National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
June 30, 2006


Volunteering in Appalachia

After reading Mrs. Fuchs’ essay (NCR, Jun. 2), I was disturbed to think that your readers may be misled as to the efforts of staff and volunteers working on behalf of the Christian Appalachian Project.

As you at NCR know, when I was originally asked before the publication date if I wished to respond to her essay in the same issue, I refused, as I did not want to be perceived as defensive or critical of Mrs. Fuchs’ perspective. Upon further reflection, and after much prayer, I now write not to refute Mrs. Fuchs’ point of view but to clarify certain issues.

Although we are most appreciative of the time Mr. and Mrs. Fuchs spent with the Christian Appalachian Project as volunteers, Mrs. Fuchs’ assertion that the project is “not going to change anyone’s life” is far from true. It has changed lives for the better for more than 40 years and continues to do so in its focus on children, the elderly and the disabled.

Lives are changed when project volunteers work with children after school, provide tutoring opportunities and give children summer camping experiences. Lives are changed when the elderly, the poor and the disabled get help in paying for prescription medications, receive home visits from caring volunteers or have much-needed repairs made to leaking roofs and crumbling homes.

The uniqueness and strength of our organization is that we have become indigenous to the region. Our employees are a cross section of Appalachia, both culturally and educationally, yet also include many former volunteers. Volunteers have come to us from throughout the nation and from every imaginable Christian denomination. True to Fr. Ralph Beiting’s original design, we are an ecumenical Christian organization. We do not try to change people’s religious views, nor do we try to erase the heritage or tradition that forms their worldviews. Instead, we simply love them by planting seeds of hope and by giving, especially to the children, a view of the world. From the results we have seen, these seeds have grown and from them have sprung self-reliance, independence, improved health and better education. There is much more to be done, however.

Serving the poor does not afford the luxury of drawing distinct lines between “handouts” or “hand-ups.” As a matter of fact, our experience has shown that it requires “hands-on.” When it comes to children, the elderly or to persons with disabilities, there are times when addressing a future need with a hand-up must take second position behind an immediate need such as food, clothing, shelter or a warm, safe place to spend the night. All of us at the Christian Appalachian Project believe in longer-term projects that result in people able to meet their own needs through better education, stronger job opportunities and the elimination of alcoholism, drug dependence and the drastic social issues that continue to face the people of Appalachia. But none of us can turn away a hungry child or ignore the helpless.

The ministry of the Christian Appalachian Project is based on scripture, Mt 25:31-40, in which we are reminded that Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Some may be cynical about the human condition, be it in Appalachia or elsewhere, but we believe that we must never stop serving through simple expressions of love.

Hagerhill, Ky.

Bill Mills is the president of the Christian Appalachian Project.

* * *

We in social ministry joke about Appalachia getting rediscovered every 20 years. We also recognize that volunteers to Appalachia gain more from their experience than the people they serve. With NCR’s publication of an essay by Lucy Fuchs in the June 2 issue, both sentiments seem validated.

Appalachia again creeps into our social consciousness as coal miners die monthly, energy policy is debated incrementally and volunteers like Lucy, who joined me on a tour of Appalachia, ponder service ministry. Lucy left the mountains with a great lesson: “Ultimately, I learned in East Kentucky that it is not a simple task to help the poor.”

Sometimes we use a magnifying glass to examine the poor when we really need a picture window to study the economic system. The “culture of poverty” theory that was so convenient and popular in the 1960s emphasized fatalism as a way of life characterized by little rebellion or questioning. When the War on Poverty sputtered as it attempted to include local participation in programs to overcome this fatalism and alienation, a paradigm shift took place. Academics recognized that local folks were constrained by their political and economic powerlessness. County officials oversaw the federal poverty funds and many officials manipulated the programs to enhance their control. Local power structures in the mountains served the interests of absentee corporations that owned the timber and coal resources and controlled the land like a mineral colony. Studies show that the deepest pockets of poverty are located in the richest coal mining counties in eastern Kentucky.

Without this structural analysis, those of privilege can easily “blame the victim” for not moving or protesting or joining the system -- in short, for being poor.

