Prove your humanity

The Catholic Committee of Appalachia recently published a new pastoral letter—a kind of grassroots dispatch to the larger Catholic community. It’s the third of its kind. Forty years ago, the first pastoral letter was acclaimed by some as “one of the most significant statements to emerge from the U.S. Catholic Church.”

“The pastoral itself is a telling of the people of Appalachia in all of our diversity,” said lead author, Michael Iafrate, a resident of Wheeling, West Virginia who’s completing a doctorate in theology. “It’s the telling of the church at the grassroots that’s committed to justice—which is often a contrary voice in the larger church context.”

For more than four years, Iafrate and other committee members organized listening sessions with religious and nonreligious people throughout Appalachia. Those stories were then woven into a 60-page missive, written in an open-verse poetic form with themes similar to those in many of Pope Francis’ recent statements and teachings. The Pontiff has been drawing attention to moral obligations to care for the earth and the wisdom that can be learned from marginalized populations most affected by ecological devastation.

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The pastoral letter highlights voices of coal miners as one such marginalized group. Iafrate recalls meeting miners in a cafe in north central West Virginia. He says their most common concerns were over mine safety and a lack of economic opportunities.

“We heard the idea that they are willing and able to do other work, but there’s just nothing else,” Iafrate says. “Which suggests to me openings that we’re seeing in other parts of the country with alternative, sustainable energies. This is the kind of thing that the church could be speaking out about.”

Iafrate also remembers listening to a Catholic farmer, Ron Gulla from Hickory, Pennsylvania. Gulla signed a gas lease in 2002, and after witnessing destruction to his property and fighting with industry and state officials for years, he became a vocal opponent of fracking.

“I visited his home and sat on his back porch at a picnic table. And I think I was there for three or four hours listening to stories and his experience and experiences of other farmers in that area. It was very emotionally moving to hear what he’s been dealing with for the last several years but how that’s empowered him to be a leader in this movement.”

The cabin of late West Virginia anti-mountaintop-removal activist Larry Gibson. The cabin is located adjacent to a mountaintop-removal site at Kayford Mountain in West Virginia. The sign on the cabin reads: “We are the keepers of the mountains. Love them or leave them. Just don’t destroy them.” Photo: Chuck Conner


Iafrate says many more listening sessions revealed shared frustrations over dynamics between industry and community. He says communities are recognizing abusive patterns coming from the gas industry that are similar to those experienced for decades from the coal industry.

“As the pastoral itself says, ‘Many people impacted by fracking cannot help but think that this is but a new chapter of resource extraction in Appalachia where industry, assisted by politicians, exert control over resources, land—even whole communities. Their stories indicate that people have little say over the impact these industries will have over their everyday lives.’”

Visually, the pastoral letter is studded with paintings of mountains that have been surface-mined. Iafrate reconnected with an old Catholic friend and painter—Parkersburg, West Virginia-native Christopher Santer—to produce the artwork.

“We wanted the design and the artwork to be part of the document itself. We just thought the paintings expressed the message that the pastoral was talking about, telling the story of the mountains and the people who live here. It was just a striking visual saying something prophetic about where we’re from. It fit well with the prophetic message of the text itself.”

Iafrate says lots of different people are trying to tell a new story of what it means to be Appalachian these days. He says the pastoral is a way for people of faith to join that chorus.


This story comes from our partners at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Photo (top): “Ghost Mountain #4,” original artwork by Christopher Santer featured in the Catholic Committee of Appalachia’s pastoral letter.