Before Joel Schrader ran for public office in Kentucky, he toured the eastern part of the state to better understand the issues. He joined a dozen people for four days visiting folks engaged in community development, environmental work and especially healthcare. Two vans in tandem wound down back roads to find small health clinics tucked away in isolated communities that serve the needs of low income and uninsured people.
Later he wrote on his evaluation: “every clinic we visited said most of their patients came to be treated for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.” He learned these diseases require regular medication and checkups, or they get worse.
Schrader participated in the Pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Appalachia, an annual event that focuses not on visiting buildings and shrines, but on seeing the church in action, specifically people engaged in creative ministries. In 1975 the bishops of Appalachia issued a pastoral letter entitled, “This Land is Home to Me.” While describing the plight of many devastated communities and the struggles of mountain families, the letter avoided answers, but humbly proposed a three-pronged direction for ministry: listening to the people, the careful use of social sciences and a steeping in the presence of the Holy Spirit. The annual pilgrimage designs its itinerary using these eyes of faith.
Unlike many mission trips that provide direct service or deliver rummage, the pilgrimage represents a ministry of listening. Honoring someone's experience and reverencing their story represents a sacramental moment — God's presence in the encounter. Sr. Bernie Kenny, a nurse practitioner, drives a mobile clinic throughout Dickenson County, Virginia, ministering to five mountain communities that have no other healthcare provider. Sr. Sally Neale opened a women's resource center in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, where women learn marketable skills while building self-esteem. Every stop during the four days adds another story about the servant church.
Stories from the vulnerable also enter the mix. After years of abuse from her husband, Lucy (not her real name) had to leave, but had no car, no bank account, no plan. She connected with Resurrection Home, a safe house in Lee County, Kentucky, and slowly stabilized her life. After some time she began working with Sister Mary Kay Drouin, the founder. Sitting in Resurrection Home, Lucy passionately speaks to her circle of visitors. “I want every woman who walks through that door to be treated like my daughter, not as myself, but my daughter,” she emphasizes. In a sentence Lucy demonstrates her transformation, and she feels affirmed by the reverence given her story.
Ultimately the various stories weave themselves into patterns that beg the explanation of the social sciences. The Appalachian pastoral cautions, however, that social models are not value free, but must be infused “with wisdom and humility in the service of justice.” Stories about healthcare question a market solution with so many people denied access. Stories about family abuse suggest a more compassionate public policy. Additional stories about the environment, prisons and plant closings underscore the needed adjustments to soften the bite of deregulation, privatization and globalization. Based on stories and instructed by the Holy Spirit, the Church offers its social teachings about appropriate government, common good, option for the vulnerable, care of creation and sustainable development.
Schrader represents a participant of the pilgrimage who sees more clearly with the eyes of faith. He ended his evaluation with hopeful words: “the trip was very valuable to me and I am trying to use what I learned to make a difference.”
Fr. Rausch is a Glenmary priest who ministers in Appalachia.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)