Reaching Out to People, Caring for Creation
Today, based in Stanton, Ky., he serves in a wide range of roles to carry out his work—from director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) to syndicated columnist and more.
He also regularly helps coordinate events intended to focus attention and prayer on social and ecological concerns. The latest example is a mid-September ecumenical prayer service at a mountaintop removal site in Salyersville, Ky., which is attracting strong interest from people in Kentucky and surrounding states.
As a young priest, Father John was drawn to social ministry for low-income people. And when he went to Appalachia in 1970, he says, "I knew that's where I wanted to live and minister." He became involved in economic development by working in local cooperatives and helping community people learn management skills to run their own businesses.
He later pursued a master's degree in economics because "if you look at any social issue, you'll find economics at the heart of it. But any policy has to be judged by how it impacts the least of our brothers and sisters. That's what human/economic ministry is about. "
In 1995 Father John helped write the Appalachian bishops' pastoral letter "At Home in the Web of Life." But he says an experience in 2002 near McRoberts, Ky., "smacked me in the face" and gave him a deeper understanding of the pastoral's meaning.
That year a friend told him about this small coal-camp community which hadn't experienced a major flood since 1957. But in 2000 McRoberts suffered five floods in 18 months. A mining company had begun defacing the surrounding mountains through mountaintop removal, an aggressive mining practice. The result: McRoberts became much more vulnerable to flooding and other threats. Homes, water supplies and air quality were in danger, people were developing health issues, and a community was being wiped out, Father John says.
He participated in CCA's two prayer events focusing on this abuse. "As I looked at people who had been hurt, I looked over their shoulders and saw the glory of God in the mountains," he says. "And I had an epiphany. I recognized that God's gift of creation has inherent value-and that we have to learn how to live in harmony with this creation.
"That's the theology I've come to, partly because I've seen how the greedy extract resources from nature in ways that cause the poor to suffer and even lose their lives."
Some of his many ministry roles now include:
• Glenmary priest. Besides his human/economic ministry, he makes a two- to five-hour round trip most weekends to fill in for parish priests.
• Director, CCA. He leads this 400-member group of Catholics in ministry in Appalachia, who study social problems confronting the Church and help find solutions.
• Syndicated columnist. He writes a monthly column, "Faith and the Marketplace," published in 15 Catholic newspapers and distributed widely.
• Tour guide. He conducts five tours of Appalachian areas annually-to increase appreciation of the region and its residents and to enhance awareness of threats they face, such as the effects of mountaintop removal. Tour groups have included bishops, journalists, interested laypeople, seminarians and deacons.
• Speaker. He gives periodic presentations around the country, often on care of creation.
• Board member, National Catholic Rural Life Conference. He wrote NCRLC's position statement on the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf.
• Resource person. As a widely recognized spokesperson about care of creation, he is frequently contacted by people researching ecology-related issues.
In 2007 he was honored by the national Catholic peace movement with the Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace Award, for his many years of work and advocacy on behalf of the people and land of Appalachia.
He's currently helping organize the prayer service mentioned earlier-"The Cross in the Mountains" on Sept. 11 in Salyersville, Ky. "Prayer has vertical and horizontal dimensions," he says. "The vertical is that we believe God hears our prayers. The horizontal is that we alert other believers they need to open their eyes to injustice.
"In Salyersville we'll raise a cross on a mountaintop removal site; have a modified Way of the Cross; and pray with community residents living in fear. We'll pray for renewal of the human and ecological communities in Appalachia and for greater choice in employment."
No matter what the role, Father John still has the same goals-to use his gifts to reach out to people and care for creation. "That's when I feel connected with God," he says.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.