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.
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.
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.
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 For more on Catholic Extension’s journeys, follow Joe on Twitter.