Welcome to Maryknoll’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Appalachia! That is how our host, Father John Rausch, introduced 11 of us U.S. Catholics to our five-day immersion experience in eastern Kentucky last summer. “We go as learners with a sense of humility and hope, and pray our lives will be changed,” said Father Rausch, a member of the Glenmary Home Missioners, co-sponsoring the pilgrimage with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.
Father Rausch has lived and served in Appalachia for more than 40 years and coordinates a ministry of justice education that includes taking visitors on tours to introduce them to the people and social issues of the region. We were enlightened and blessed by his Gospel-based commentary throughout our pilgrimage.
“The lessons we learn on our Appalachia trip connect us with the many global issues of care for God’s creation that Maryknoll is responding to throughout our mission ministries,” said Deacon Paul Bork, the Maryknoll Society mission promoter who helped organize the trip.
Our tasks were to observe, reflect each day as a community on what we saw and return home to share what we learned. We experienced the coal country of Appalachia through the lens of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.
One of the encyclical’s main themes is our interconnectedness. The pope reminds us “that genuine care for our lives and our relationships with nature are inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.” As we traveled through the rolling hills and mountains of eastern Kentucky, those words came to life.
We visited some deep wounds left by people’s disregard for the earth and consequently its inhabitants. We stopped, for instance, at an old strip-mining site, and Father Rausch told us the flat, barren stretch of land before us had once been a mountain 300 feet higher and flourishing with trees. We were witnessing what was left after coal companies used dynamite to explode the mountain and haul off the coal. Federal law, Father Rausch explained, obliged the companies to replace the vegetation, but put few regulations in place. The companies planted fast-growing species of shrubs that only appear to “reclaim the land.”
We saw “orange water,” a direct result of the heavy metals left by the coal mining process.We learned that people who live in the coal regions of Appalachia have the highest rates of cancer in the United States.
But in the midst of devastation, we saw God at work as we encountered people who live with purpose and are taking steps to care for our common home.
We visited Renée Powell and her husband Russ Miller, who have chosen to live off the power grid and not be dependent on coal. From recycled lumber they have constructed a five-building compound on 25 acres, where they grow most of their own food.
In a town called Deane, Elaine Tanner, a realtor, showed us the “orange water” that indicated contamination caused by toxic waste from mining operations in the area. “I saw kids with seizures and adults with gallstones and cancer because of the contaminated water,” she said. She told us how she educated herself and worked with a grassroots organization called Friends for Environmental Justice to bring the coal companies to court and make them responsible for cleaning up the toxic waste. Elaine was delighted to tell us that 97 families in the community now have clean drinking water. “I felt God calling me to do this,” said Elaine, who continues her mission. “God is with me every step of the way.”
Chris Barton, a forester and professor at the University of Kentucky, accompanied us to Robinson Forest, where the university owns 15,000 acres dedicated to research and teaching. “We are trying to bring back the forest,” Chris told us, explaining that sections of the forest have been devastated by strip mining. Planting a variety of trees, he said, can be an antidote. With Father Rausch leading us in a moving ritual of prayers and blessings, we planted three blight-resistant American chestnut trees in the forest as a step toward restoring the land.
“We are stewards of God’s creation,” Father Rausch told us. “Unless we walk gently in God’s garden, we will destroy it.” The new chestnut trees are reminders of the healing in which an intentional community can participate with nature.
In the course of our pilgrimage in Appalachia, we ate lunch at a family-operated commercial kitchen that teaches local gardeners to grow crops and then sells them. We visited an urban farmer, who established a cooperative to help provide healthful food for his community. We stopped at a medical clinic that treats the uninsured, many of whom have respiratory and other diseases caused by environmental pollution. We spent time at a non-profit organization that works to restore confidence and dignity to women who have endured abusive relationships and difficult times. We toured a solar farm that uses 32,300 solar panels to generate enough energy for about 1,000 households—renewable energy in baby steps.
There is suffering and tremendous struggle in eastern Kentucky. Yet, the message is clear. It’s about planting one tree at a time. It’s the impact of one family, one farmer, one healed woman, one clinic, one solar panel. It’s each person making a choice to live with purpose and with the awareness of God actively healing in our world.
This spirit is contagious. Faith spreads. People love and accept others and are liberated from causing harm. As this happens, the environment heals. It seems this is the hope Pope Francis tapped into when he penned Laudato Si’. This is the joy of the Gospel. This is what I take to share from my pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Appalachia.
Margaret Gaughan also contributed to this article.
Read more about Maryknoll Immersion Trips.
Featured Image: A coal mine on Kayford Mountain south of Charleston, W.Va., shows destruction of mountaintop removal mining that has flattened more than 500 mountains, according to The Alliance for Appalachia. (CNS photo/T. Orsburn)