By Nicholas Napolitano
Assistant for Social & International Ministries, MAR and UNE Provinces of the Society of Jesus
April 22, 2015 – Forty years ago at Wheeling Jesuit University, bishops and concerned Catholic community members gathered on campus to formally announce the release of “This Land is Home to Me: A Pastoral Letter on Powerlessness in Appalachia,” a seminal document signed by the 25 Catholic bishops in the Appalachian region. The letter called for a meaningful response by people of faith to the exploitation of people and mineral resources in Appalachia. Maryland Province Jesuits, working at Wheeling Jesuit University and active in the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, made meaningful contributions to developing this pastoral letter.
This Land is Home to Me had a tremendous impact on the direction of Jesuit ministries in Appalachia, strengthening a commitment to respond to poverty and powerlessness in the region. Today, it continues to shape the work at Wheeling Jesuit University today through programs like the Appalachian Institute. But the message from the mountains offered in this pastoral letter also has a broader call to us all, one that echoes the call of Pope Francis to address the destruction of Creation and respond to an economy and culture that allows for things and people to be considered disposable.
This Land is Home to Me was significant for both the process through which it was written and its content and message. The idea for the pastoral letter came out of the Catholic Committee on Appalachia (CCA), which felt that the church needed to speak out with authority on this issue after a series of mine accidents and worker deaths in 1973. CCA recognized that because of the uniqueness of rural communities in Appalachia isolated by rolling hills and hollows the letter needed to include a wide range of voices from across the region.
The Appalachian region stretches across 13 states, 25 Catholic dioceses and archdioceses and is home to 25 million people from New York to Mississippi. So, CCA leaders initiated a series of listening sessions in 16 rural towns across Appalachia, collecting stories of the economic struggles and dreams of individuals, community groups and church leaders in the region. The Appalachian Bishops’ Pastoral Letter in 1975 was the first time this listening process was used in the Americas; the process has been replicated for subsequent pastoral letters throughout the U.S. Fr. Jim O’Brien, SJ, who recently celebrated 50 years of ministry at Wheeling Jesuit University and across the mountain communities in West Virginia, was part of the consultation group that offered feedback on early drafts of the letter. Fr. O’Brien noted the importance of the language of the letter. Unlike many formal church documents, This Land is Home to Me was “written in beautiful, plain language which conveys a profound message that ordinary people can understand.” The original physical document itself had its own gravitas; printed on newsprint with the signatures of 25 Bishops on the back, Fr. O’Brien thought that the original letter looked a lot like the Declaration of Independence. Around the country, this message resonated in other communities facing exploitation by major industries from factory workers to family farms.
While the language is simple, the message of This Land is Home to Me is complex and nuanced, examining the injustices facing Appalachian workers, communities and the environment because of coal mining. It challenges the actions of mining companies, noting that the wealth from coal mines left workers and communities poor while corporate profits soared. But it also notes that, in some instances, union corruption contributed to suffering in the region. “It blends local experiences, the witness of scripture, and the church’s social justice position,” noted Fr. Brian O’Donnell, SJ, rector of the Jesuit community in Wheeling, West Virginia.
This Land is Home to Me remains prophetic in so many ways: it calls attention to the unsustainable pattern of energy use and consumption in the U.S. and other developed nations; it challenges us to change our relationship with Creation; and it calls on us to celebrate and preserve the vibrant culture of rural Appalachian communities.
In 1975, upon return from the 32nd Jesuit General Congregation in Rome, at which the Jesuits emphatically stated that their mission was to serve the faith and promote justice with a special focus on poor and marginalized communities, then Maryland Provincial Fr. Al Panuska, SJ, recognized this call and demanded a response not just in Africa, Latin America, or South East Asia but also in the Appalachian region as well. Out of this realization, the Jesuit Appalachian Ministry was born, which for years placed Jesuits ministering in communities in rural portions of Lincoln County, W. Va., including native West Virginian Fr. Joe Hacala, SJ, and Fr. Rob Currie, SJ, of the Maryland Province. Other ministries would follow, created by Jesuits, orders of religious women and people of faith, among them programs welcoming young people and adults to immerse themselves through short-term solidarity projects like Nazareth Farm, Bethlehem Farm, and WJU’s own Appalachian Institute.
This Land Is Home to Me and the other pastoral letters from the region that would follow continue to be relevant today, calling people of faith to reflection, prayer and action. Pope Francis has called for the Church to be of and for the poor, challenging us to reach out to those who are marginalized and exploited in some way. The Pope has also challenged our consumer culture, which creates a disposable society and human beings that are disposable in our economy. This same language is found in the 1995 Pastoral Letter by the next generation of Appalachian Bishops, “At Home in the Web of Life.” Fr. Brian O’Donnell, SJ, noted, “It’s a prophetic text, looking at the problems of consumption facing our society.”
For the people of Appalachia, the Pastoral Letters were not a magic fix. While they focused energy on issues in the region, many of the challenges they name remain. Mountaintop removal mining practices, mentioned in At Home in the Web of Life, is just one example. In spite of research that highlights the devastating environmental impacts, the practice of mountaintop removal, where companies blast dangerous heavy metals into the air and pollute the water to get cheap, quick access to the coal underneath the mountains, continue to be used.
In February of this year, Wheeling Jesuit University’s Appalachian Institute partnered with the Catholic Committee of Appalachia to celebrate the anniversary of This Land is Home to Me. The evening was consistent with the approachable style of the letter, using music and poetry to express the hopes and needs of a region brought to light in the letter. CCA representatives shared the unique creation history of the pastoral letter. Students from an English course at WJU, who spent the semester examining Appalachian poetry, read excerpts of the document and pieces of poems. Community musicians performed, along with the reading of an original poem by West Virginia’s Poet Laureate Marc Harshman. The call of the Pastoral Letter remains loud and clear within communities surrounding Wheeling, W. Va.
But This Land is Home to Me offers the rest of the U.S. and the world a challenge to look deeply at how and what we consume as individuals, communities and a nation, especially as we await the release of Pope Francis’s first Papal Encyclical focused on the environment. We need to change individual habits: seeking out alternative relationships to farms and food; committing to reducing waste production through composting and recycling programs; and incorporating the wonders of Creation into our prayer life to remain mindful of these blessings. We also need to seek out structural change on environmental justice issues: hastening research on and development of sustainable energy sources to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels; seeking out advocacy opportunities to call for reduction in carbon emissions at that national and international level; and encouraging leaders in government to develop forward-looking policies that mirror the urgency to move toward low carbon energy alternatives. The call of the mountains and people living in Appalachia, a call that is seamless with the demands of our faith, is still clear. Are you listening?