Volunteers coming to Appalachia with their motivation and skills have an excellent opportunity to discover how to help others while learning about a unique subculture. The sponsoring agency, however, must address Appalachian stereotypes and encourage a genuine personal humility and respect for the region’s differences. “Doing with” can replace a volunteer’s “doing for” mentality that moves the relationship from dependency to independence and ultimately to interdependence. We in the church understand our obligation to help others, but we seldom grasp the reciprocity that forms the core of helping. True charity means both subjects are touched and changed.

The Catholic bishops of Appalachia in their pastoral letter “This Land Is Home to Me” (1975) stressed that Appalachia stands as a symbol of our national experience. In the dominant American culture, greed rules subtly. In Appalachia, the forces of greed unmistakably demonstrate who gets opportunities and who gets forgotten.

At the same time, Appalachia offers certain values as an antidote to the dominant culture. In the mountains, people waste time with one another. They value family, neighbors, land and religion. How refreshing a perspective from the multitasking, impersonal, bottom-line mentality that generates stress throughout the dominant culture.

The Catholic Committee of Appalachia, a 36-year-old network of folks dedicated to working in the mountains, is reissuing the two Appalachian pastorals, “This Land Is Home to Me” and “At Home in the Web of Life” (1995), to promote critical analysis and a contemporary spirituality rooted in creation and supportive relationships. The documents offer some guidance for volunteers and professionals by promoting reverence and wonder in ministry. The bishops remind us: “The dream of the mountains’ struggle, the dream of simplicity and of justice ... is, we believe, the voice of the Lord among us.”

Stanton, Ky.

Fr. Rausch is the director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.

* * *

For five years I took a group of high school seniors to do service work in eastern Kentucky and experienced firsthand the dilemma described by Lucy Fuchs. Supposedly, a hallmark of this culture is their love and devotion to family, but I didn’t know how to answer the question often posed by my students: “If family is so important to them, why aren’t their children doing this?” There were times when we labored with home repairs while able-bodied young people lounged inside the house. I was discouraged when, returning the following year, I saw the work we had done the previous summer deteriorating. I quietly thanked God that the students did not see that. It’s a fine line between “handouts and hand-ups.”

Hanover, Pa.

Church discord

Timothy Radcliffe’s “Overcoming discord in the church” (NCR, May 5) was a great thought provoker. I am always concerned that our American church may implode if we Catholics don’t talk to each other. It amazes me that those at either end of the Kingdom-versus-Communion controversy are so sure of their positions while many of us are wandering around in the middle sampling a bit from either side. Whether it is “dialogue” or “conversation,” there has to be some of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin’s common ground approach to living our mutual faith in these days. I’m on my way out now to buy Radcliffe’s What is the Point of Being a Christian. I think we’re the ones who are supposed to be recognized by our love for one another!

Binghamton, N.Y.

Film protest

Tom Roberts’ comments about “The Last Temptation of Christ” in his editor’s note (NCR, May 26) remind me of when I went to see the premiere of the Nikos Kazantzakis film in Washington. There were more demonstrators parading outside the theater than there were people inside. The demonstrators carried all manner of protest signs and even a life-size statue of Christ.

Ironically, the marchers repeatedly passed a homeless drunk lying unconscious in the gutter in front of the theatre scarcely three feet from them. Not one so much as noticed him. It occurred to me that the marchers were more excited about shadows on a screen than what Jesus would have said and done had he been there.

Silver Spring, Md.

In the mood for God

In the American schizophrenia over drugs, the Supreme Court allowed the Brazilian União do Vegetal in New Mexico to use LSD-like ayahuasca in its religious ceremonies (NCR, March 31).

Yet more surprising was Fr. Drinan’s comment: “Catholics do not necessarily resonate to members of cults that employ drugs to help them to communicate with God.” Though this is probably true, this statement should not be. We forget wine on an empty stomach -- although elimination of the fast has minimized the effect.

