Never Give Up

Never give up.  That is the attitude of Catholics in rural Virginia.  Last week, I met with communities where Catholic Extension has provided support and others in which we are exploring ways to provide new support.  These people are worth getting to know.

Dillanie is a Catholic student committed to her faith in spite of the many obstacles.

I met Dillanie, a 19-year old college student, who converted to Catholicism last year.  She jokes that she hit a “Catholic Grand Slam” when she entered the church by making a profession of faith, baptism, first Eucharist and Confirmation several months before starting college.  That was arguably her Catholic honeymoon.  Now she attends University of Virginia at Wise, where there is no Catholic campus ministry and no parish.  She does not have a car to drive to the nearest parish 15 miles away.  Dillanie admits that she gets heavy flak for being Catholic from her fellow students.  This, however, does not stop her from practicing her faith.  Every Sunday, she asks one of her Protestant classmates to drive her to church, where she attends Sunday Mass by herself. “It’s very difficult when there’s no support system,” she said

Because she has been so unapologetic about her commitment to her faith, other Catholic students are now beginning to surface on campus.  But, without coordination or leadership, Catholic students find it hard to get a community going.  Catholic Extension is in discussion with the Diocese of Richmond about how we can support the college students of this southwestern Appalachia region of Virginia.

Tazwelle, VA nestled in the Appalachian hills, is in danger of losing its soul and its future to rampant drug use among the youth.

The young people of this area are fighting for more than just their spiritual lives, as I learned from the parishioners of St. Theresa in Tazewell, Virginia, a parish of about 100 families that covers several counties of southwestern Virginia.  Since the mid-‘80s they have watched the addictive Oxycontin drug decimate their youth.  “We have a major drug problem here.  Everyone has been touched by it one way or another,” said Pat.  Last year the parish buried a 23 year-old woman who overdosed on the drug.  In spite of this, the parishioners have not lost hope. “We are few in number and big in faith,” said Kathy.  “All of us have had struggles in these small parishes, but ‘the Church’ is us, and we’re not going to give up. We are Catholic to the bone.”  These are powerful words for a community facing such an uphill battle.

In partnership with the diocese, Catholic Extension would like to develop Catholic young adult leaders who can provide companionship, purpose and the gift of faith to the youth in this area.

Fr. Dan Kelly wears a constant smile as he visits the orchard camps.

I met Fr. Dan Kelly, pastor of St. Mary in Lovingston, Virginia, and St. Francis of Assisi in Amherst, Virginia.  Both churches have been supported by Catholic Extension in the past six years to help build new facilities for these growing communities.  I quickly realized the cause of this growth:  Fr. Dan is perhaps the most energetic and outgoing 73-year old I’ve ever encountered.  Having absolutely no intentions of retiring or slowing down, Fr. Dan faithfully pastors his two churches and somehow finds the time to minister to nine different field worker camps in the area.  In spite of his age and his work load, he will not stop.

Beto, an orchard worker and proud Catholic, shows the image sown into his scapular of St. Toribio Romo, a 20th century Martyr.

He took us to one of these camps to introduce us to the men who work the orchards.  Away from their wives and children, and their faith community, they labor six days a week for nine straight months in the peach and apple industries.  The men are delighted to see Fr. Dan, who shows up with a full kettle of spaghetti that he prepared himself.  With the Irish twinkle in his eyes, Fr. Dan tells jokes to the workers over dinner, speaking Spanish with his endearing Gringo accent.  Beto, one of the workers, said that all the men are very Catholic, and they feel privileged to practice their faith with the help of Fr. Dan.

Out of their struggles, Catholics of Virginia have been conditioned to walk by faith.  They are building a foundation upon which Catholic Extension, in partnership with these refreshingly determined communities, can help create a foundation for a stronger Catholic Church that can serve as the compassionate hands of Christ for an area in need.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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Encouraging Trends in Catholicism

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.

The humble dwelling of a resident in Eastern Kentucky, where the needs are great, but the Catholic response is heroic.

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

Resourceful Christianity

I have just returned from Eastern Kentucky in the Diocese of Lexington, a trip that included hundreds of miles of travel across Kentucky’s Appalachia Mountains.

St. Martha’s Church in Prestonsburg, KY faces an abandoned coal mine.

This is a place where poverty and social problems are rampant.  We heard stories of families literary starving. We heard about households in which toilet paper is a luxury.  We heard that hundreds of parents cannot afford to purchase underwear and socks for their children, including one account of a young girl who, upon receiving the gift of socks for Christmas from her church, clutched those socks  closely to her face and contemplated the gift with as much delight as a girl getting a pony. We heard stories of horrific living conditions: of uninhabitable, rat-infested trailer homes with the floors falling in. These are the realities of poverty in this country, and many of these tales are hard to accept.  But there is another, much more hopeful reality. We also heard and saw that God is alive and active in these mountains.

Our Lady of the Mountains Church in Stanton, KY.

By the end of my visit, I found myself thunderstruck – not by the dreadful poverty, but by the unquenchable passion of our Church to walk with those who live in poverty. Catholics are a minority in Appalachia, and in some areas they are still not even recognized as Christian.  In many counties in the Diocese of Lexington, Catholics are one in a thousand (or 0.1% of the population).  But, what Catholics lack in numbers, they make up for in their presence to their communities.  Their outreach efforts are simply superhuman.

Over the past few decades, we learned, the Catholic Church has been able to increase its outreach, gain community trust and increase the number of people who practice the faith.  We visited one parish that has slowly built up its base of parishioners over the years.  In fact, 80 percent of the church’s 100+ families are converts, including the parish priest.

What is drawing them to our faith? The mighty deeds of resourceful, joyful, faithful Catholics who represent hope to a forgotten people.

Fr. Bob Damron of St. Martha’s Church in Prestonsburg, KY.

One 87-year-old monsignor from Louisa, Kentucky, whose energy level has visibly increased with age, is gearing up to serve 18,000 families this year. He said to me, “We are going to do something to help people; we’re not going to sit around and talk about it.”

A parishioner at Our Lady of the Mountains in Stanton, Kentucky told me how she feels about her weekly service to struggling mothers, a ministry that is hosted by her church. “I know God has called me here, I just know he has,” she said with the fire of conviction burning in her eyes.

“What is your hope for this parish?” I asked a group of parish leaders at one church. “To be able to help more people,” three of the leaders chimed in with little hesitation. “Here, we know how to live our Christianity,” one woman told me.

In spite of their resourcefulness and intelligence, these hardworking Catholics expressed to me in varied ways how deeply aware they are that all of us are ultimately reliant on divine providence, and that their efforts are dependent on God’s grace and generosity.

At St. Martha’s Catholic Church in Prestonsburg, where Catholic Extension recently helped build an outreach center, many of the parishioners thanked Catholic Extension and its donors for sharing in their mission.  Those of us from Catholic Extension, in turn, shared how proud we are to call parishes like these our partners.  These parishioners demonstrated to us, once again, that Catholic Extension doesn’t provide charity. Rather, it offers support to further the efforts of dynamic faith communities who are, in their words, “carrying on the work of Christ.”  Their resourcefulness in these noble endeavors is perhaps summed up best by one parishioner who told me, “Oh, we can stretch a dollar like you wouldn’t believe.”

As I absorbed all of this information over several days, St. Paul was ringing in my ears: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). Adversity is not impeding our fellow Catholics around the country from putting faith into action; in fact, adversity is ironically driving their action with greater force.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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