug. 19. Forty years since the bishops of Appalachia first called attention to the lives and struggles of people in the region, a new effort is underway to raise the voices of Appalachians ce lebrating their accomplishments and confronting their struggles. (CNS photos/Tyler Orsburn)

Charleston, W. Va. — Forty years since the bishops of Appalachia first called attention to the lives and struggles of people in the region, a new effort is underway to raise the voices of Appalachians celebrating their accomplishments and confronting their struggles.

Work is continuing on a new pastoral letter called the People's Pastoral. It is percolating from the Appalachians themselves and will reflect on their stories, struggles and hopes, said Jeannie Kirkhope, coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, which is organizing the project.

The letter will examine the many challenges facing the Appalachian culture, from people's way of life to the environmental and social impact of mountaintop removal coal mining and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, she said.

"It's directly from the people to the people basically, inviting the church to respond," Kirkhope told Catholic News Service. "The church is welcome to give their voice as well. The bishops can speak. The bishops can endorse just as much and equally as the people on the hills and hollows. We're pretty excited about the People's Pastoral."

Related: “Pastoral letter ‘from the trenches’ emerging in Appalachia

People's stories and comments were continuing to be collected in late October. Kirkhope, who also coordinates a variety of ministries of presence through the Appalachian Catholic Worker near Spencer, said plans call for a draft to be ready in early 2015 with a final version published later in the year.

The committee expects to spread the pastoral message beyond the Catholic community, Kirkhope said. Plans call for public events to carry the message across the region, including a theater production reflecting the stories gathered.

Kirkhope also envisions that the new document will spur Appalachians to tell their stories through poetry, art exhibits and essays and reach people outside of the region.

"It's not just going to be a written document," she explained. "We want to be like a living pastoral, not just a document that's up on a library shelf. And the voices continue to echo, so we want people to continue to add their voices and share their voices in different ways."

The document builds upon two earlier pastoral letters by the 25 bishops of Appalachia.

In 1975, the bishops released their highly regarded pastoral letter, "This Land Is Home to Me." It marked the first effort by the bishops as a group to call attention for the first time to the dire economic hardship, rising drug abuse, environmental destruction and a decline in the culture that defines the 205,000-square-mile region that extends from southern New York to northeastern Mississippi and is home to more than 25 million people.

"Appalachia is not a simple place," the bishops said in the letter. "There are rich and poor, big and little, new and old, and lots in between. But somehow no matter how confusing it seems, it's all tied together by the mountain chain and by the coal in its center, producing energy within."

The letter inspired many laypeople and women religious to take up ministries in cooperation with local people in areas such as health care, education, counseling and environmental protection in a broad effort to preserve the Appalachian communities that were facing innumerable hardships.

Twenty years later, another generation of Appalachian Catholic bishops celebrated the first pastoral letter and widened their message to include the importance of the sustainability of communities in Appalachia by issuing another pastoral, "At Home in the Web of Life." The 1995 letter praised the efforts to defend the Appalachian land and people's homes through the many ministries and services established in the previous two decades.

The letter examined the seven principles of Catholic social teaching and how they related directly to life in Appalachia: human dignity; community, or the common good; a just economy; subsidiarity; ownership; ecology; and sustainability.

"These are communities where people and the rest of nature can live together in harmony and not rob future generations," the bishops wrote.

One common concern appeared in both documents: Appalachian culture was being sacrificed as interests from outside the region exploited its riches and its people in the pursuit of economic gain.

Today, the region remains beset with many of the same challenges that prompted the bishops to voice their concerns as faith leaders in 1975. While progress has been made to overcome the difficulties, Appalachia remains a place of contrast, said Glenmary Fr. John S. Rausch, retired executive director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, and a longtime advocate for people in the region.

Both pastoral letters are a call to remember and respect the dignity of people, Rausch told CNS at his home in Stanton, Ky.

The region's poverty has dropped by half since 1960. It was 33 percent in 1960, and fell to 16.6 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission. While some areas have experienced economic development and diversification, others remain mired in deep poverty, marked by drug abuse, high unemployment and inadequate schools.

Kirkhope and her colleagues see the new document as a way to spur greater interest in protecting the rich cultural and environmental diversity that encompasses Appalachia and highlight the interdependence of people with each other and the land.

"We're so interdependent with our environment. I think it's meant to be like that. It comes out of Scripture. It comes out of Jesus' teachings and Jesus' lifestyle and the way he lived. Everything was so interdependent. The people who live out here in ministries like the (Catholic Committee of Appalachia) members in ministry, they don't have a choice but to be interdependent."

Editor's NoteThis is the sixth story in a six-part Catholic News Service series examining mountaintop removal mining and poverty in Appalachia​. Check Eco Catholic for past and upcoming stories in the series, or sign up for email alerts to receive them in your inbox.