A list of traditional practices uses biology for spiritual ends. The Forty Hours’ immobile focus on a circular host, mandala-like, elicits contemplation. The rosary’s mantra-like repetition stills the mind for meditation. The lilting refrain of back-and-forth prayer in litanies and responsorial psalms hypnotizes the mind. The required breath control of hymn-singing tranquilizes the body. Monasticism’s rising from dreamy sleep for matins turns the uncensored mind to God. The sitting, standing, kneeling of ritual uses bodily sensations to ground one in the present. Fasting shifts body chemistry to effect an altered state of consciousness. In the extreme, the insult to the body via self-flagellation or the hair shirt releases endorphins and produces ecstasy.

Catholicism was full of spiritual techniques. Most have now been superficially debunked and abandoned. Ironically, deeper science might legitimate them again. Then we could retrieve the spiritual treasures of our Catholic heritage and without embarrassment identify with “cults” that seek to be touched by God.


Daniel Helminiak is a professor at the University of West Georgia.

Oil prices

Regarding your editorial “The missing energy policy” (NCR, May 5): Every time U.S. oil speculators get jittery, the price of oil goes up and they make more profit. It’s to their advantage to get jittery as often as they can. In the past year they’ve gotten the jitters over the possibility of more terrorist attacks; more hurricanes; the situations in foreign countries such as Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Bolivia and so on; the arrival of winter, the arrival of summer; and have had several unexplained cases of the jitters. Their yips have added $1.50 onto the price of a gallon of gasoline.

This obvious scam will continue for as long as we let it.

Every time we send the same senator or congressman back to Washington we’re telling the Big Money crooks that we haven’t caught on yet.

Springfield, Mass.

Kansas City diocese

When Benedict XVI, a man of keen intelligence and a first-rate theologian who sees himself as the keeper of a 2,000-year-old tradition, was elected pope, he said: “My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen together with the whole church to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by him, so that he himself will lead the church at this hour of our history.”

On the contrary, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese (NCR, May 12) has, in his first year, systematically dismantled major diocesan programs and dismissed key personnel who had developed these programs based on the needs of the diocese under the guidance of the bishops. Finn’s disregard and disrespect for people and their history is appalling. Why is a person from St. Louis imposing his will on the Catholics of Kansas City?

Bishop Finn is no Benedict XVI, not even close.

St. Louis

* * *

The letters in the June 2 issue, together with Fr. Timothy Radcliffe’s recent insights in NCR, underscore the real problem in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese: an ongoing failure of leadership.

On one hand we see letters from liberal Catholics who feel disaffected by Bishop Finn’s heavy-handed changes. On the other hand, we see letters from more conservative Catholics who apparently felt disaffected by prior leadership.

One of these letters cites a change in “management.” Is a faith community to take as its example the rather sorry ethical state of American business “management”? Another of the letters affects a sort of glee, as if a two-party election had been won in their favor. Aren’t we called to something better and more compassionate?

The American Catholic church will have real leadership when it has bishops who can support the spectrum of Catholic belief and teach the parties to rejoice in common ground rather than in the defeat of their fellow Catholics. Simply shifting feelings of disaffection from one set of Catholics in a game of spiritual ping-pong is not the answer.

Doylestown, Pa.

Agreement on Code

Robert Royal is right about The Da Vinci Code; Andrew Greeley is right about The Da Vinci Code (NCR, June 2). This is really cool.

Staten Island, N.Y.

Ethnic stereotypes

In his column, Fr. Raymond Schroth began by stating that there are “lots of reasons not to like ‘The Sopranos’ ” (NCR, May 19).

The most important reason not to like it is because it is a bigoted, reprehensible, stereotypical attack on Italian Americans. No producer or television network would dare present such an offensive series or program about Jews, blacks, Hispanics or any other group. The justified public outrage would result in an immediate cancellation and profound apologies. As an Italian American, I speak out against this insulting program at every opportunity.

Enfield, Conn.

Letters to the editor should be limited to 250 words and preferably typed. If a letter refers to a previous issue of NCR, please give us that issue’s date. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Letters, National Catholic Reporter, PO Box 411009, Kansas City, MO 64141-1009. Fax: (816) 968-2280. E-mail: (When sending a letter via e-mail, please indicate "NCR Letters" in the subject line. We've installed a new spam filter on our letters e-mail account. If it's not clear to us that yours is a letter, we might delete it.) Please be sure to include your street address, city, state, zip and daytime telephone number

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006