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GLENMARY, Ky. – Like most Americans, I suspect, I was not very familiar with Appalachian Kentucky. But travel just a short distance outside Lexington’s lovely bluegrass, and you find yourself in very different surroundings.
Eastern Kentucky isn’t the barren wasteland you might have imagined. Yes, strip mining has changed the landscape in some of the world’s oldest mountains. Still, there is striking beauty, from the rocky trails to the gentle falls and small hidden ponds.
Along the way to all these great spots are small communities, like Stanton, Kentucky. That’s where we found Father John Rausch. At 70, Rausch is an unassuming man, living with a cat in a simple house with a new wooden rail on the front steps he’s quite proud of. Why did he have it put in? The guy who was delivering his casket to the house misjudged the distance and took a chunk out.
That’s right: The casket he had delivered. Rausch is a pretty reasonable fellow and he knows his time on Earth is growing shorter. And in truth, he seems comfortable with the way things have gone.
For more than 40 years, Rausch, a transplant from North Philadelphia, has lived here, firmly rooted in Appalachia. He first came to work with the poor in these mountains, a priest of the tiny Glenmary Home Missioners.
Families several generations deep into coal mining had seen the boom and bust. Rausch has long been focused on what he thought were their human needs — helping with food and housing and commiserating with the loss of jobs.
In 2002, a succession of floods set off by a mountaintop strip mine poured into a nearby community. As Rausch helped clear the sludge away, he noticed what was happening in the mountains. (Even years later, he cries when he tells this story.) Suddenly, it all connected. The problems of an impoverished community — jobs, health and housing — were intimately and inextricably tied to what was happening to their environment.
Rausch’s ministry seeks to remind worshippers of that close connection. In a part of the country that has long relied on work in the coal industry, that can be a hard sell. He’s seen congregants walk out of his sermons, even refuse to take communion from him.
But now, decades after he began preaching, Rausch has found a kindred spirit in Pope Francis. The first encyclical – a Catholic teaching document – created entirely under his papacy was solely about the environment, mentioning the contested phrase “climate change” 12 times. Rausch says it is vindication, but more importantly, it buoys his lessons to the faithful with the stamp of approval from as high as it gets here on Earth.
Rausch isn’t surprised to see the Pope’s instructions on care of the Earth getting pushback from elected officials, as he’s seen it plenty over the years. But as Rausch takes us on a tour of his favorite spots in the Red River Gorge, he says he’s renewed — both by the scenes around him, as well as the belief that the Pope’s message will help Catholics and non-Catholics alike focus on the importance of protecting the environment.
The Pope won’t be visiting Eastern Kentucky, but Rausch believes Pope Francis would appreciate this place as much as we do. He’d skip rocks, too, and join us in taking in the calm of this place.
And as Rausch says, he’d send a message to the first environmentalist: “Nice going, God.”