This week I was in McKee, KY, a small town in the foothills of Appalachia. I visited St. Paul Mission, a thriving Catholic community supported by Catholic Extension located in an area of the country where less than one half of a percent of the population is Catholic.
If you’ve ever thought that Catholicism is dying, let me show you where it is rising. If you’ve ever thought that no one cares anymore about the faith, let me introduce you to the people who care. If you’ve ever thought that all young people disdain religion, let me introduce you to the ones who fully embrace it. If you’ve ever been depressed about the direction our Church is headed in, allow me to restore some hope in you.
But, to restore your confidence, you’ll have to go to places off of the beaten path, places like St. Paul in McKee, KY. The parishioners are all people who live in the “trenches,” witnessing every day the realities of rural poverty, rampant drug use, teen pregnancy and youth growing up in broken homes. Yet, all the people I met, John, Melvin, Eddie, Rebecca, Monica, Judy, and Fr. Frank, their pastor, see hope everywhere. Catholics here simply live the Gospel and love their neighbors.
These parishioners don’t have means, but they sure have meaning. One parishioner, Melvin, said “I can count on one hand how many of our parishioners make over $30,000 a year.” Even though the 25 Catholic families of the parish are small in number and financial resources, they provide thousands upon thousands of hours of service to their local community annually. Catholics have built a reputation in Jackson county for assisting Catholics and Non-Catholics alike.
Rebecca, the young and energetic lay pastoral associate of St. Paul, was recently transporting a sick member of the community to a health care visit when her vehicle slipped off the narrow dirt road into a ditch. A passer-by, and non-catholic, upon assessing her situation, instructed her to “Give those Catholics a call. They’ll do just about anything to help you out.” Had she made that call, she would have been calling herself, as she is the primary contact person for the local Catholic community there.
Judy, a local business owner and parishioner of St. Paul, feels that God has called her to serve the people of McKee. Judy runs a local factory. On the surface it looks like a regular for-profit company, but her true mission, she explained, is to provide meaningful employment for people in this economically depressed area. She arrived in Jackson County Kentucky years ago as a Christian Appalachian Volunteers, an organization founded by the legendary diocesan priest, Monsignor Ralph Beiting. In the early days, volunteers like Judy earned a stipend of $50 a month and received no health insurance. Years later, that service experience has never left her, and so neither has she left McKee. Today as a Catholic business owner, she continues the mission of helping people, to be a source of economic development for their community.
Eddie, a husband and father of five who works at a local saw mill, believes that it has been the parish community which has anchored people in their faith so solidly and enabled them to live their faith so powerfully. “I will never leave this community, even though it’s a little hard to be Catholic here” he said, “I want my children to grow up here.”
Catholics who live out their faith are transforming the world. And wherever I go in the U.S. to visit Catholic communities I encounter individuals who live radical lives of service, rooted in their faith. Their stories are not isolated incidents of good will. Rather, they represent a real phenomenon, that ordinary, yet holy men and women are setting the world ablaze and bringing life to the Catholic Church. As their pastor, Fr. Frank so aptly observed, “Hey, where there is charity and Love, there God is.” We Catholics should feel good about that.
— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management