Who Are They Gonna Call?
McRoberts is a worn-out coal camp in the Appalachian hills of Eastern Kentucky scarred by severe strip mining. When heavy rains fall, people fear only one thing: flooding. Muddy water swirling through a house not only violates the human spirit but brings with it long-term depression and a sense of helplessness. Call it a spiritual sickness.
In 2003 the Rev. Steve Peake, a Baptist minister, and I organized a prayer service soon after a flood in McRoberts. I bought a flat of begonias from a nursery. Then 30 of us, including mothers with small children, walked through the town stopping at residences, churches and public buildings. At each place someone described the destruction caused by the flood. We said a prayer, then planted a begonia. The idea was to replace ugliness with beauty, and despair with Resurrection.
To me, working in justice ministry is deeply spiritual. Jesus fed people, but he also challenged the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. He did direct service and also confronted the social system. Wisdom tells us when each is appropriate.
My work for justice promotes the Catholic social teachings through writings, talks, tours and prayer demonstrations, like the flower planting at McRoberts. Our rich tradition affirms every person as a son or daughter of God who has a right to live in dignity.
People are due a just wage and the opportunity to participate in community affairs, while respecting the earth as God's garden. When society chooses profits before people, power over the vulnerable, or destruction instead of beauty, people of faith must speak out against the false values of this world.
In 2012 the Patriot Coal Company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Because of some dubious corporate mechanisms, this meant that 23,000 retired coal miners and their dependents would lose their health benefits. Miners who had used up their bodies digging coal for 30 years—and who had black lung, back problems and joint pains—stood to see little health coverage in their retirement. This injustice called for solidarity with the miners. In Charleston, W.Va., I was arrested in a nonviolent demonstration with 15 other protesters to highlight the problem. My cellmate was a retired strip miner of 35 years.
My observation: One day I might denounce strip mining for destroying communities and God's garden, and the next day I might demonstrate with strip miners cheated out of their health benefits. That's really the difference between ideology and justice. God's justice avoids partisan politics and looks at each situation in terms of the abundance God promises to all creation.
Glenmarians have a unique vocation. Tucked into small towns in Appalachia and the South, we represent a willing resource when ordinary people get ignored by corporate powers or unresponsive community officials. I get involved because my phone rings and the voice on the line says, "Father John, what are we gonna do about this?!"
Read more about Father John and his home mission ministry.